In reporting recently on the difficulty that financial services companies have when trying to pitch to members of my generation, I found myself taking out-of-place shots at the way Baby Boomers talk about our generation. Having graduated into widespread turmoil in the economy, with massive debts on our backs to pay for degrees that don’t necessarily align with the needs of a globally competitive economy, Generation Y (I hate that term) is still frequently blamed for its own inability to completely turn the economy around. We’re decried as listless, lazy, self-involved and constantly-in-front-of-the-computer.
Perhaps the pinnacle of the callousness of this mindset comes from one Eric Chester, an author and speaker who may or may not have coined the term “Generation Why?” — get it? Last fall he released a book called Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce. Chester’s book is a guide for managers curious how to motivate their slacker Millenial employees, who Chester can not help but portray as addicted to their cellphones and covered in piercings and tattoos. Don’t believe me? Watch the rap video he made to go along with the book:
Chester is not impressed, and neither would you be if your employees were actually anything like these slack-jawed, iPhone-addicted jerks. But young people aren’t actually like this — when was the last time you went to a restaurant and found your server or bartender to be texting instead of waiting on you? It doesn’t happen because managers don’t let it happen — it’s incredibly easy to fire unskilled non-union employees like waiters, and they get fired frequently. My generation’s addiction to communications devices isn’t some crisis of productivity, just a minor managerial hurdle — the sort that doesn’t really require a book (or a rap song) to explain.
Entitled to a job at Starbucks, or in Afghanistan
As to Chester’s assertion that people of my generation feel entitled to better, more meaningful work: well, yeah. Those of us who have been able to even find a job have not entered the same economy that Baby Boomers did in the 60’s and early 70’s. The opportunities are far fewer, especially in the long term. A recent survey of 4 million Facebook profiles found that the top five employers listed by 20-somethings are as follows: The U.S. Military, Walmart, Starbucks, Target and Best Buy. What more could we possibly want but to serve our Baby Boomer overlords in a tightly-regulated corporate environment with little room for advancement? Apparently, to go risk our lives fighting land wars of choice in Asia.
Faced with all this, the Eric Chesters of the world scoff at ear piercings and text messages (in rap form.) Chester’s cultural memory might be a bit short. It was not long ago that his generation (or at least one quite close to his — it’s not easy to find out how old he is, though I’d guess he’s in his 50s) was faced with a land war of choice in Asia and bad job prospects. Young people were furious. The Students for a Democratic Society got together in 1962 and drafted up a manifesto that came to be known as the Port Huron Statement. Among their concerns was that their working lives be meaningful, and they not be replaced by machines. Here is their vision for the type of work they deserve:
His work, both present and future, should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed, not manipulated. Around this experience men invariably will come to form their habits, their perceptions, their social ethics. It is imperative that work encourage independence, respect for others, a sense of dignity and a willingness to accept social responsibilities.
This is one of the defining documents of the Baby Boomer generation — a generation that was born into the most prosperous United States that ever was, that had to pay next to nothing for college (by today’s standards), and could buy a house on a union wage. And they want more? My goodness, the entitlement of these beatniks, with their stupid poetry and baggy clothes! And most of these kids probably didn’t have to hold a job while they were in college, nor did they graduate with much debt.
The worst thing about this attitude that Baby Boomers have toward my generation is the political effects. If you think my generation’s problems are one of our own making, and not a crisis of capitalism that we’re only just starting to understand, you likely won’t want our government to invest in creating new jobs. And as an aging person, you likely won’t vote to reduce Medicare and Social Security, the real entitlements in this conversation, which make up an astonishingly large portion of our national budget, and which will be milked dry by aging Baby Boomers and a stagnant economy.
Eric Chester’s rhetoric, while he seems to want to help, only encourages fellow Boomers to pull up the ladder behind them. That would be unconscionable and destructive.
My generation has the right attitude for turning the economy around. We idolize people like Steve Jobs and Jay-Z — part-artists, part-entrepreneurs. We make artisanal pickles and cell-phone apps — the sort of things that Baby Boomers, back when they were young, would have written off as bourgeois and banal. Boomers called for revolution in the 60’s and voted for Reagan in the 80’s. They’ve left us with an incredibly unequal, corporation-dominated economy and government. Then they they call us entitled for wanting a better future.
But you know what, Eric, a better world is what we want. And we’re willing to work hard for that.