Last week there was a NYT feature story about a 24-year-old Millennial (born 1982-200?), a recent grad of Colgate University with a stellar academic record, who has been living with his parents (and grandfather) over the last six months sending resumes and looking for a job. He wants an executive track corporate position. A couple of months ago, he was turned down by an insurance company for the job he applied for—but was offered a lesser job as an insurance adjustor for $40K. The Millennial turned it down, saying that the company made clear it was at least ten levels below the job he wanted. The author interlaced the story with statistics on the severity of the current “Great Recession” for young adults.
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. 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 (born 1961-1981) and Boomer (born 1943-1960)) 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.”
Wow. Stern stuff. What’s surprising about all this indignation is just how vague these critics are about just what is *wrong* about what is going on in this story:
- The Millennial himself is not complaining. There is no whininess. He disavows any legitimate comparison between his own situation and what the unemployed faced, say, during the Great Depression. He’s looking forward to a happy ending–as are most unemployed Millennials (something we know from data from Pew and others).
- The parents are not complaining. The son gets along very well with his (Boomer) parents and (G.I.) grandpa and runs errands for them. The marginal dollar cost of the son living at home seems trivial and doesn’t really bother anyone—though admittedly the older folks worry sometimes about the young man’s career. This is also typical. The survey data indicate that today’s Millennials and Boomers get along much better in the same home than young Boomers and their own parents did 35 or 40 years ago—when many young Boomers report that they left home in anger… or that their parents simply kicked them out. Take this trend (closer inter-generational households) and extrapolate it out over the next couple decades and you could be looking at a win-win solution to our unaffordable Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid liabilities, a solution predicated on greater mutual dependence within families. Our number one fiscal nightmare solved. And this is a *bad* thing?
- There is no evidence that this Millennial is selfish or anti-community. In fact, he expected to enter officer training with the Marine Corps but was barred at the last moment due to childhood asthma.
- The guy is clearly keeping busy, volunteering for the fire department, working for neighbors. By the end of the article, the reader learns that he is no longer actually living at home at all, but living with brother (a guy who did get the $75 opening corporate job) to sub for a roommate who just moved out. He is planning to temp for local eateries while there. Totally “temp” work—as opposed to quasi-permanent “careers” that the young person does not really want—is also a typical Millennial strategy.
- There is, finally, widespread agreement among labor market economists that taking a lower initial salary, while certainly a doable and often successful strategy for long-term success, is not the only strategy. On average, it is likely to result in a lower salary trajectory for many years to come. Millennials plan ahead and have long time horizons. If an executive track is important to them tomorrow, they will plan accordingly today.
So let’s move to the bottom line here.
Should we feel sorry for this young man? No, but then again he’s not asking for that.
Did he make an irrevocable career mistake by not accepting the $40K position? Not as far as I can see.
Is it unfair that, over the course of the business cycle, youth who graduate into a severe recession are disadvantaged in their career paths relative to those who graduate into a boom? Yes, it’s unfair, but no more so than a lot of the other vicissitudes of fortune that hit some people and not others. Besides, the effects of these “cohort timing” differences, while long lasting, gradually fade over time. As Glen Elder showed, the Great Depression’s impact on the young adults of the 1930s was largely forgotten by the time this cohort reached its peak lifetime earnings years in the late 1960s. (By then, their salaries didn’t concern most of them nearly so much as their kids’ music!).
Would America be a better place if today’s young Millennials were eager to leave their parents at all cost, even if it meant taking a job they hate? You’ll have to explain to me why.
To be sure, one might reasonably argue that not everyone, not even everyone with excellent college credentials, can hold out for a $75K salary. True enough. But not everyone wants to hold out for a high salary. And many of those who do will ultimately change their mind. Maybe even this young man. So?
My question is: 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?