On Sunday night, 60 Minutes ran a segment on “Millennials” in the workplace, i.e., Americans born after 1980. The concept being that this is the “never told no” generation of kids, who would be awarded just for showing up to play on a sports team, who were told that there were no winners or losers – the gist being that these kids are more spoiled than even their parents’ generation, if that’s possible. The larger meaning, of course, is that workers like this demand special needs that employers must meet, otherwise the worker walks in our flexible economy, as there’s always another job somewhere else.
I watch shit like this on TV, and I just throw my hands up. Not over “Millennials” – over the constantly recurring concept of younger people not knowing their ass from a hole in the ground, which is often true, but gets beaten to death by the media, and turned into bullshit trends that don’t really apply across the board. It happened with the Hippie/Me/Yuppie generation. It happened with mine, which was somewhere between “Me” and “Generation X” – although I recognize character traits of both in myself. Hell, I recognize a lot of myself in the way “Millennials” are described. (I’ve seen “Generation Y” as another catch-all phrase – this Wikipedia entry gets the point across nicely, as does this USA Today article.) If you google either slang phrase, you’ll come up with a bunch of entries about how to deal with these people in the workplace – this is some seriously strange shit.
Millennials look at their upper-middle-class parents, working 50-60 hours a week to maintain their suburban way of life, and they think, no, this is the wrong way to live, family is more important, you can’t say your family is important when you spend three hours with them on the weekend and think that makes up for everything.
I got news for you … hippies felt the same way in the 60s. The exact same way. There are countless songs and references in movies and television detailing this. Kids in the 70s felt the same way. So did kids in the 80s. Kids in the 90s had a whole negative spin put on that basic premise of lousy parentage with grunge rock. Basically, it’s the perfectly logical belief that the American way of life, as best exemplified by these Type A workaholics, is rotten.
It’s nothing new. It’s correct. And it’s one of those things that, unless you’re born outside that particular caste system (upper middle classdom), chances are no matter how horrified you are by that way of life as a teen and twentysomething, you yourself are going to start living that way, too, once you realize how much it costs to maintain that sick way of life: the mortgage payments, the insane school and property taxes, the bizarre need to have gigantic, gas-guzzling cars, all the other expensive toys we have in our lives. That shit costs money – serious money. And most people hooked into that way of life, sooner or later, want to maintain it after whatever pangs of anti-materialism they experience during or just after college.
It’s rampant materialism beyond reason: people in debt up to their necks just to maintain a lifestyle that, once the brief flashes of leisure are removed, is nothing but a grind that says more about feelings of self worth tied into status. Not tied into financial well being – that’s an important distinction to make. If that was true, you wouldn’t have so many millions of people desperately in debt, families with two parents working very well-paying jobs, and they’re still spending their entire lives behind the eight ball, because they want that appearance of status. And who are these people? They were the hippies in the 60s and the groovy kids in the 70s hanging in the high-school parking lot. Not all of us were geared to go through life with that same casual, common sense. Many of us became our parents. And many of our parents were assholes, ergo if A = B, and B = C, life goes on.
And when you get right down to it, it’s not a horrible way of life – it’s just one that I don’t respect for reasons noted above. The value system in it is fucked up, not right, dishonest beyond repair. What bothers me is this concept that the kids of these people are somehow going to rise above it, when it’s become clear to me that very few people rise above their ways of life, for better or worse. And I don’t know what “rising above” upper middle classdom implies. Moving to an ashram in Oregon? It’s been done, and I’m sure there are people out there living good lives in those ashrams, but that number is miniscule as compared to the millions of people who once were kids, would have looked at that way of life, put down the bong, exhaled, and said, “Yeah, man, freedom from this bullshit, prison way of life our parents are living, let’s do it.”
If these kids think they’re going to have typical 40-hour work weeks and maintain that foolish, forever-indebted way of life, they’re in for a rude awakening. And they’ll get it. All these articles and seminars about “Millennials” and “Generation Y” are going to seem like just what they are now to anyone with clear eyes: total bullshit. Another excuse for the polesmokers in HR to waste a few grand on catch-phrase seminars in the lunch room. I’m also pretty annoyed by the fact that these cultural trends, as they’ve gone in the past few decades, are defined entirely by the whims of upper-middle-class white people. No one else. If you think this “Millennial” horseshit applies to working-class people of any color, I suggest you watch C.O.P.S. one of these nights and recognize those folks didn’t get the memo about coddling their kids like temperamental royalty. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans in Iraq right now who, I can guarantee you, aren’t speed dialing their therapist because they didn’t get a trophy for not being blown up by a roadside bomb.
Besides which, when I’m in the work place, I haven’t noticed people in their 20s being any more or less fucked up than their older coworkers. Sure, I’ll run into the occasional arrogant prick or annoying hipster, people who don’t seem to give a shit about anything and exude a certain smugness that would be well remedied by a sound ass beating. But I can recognize people like this are a minority. And I can also recognize I knew people like that in college in the mid-80s. And when I first came to work in New York in the late 80s. There will always be snotty kids like this. They become snotty adults. And you avoid them.
What grated on me about the 60 Minutes story was it used a woman who worked at J. Walter Thompson, a large New York-based ad agency, to give her impressions on not just studying “Millennials” for market research, but actually working with them, and the baffling encounters she’s had with apparently dozens of them as they use the revolving door at her work place. Excuse me, but I worked in advertising for a few years, and that entire industry is filled with shitheads. The worst work ethic I’ve ever seen: people would routinely show up for work between 10 and 11, take a two-hour lunch, basically screw around all day, and then “get busy” around 4:00 in the afternoon, then “pull an all nighter” to get some project done, complaining about how hard they worked all the while. I’ve never seen such sloth and waste – and this was in a handful of places I worked, big and small agencies.
