Thursday, September 9, 2010

Generational Herd Mentalities

A little while ago, Neil Howe called attention on his blog to a New York Times feature story about a 24-year-old Millennial who, even amidst the Great Recession, is living at home and turning down $40K job offers until just the right opportunity comes along. As Howe notes:

The story lit up a firestorm of reader responses: no less than 1,487 comments thus far, and much larger echoes on the blogosphere. Many of the commenters lambasted the NYT for suggesting that this privileged young man’s experience (he lives in a nice suburban home and his dad is president of a small manufacturing company) is in any way representative of the employment hardships most youth are facing today.

But here's the part I find interesting:

Even more excoriated the young man for turning down the $40K offer—and the family for letting him live at home while turning down such offers. The most vicious remarks seemed to come from older (Generation X and Boomer) readers, who often cited their own tough, low-salary beginnings. Apparently, they disapprove of this generation’s tendency to hold fast to long-term plans and dreams. Be realistic, they insist. Eat humble pie. It will be good for you (to repeat what older Chinese now tell the rising “Little Emperor” generation) to “taste bitterness.”

Howe is perplexed by this reaction, citing (persuasively, I think) several mitigating factors, statistics and situational realities that make the Millennial's decisions more understandable. It's a good read, and it parallels the perspective of many Millennials in the job market today, wanting to succeed, but not willing to settle for second best.

Howe concludes his post by asking his readers:

Why do the sober-minded, future-oriented career choices of today’s Millennials make so many Boomers and Xers jump up and down in agitated condemnation?

And he gets his own slew of snarky comments from Xers, including this one:

I wonder if Mr. Howe would spewing out the same supportive verbage if it was, say, the late 1980s or early 90s when most early-20 Gen Xers were emerging into the job market, donned with glorious degrees. There was a recession going on then, too, and many of us had to go back home to live until we found a job. But, if I recall, Gen X was looked down upon for not being able to land stellar jobs with fabulous degrees and stuck living at home. As such, I wonder if this clearly Boomer parent would've been quite so supportive of a Gen Xer turning down a $40K a year job while living at home, hmmm? I think we know the answer to that one.

Okay. So why am I going into so much detail on this? Because as I said in my recent Only Xers Care About Work/Life Balance post, I sense an undercurrent of jealousy in a lot of Xer talk about Millennials. After all, we had to pay our dues when we were 20-something, taking any job we could find and clawing our way into leadership positions by compromising our values and learning to play by the rules set by the generation that preceded us. Why should Millennials be spared that difficulty and humiliation? Why should they be able to set their own rules and write their own tickets?

Here's a quick story.

I went to the University of Wisconsin in the late 1980s. Back then, in order to register for your classes at the start of each year, you had to hike all the way out to the Stock Pavilion on the western edge of the campus (the Stock Pavilion where livestock were once housed, shown and judged), stand in line like cattle to get your registation forms, and then march all over campus to the different buildings to get your forms signed by the appropriate departmental paper pushers. Need to take that Physics 201 class? Better get yourself over to the Physics building before all the sections with the good teaching assistants are taken. And what about that foriegn language requirement? Do you know where you need to go for that? Is that in the Humanities building?

In my senior year they introduced a new telephone registration system where students could do all of that by pushing buttons on their dorm room phones rather than hoofing it all over town--and many of the seniors I knew were angry (and jealous) that the new freshmen coming in wouldn't have to suffer the same difficulties and indignities we had all suffered for years. Why shouldn't they have to pay their dues? We did! These young kids--they've got it too easy and expect everything to be handed to them on a silver platter.

It's the same thing today. When young people have access to better opportunities than we did, why do we berate them for having the simple sense to take advantage of them? Do we expect them to adopt the same herd mentality we did?

Photo source


Joe Rominiecki said...

I couldn't begin to answer why people behave like that (jealousy veiled as earned wisdom), but I think you're right to point out that this dynamic is something rooted in years and years of growth and collective experience in each generation.

What I often find frustrating about generational discussions is that they happen at a single moment in time, when each generation is at a specific stage in its lifetime. I'd love to read an essay written by a Silent Generation member about the Boomers back in the 1960s and a future essay by a Millennial about the next generation 20 years from now and then compare them with the comments on that NYT article. I'm pretty sure it would all sound the same.

Aren't the traditions of old people calling young people slackers and young people calling old people stubborn as old as time itself? Do you think the old cave man in the pre-fire generation whined that the young cave men who discovered fire and started cooking food had it too easy because they didn't have to eat their food raw like he did?

Shannon Otto said...

I read the article in question back in July, and as a member of Gen-Y myself, I was appalled. I don't want to settle for any old job either, but I also don't think a $40K/year job offer is anything to turn up your nose at. There's such a thing as "paying your dues," and I'm pretty sure my parents would be reluctant to let me live at home if I was getting job offers like that.

Sure, there are a lot of great jobs out there, but there are so many more unemployed people. I have friends who have worked in retail or as servers after graduation who would be thrilled to get such a great job offer.

I think my main issue with the article is that someone so fortunate was chosen as the example of Gen-Y. There are so many hard-working members of Gen-Y out there starting their own businesses or working multiple jobs.

Maddie Grant said...

Nice post! I think another reason, speaking from an Xer's point of view, is that to many of us "living at home" is the uncoolest of the uncool. We can't fathom why anyone would want to do that ever. We in our 20's would rather live in slums with 25 of our friends than in luxury at home with mom and dad - it was like a ritual, to have survived the most disgusting living arrangements ever while you were a starving student or graduate and lived to tell the sordid tales of roommate hell and eating ramen and beans on toast... But we loved it too. It's like the concept of "selling out" that makes us feel so dirty... :)

Eric Lanke said...

Thanks for the comments, Joe, Shannon, and Maddie. I agree with Joe--this has a lot more to do with general life stage than any specific generation. Older folks always think younger folks have it too easy and younger folks don't want to play by the rules set by older folks.

What I find unique about the situation with Xers and Millennials is that I think many Xers still think of themselves as the younger generation trying to upset the older generation's apple cart and do things their own way. To see the Millennials now coming onto the playground with an entirely different approach--one that they fear might prove more successful than theirs--that drives them nuts.

David M. Patt, CAE said...

The problem is that a 24-year old has nothing to lose, so it's easier to hold out for that dream job (which may not even exist).

Older people have families to feed, mortgages to pay, children to put through school, so they can no longer afford to be so choosy.

This 24-year old may realize that when he's 44 or 54.

Eric Lanke said...

Yes, David, that's true, but then why didn't the Xers take the Millennial approach when they were 20-somethings and didn't have all those responsibilities?

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