The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Jul 172010

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?

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  • Mr. Cooper

    No debt, including student loans, and no one pushing him out the door? Isn't he already living the American Dream? I don't recall many of my friends having this option when we entered the workforce in the mid-80's. With the recession of the early 80's still fresh in our minds; and student loans carrying 9% interest, most of us felt rushed to land a job. I would advise this guy to stick to his guns and wait for the offer he wants.

  • Carlenlea

    My issue is that a 22 year old thinks they are ready for an executive level job at a company they didn't start and that they think 40K is low paying. I do think everyone should have a couple of short-term jobs they hate when they are young. It's good for figuring out life. Builds character and all…

    I think it's great to hold fast to plans, but it's ridiculous to think you will be hired as senior staff based on a “stellar academic record.” I have millenials on my team who are in far more senior positions than their age should allow — but they have proved themselves in the workplace.

  • jessiex

    Ditto with Carlenlea. What galled me about the young grad profiled in the article is his assumption of the level of work for which he was qualified based on his education. And his belief that said track existed for him. Maybe it does. For me, an Xer, it was the audacity about his belief about what his degree entitled him that had me. Knowledge — especially with the internet and data sources bounding out — isn't that big of a deal anymore. The ability to think, problem solve and frame problems, imo, is. And that takes a bit of digging in to life, tripping, falling, experimenting and moving on. I am, as I said, an Xer, so that's my world view. Thanks for the piece and perspective, Mr. Howe.

  • Richard Turnock

    “Why…Boomers and Xers jump up and down in agitated condemnation?”
    Because we are who we were when. GenX especially have an opposite view of the world from a well-educated Millennial from an upper income family. The NYTimes article was not written to describe a typical unemployed worker or a typical Millennial. Boomers and GenX bring with them the idea of sacrifice to get what you want. But the message is out of sync with the times. Few can justify sacrificing dreams and ambitions in 2010. By 2020, the times will change and the message will have force behind it as the generations align to support the message that everyone has to sacrifice.

  • Bria67Xer

    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 goingon 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.

  • pbrower2a

    $40K a year sounds good — but if it comes with relocation and the related costs, then maybe it's not a good choice.

    It could be that the would-be employer gave signals that the young college graduate would chafe on this job, one that has features unsuited to him — like a rigid bureaucracy, much outdoors work, and perhaps skills of human relationships. “Bad signals” sent by an interviewer are one way of scaring off a less-than-perfect applicant, including someone blatantly overqualified. Most companies want to hire someone who expects to stay there ten or so years to any job that has any complex training.

    This is nothing new.

  • Movoxa

    You think the Milllennials living at home could solve our entitlement indebtedness, but you don't consider whether staying at home is in the young person's best interest of developing into a fully functioning, independent adult. If Mom still does his laundry, grocery shops, cooks his meals, how does this prepare him for taking care of himself, let alone caring for a future family, or even eventually caring for his parents should they need it?

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    Also, what are average salaries?

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  • Conradlwareham

    Why do the sober-minded future-oriented career choices of today’s Millennials make as many Boomers and Xers jump up and down in agitated condemnation? The answer is obvious; education does not equal experience. This is just pure common sense.

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