The turnover rate in advertising was phenomenal. If you came back to a company of 80 people after two years, you might see 20 of the same people (the top 10 paid employees, the guys in the mail room, and the receptionist), assuming the company hadn’t merged or folded. Most of the creative-side people were unhappy, “trapped” in a job where they had to deal with hopelessly uncreative clients who didn’t really understand the nature of their products. I got along better with the “business side” people. The “business side” at least had no qualms about what they were doing, and they liked getting paid truckloads of money to spend 60 hours a week there. Every “creative” industry I’ve ever done time in has been the same: shitty, soul-destroying work hours, filled with unhappy “creative” people who recognized they weren’t doing what they wanted to be doing, yet couldn’t pull away because the pay was pretty damn good, they were used to it, and the concept of working a lesser job while having more time to write, paint or make music was a concept they found laughable after awhile. That laugh would sound like someone with a three-pack-a-day habit forcing out that early-morning hack to clear their throats.
Advertising should be one of the last industries anyone ever uses to serve as a barometer of corporate America. I’m not sure which one you should use – they’re all different in some sense – but most places, thank Christ, are not run like ad agencies. The only other major industries I can think of that must be are the federal and state governments, save they’re faster, more efficient and have a happier work force. Think about that next time you go to the post office and deal with a clerk who probably has a birthday party clown chained to a wall in his mother’s basement.
“Millennials” are noted for their lack of commitment in the work place, i.e., when the going gets tough, they leave. Gee, and usually when I think “25 year old” … “commitment” is the first word that pops into my mind. Come on. On top of the concept of people in their 20s who really should be careful about what they commit to, you have a generation of kids raised in a society with divorce rates over 50%, and probably a healthy percentage of couples staying married because divorce would lead to financial ruin for everyone involved. They’ve seen their parents work themselves out of relationships any sane person would abandon, wreck families because work was far more important to them, wage bitter, demented divorce wars that come down to control and revenge … why people like this even start families in the first place is a mystery to me, save it’s just part of the deal with status.
And these kids are working in companies that don’t inspire any sense of commitment to a sane individual. They have no financial stake in the company beyond a pay check. Very few places have pension plans anymore, just shoddy 401Ks that can go up in smoke with a downturn in the stock market. They see upper management making obscene amounts of money (with bonuses for more than they make in a year), while they don’t get paid enough to live on their own. (Another “Millennial” hallmark: kids living at home through their 20s: a simple reality in most places as it’s kind of hard to buy a house for $300K when you’re making $35K a year, or even twice or three times that.) They see what’s happened in our work place in the past few decades, that upper management is keeping an enormous amount of money for itself and not sharing the wealth with the work force. They see successful, profit-making companies laying off dozens, sometimes hundreds of employees just so shareholders in the company can see larger returns on their investments.
They see this? Fuckin’ A. I see this. We all see this! Yet we have to pretend this blind, obsessive greed, the elephant in the room of America, isn’t there. What happens with most people is they want to get married and settle down, have a few kids. To do so requires having a more stable sense of employment. So people are a lot less prone to moving around once they reach this state. Doing so could amount to financial catastrophe, as you have millions of Americans walking tightropes of debt in which one slip could lead to a huge financial fall. So you better believe someone in that position is going to be wearing the “More Shit, Please” bib to work every day. They’re not going to rock any boat, they’re never going to quit, and in many ways, that’s honorable, because that’s the responsibility they’ve chosen for themselves.
But you’d have to be nuts to have that same level of commitment to an institution that doesn’t return the sense of dedication and, at best, offers you a fair trade of money for your work and time. If you yourself don’t have that financial need to maintain that pace, there’s no logical reason why you would stay with many of these companies more than a few years. I’ve found that corporate America works in “pockets” – meaning you can find pockets of stability and sanity in many places, even companies that aren’t well run. I’ve also found that there are pockets of insanity and rampant stupidity in otherwise well-run company. It usually comes down to the sanity level and intelligence of your immediate bosses and coworkers. If that situation is negative, you can have a dream job, and it will feel like hell. Conversely, you can have a job that really isn’t any great shakes, but if you have solid coworkers, and a good supervisor, you can feel comfortable there (with the understanding that something as basic as a good boss finding another job could mean a plunge from heaven to hell in work-place environment). Or, Door #3, you can have a shitty job with a shitty boss and shitty coworkers, in which case, there's some good country songs on the jukebox you might want to make yourself familiar with.
I’m not looking to paint too grim a picture of “Millennials” entering the work place. I’m hoping it’s a realistic one. Believe me, growing up with a father who worked decades in the same factory, had time for his kids every day, left a pension my Mom is still living on now that he’s gone, it came as a real shock to my system to enter the work force in the late 80s to see how most companies operated. I’m sure as hell not going to fault “Millennials” for their work habits. Sooner or later, you figure out what you will or won’t do for money, and what role money is going to play in your personal happiness. I’m just recognizing the fundamental difference between pundits and marketers trying to hype cataclysmic changes in the work place, when, really, there’s nothing all that new happening, and these kids will fall into line if they want to stay on that gravy train, which most of them will.