2015/08/11

Millennials Don't Live in America


We talk about generations as if they're clearly defined categories, but in reality the gaps between generational cohorts are pretty ambiguous. Because I straddle the line between Generation X and the Millennial Generation, and my parents are Baby Boomers, my perspective on current intergenerational conflicts is as close to objective as anyone but a member of the dwindling Greatest Generation.

If you've been paying even cursory attention to mainstream and social media, you've probably heard Millennials stereotyped as spoiled, narcissistic whiners who don't know the meaning of "work ethic". One can hardly browse the comments of any current events story without seeing Boomers answer Millennial complaints of joblessness with reminders of their technological advantages (courtesy of Boomers), or reading brusque replies from Gen Xers telling them to quit sniveling and get jobs.

Is all of the criticism leveled at Millennials fair? After researching the issue, I discovered that the answer is deeply nuanced; but it can be boiled down to "no".

Generational Divide
The main source of hostility between Boomers, Xers, and Millennials is all parties' lack of objectivity. This is understandable. It's difficult to set aside one's lived experience and consider the viewpoint of someone whose life has followed a radically different course than yours did. But tackling the present crisis requires mutual understanding, which means walking a mile in the other guy's shoes. And because it's the Boomers who tend to exhibit the most ignorance of Millennials, that means walking in considerably cheaper shoes.

America vs. Bizarro America
John Edwards popularized the political slogan "Two Americas". He was invoking class divisions to justify government theft of certain people's incomes, but although the phrase is charged with rhetorical smoke, there is some fire. There are two Americas--probably many more than two--and what's relevant to the topic at hand is that Boomers live in one America, and Millennials live in another.

In fact, the differences between the America inhabited by Boomers and the place to which Millennials have been relegated is so stark and drastic, it's more accurate to say that Millennials don't live in America as most understand the term. Instead, they get to experience the backward strangeness of Bizarro America.

To any Gen Xers, and especially Boomers, reading this, it is imperative that you try to understand this concept before you proceed. Leave your formative, educational, and job experience at the door. Such conceits will not avail you to comprehend Bizarro America.

The Death of the Family
Few factors have a greater impact on one's future than one's family environment. A given Baby Boomer has a better than 90% chance of having been born to married parents. That figure plummets to less than 70% for Millennials. As if that weren't hobbling enough, the end of the Baby Boom saw a cataclysmic spike in divorce rates (affecting Gen Xers and Millennials alike).

The takeaway here is that Boomers and Millennials (and Gen Xers) had radically different upbringings. Almost all Boomers grew up in stable homes headed by married parents who stayed married. Members of the latter two generations were far more likely to be born out of wedlock or to grow up in broken homes.

Boomers: if you feel tempted to engage a Gen Xer or Millennial's firsthand account of latchkey kid-dom with a "Back in My Day" story, know that it probably isn't relevant. Save everybody some time and do your best to understand the current situation.

The Degeneration of Education
Even though Millennials have spent more time in school than prior generations, they are far more poorly served by the experience. These distressing results are probably due to the US education system's lack of focus on, well, education in favor of social indoctrination.

And here's the depressing news. Not only are Millennials and the current crop of children not being educated, they're being totally fleeced in the process.

Besides government subsidies, nothing has driven the student debt crisis like these two zombie memes: "Employers don't care what degree you have because it shows that you're trainable and self-motivated," and "Higher education is still worth it because college graduates out-earn folks without degrees."

Let's put these vicious rumors to bed. First, a bachelor's degree is no longer a feather in a job seeker's cap. It's more like a ticket that's required for admission to the factory, costs more than a Maserati, and will probably leave four in five applicants on the garbage heap (better hope it's not Tuesday).

Plus, thanks to degree inflation, Millennials have little choice but to pay tuition in excess of any consumer price index, and since those who aren't already making six figures (which would tend to obviate the need for college anyway) can't realistically work their way through school, they're forced to take on crippling amounts of debt.

Second, those colorful bar graphs (usually published by the same government departments with a vested interest in student debt) showing that college graduates earn more than people without degrees are brazen propaganda. A middle manager with a degree probably earns a higher salary than a mechanic who started working right out of high school, but contrast the manager's six-figure debt with the mechanic's greater likelihood of living debt-free, and a very different picture emerges.

And even if Millennial college graduates are making more on paper, the decline in real wages means they're actually poorer than their parents were at the same age.

Job Market Stagnation
To those who see Millennials as entitled whiners, tell them to "Get jobs", or mockingly ask if they'd "Like fries with that", the data show that there aren't jobs. And degreed Millennials are lucky to find work in the fast food industry since hiring managers shun college grads for being too expensive.

Yes, a Boomer could pay his way through school on a part-time job or two and graduate with an MBA that guaranteed entry to the middle class. At the very least, he could walk from his high school commencement to the factory down the street and start work that day in a job that offered a living wage and a pension.

THOSE DAYS ARE OVER.

The US manufacturing sector has been all but shipped overseas. The only jobs that offer a shot at the middle class are cubicle jockey gigs increasingly offered on a contract basis that make no promise of job security and force applicants who've taken on massive debt for the privilege to duke it out over a handful of positions.

Now consider that the economy never quite recovered from the 2008 crash, that almost half of the unemployed have been demoralized into giving up their job search, and that HR departments regard job seekers who've been fruitlessly searching this economic wasteland for six months--and thus need jobs most--as radioactive nonentities.

Different Priorities
It's interesting that many people who'd rightly point out that the so-called gender wage gap really means that men and women want different things don't hesitate to condemn Millennials' work ethic based on their own, differing priorities.

Millennials don't want to put in 80 hour weeks for 40 years at the same company in exchange for a big house they hardly get to live in and toys they never have time to play with. They value time over money and freedom over routine. These preferences are a rational response to a pathological corporate culture where the sociopaths in charge grossly undercompensate workers for their labor, and thus doing the bare minimum necessary to not get fired is a sound strategy.

Companies don't see prospective employees as human beings with valuable experience and skills. They see them as fungible commodities to be used and tossed out like Kleenex. Meanwhile, hiring managers insist that employees embrace corporate ethics codes that read like cult manifestos and that only bind the little fish; never the sharks.

Conclusion
Millennials' difficulties finding meaning and prosperity aren't the result of laziness or self-entitlement. Their well-meaning elders taught them to play the game that worked for them while the rules were drastically changing. The old strategies no longer work, and Millennials who try to use them are increasingly exploited, impoverished, and deprived of hope.

Why do members of older generations, especially Baby Boomers, discount Millennials' concerns or even mock them? The uncomfortable and unavoidable truth is that the Bizarro America where Millennials are forced to live was built one brick at a time by the choices and actions of their elders. It's easier for Boomers to blame Millennials than to accept their share of responsibility for this deplorable state of affairs.

To be sure, Millennials must take responsibility as well. They can't despair. They don't have that luxury. The advent of Bizarro America wasn't their fault, but now it's inescapably their problem.

The decline of faith and traditional morality in recent generations is a spiritual disease inherited from their forebears. Continuing to embrace materialism and moral relativism will only impede Millennials' ability to find the truth that can bring the freedom they deeply desire, and which offers a way out of the trap that prior generations unwittingly set for them.

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