Is it young people who have changed over time, or is it the rest of us? Maybe the under-performance we think we see in this up-and-coming cohort is due to Boomer entitlement, not Millennial laziness.
By Michelle Martin
Published November 18, 2014
A favourite novel of mine includes, among its many subplots, the story of a twenty-something young man named Fred. Fred takes a Bachelor's degree to meet the expectations of his upper-middle-class family. Raised in comfort, he is used to stylish clothes and accessories.
Upon graduation and after deciding he is not cut out for the career in ministry that had been earmarked for him, he returns to continue living at home, with no apparent prospects. Fred's father, especially, makes his disappointment quite clear and doesn't do anything to help his son find a practical alternative.
A deal from which Fred had hoped to profit goes sour, leaving a dear friend on the hook as his guarantor for some earlier debts. He's pretty sure he'll be able to cover it when an inheritance he is expecting comes through (his father certainly won't assist), except that it doesn't: the ailing relative who enjoyed toying with his hopes leaves the estate to someone else instead.
So, in the first part of the story, we have slightly shiftless twenty-something who doesn't seem to know how to begin adult life. He is getting precious little advice from those around him, who are either blind to his faults or else all too ready to point them out. Most who know him assume that he will not amount to much, but will continue to sponge off of his parents, the better to maintain his wardrobe.
Yet for all his faults, Fred is a decent, good-hearted young person, who loves and respects his parents though they have given up on any illustrious career for him.
It is this young man's friend and guarantor, an older man who has known him from childhood, who sees that what our young hero lacks is a mentor. He's watched Fred learn some hard lessons, but still sees the potential in him, and sets about training Fred to work in his own business, as a property manager.
Fred, by dint of hard work and with his old friend's patient oversight (including some early rebukes around sloppiness in basic record keeping), becomes successful enough to move from home and start a family of his own.
Last month the Hamilton Spectator cited a study conducted by Workforce Planning Hamilton in which the majority of employers surveyed expressed the opinion that "getting workers with the right 'soft skills' is becoming more difficult."
If only in justice to the young people I have known both professionally and personally over the years, I need to speak out.
I have had the opportunity to be served by many people in various positions, including but not limited to billing clerks, doctors, realtors, store clerks, plumbers, teachers, customer service representatives, lawyers, professors, hairstylists, and nurses. I have worked alongside many different people with a wide range of backgrounds.
One thing these encounters on both sides of the service desk has shown me is that those personality traits and social graces - the so-called "soft skills" - that make an employee desirable are not exclusive to people over the age of 30.
At the same time, I have an abiding respect and admiration for the young people of my acquaintance, many who have been colleagues over the years, others who have been friends of my own young adult children.
These twenty-somethings communicate clearly and politely, apologize if they have made a mistake, and keep a cool head in a crisis. They are thankful for opportunities and for timely words of advice. They take correction to heart, and adjust their approach.
Any lack of experience is more than compensated for by their enthusiasm, fresh ideas and sheer physical energy.
With all this energy, why don't young people don't pursue, in the words of that Spectator article, the "academic upgrading and continuous learning" that "are essential for job seekers to be competitive" in the job market?
Remember that we aren't talking about a two-hundred dollar course or two, here. A college diploma or continuing education certificate can end up costing many thousands of dollars, and involve time away from other paid work-no small consideration for a 25 year-old with rent and student loans to pay.
Some may choose to move back home to save a little money and afford professional development: cue another newspaper article about basement-dwelling millenials. They can't win, can they?
"A young fellow needn't be a B. A. to do this sort of work, eh, Fred?"
"I wish I had taken to it before I had thought of being a B. A.," said Fred. He paused a moment, and then added, more hesitatingly, "Do you think I am too old to learn your business, Mr. Garth?"
"My business is of many sorts, my boy," said Mr. Garth, smiling. "A good deal of what I know can only come from experience: you can't learn it off as you learn things out of a book. But you are young enough to lay a foundation yet." Caleb pronounced the last sentence emphatically, but paused in some uncertainty. He had been under the impression lately that Fred had made up his mind to enter the Church.
"You do think I could do some good at it, if I were to try?" said Fred, more eagerly.
"That depends," said Caleb, turning his head on one side and lowering his voice, with the air of a man who felt himself to be saying something deeply religious. "You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honorable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying, There's this and there's that-if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is-I wouldn't give twopence for him"-here Caleb's mouth looked bitter, and he snapped his fingers-"whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn't do well what he undertook to do."
"I can never feel that I should do that in being a clergyman," said Fred, meaning to take a step in argument.
"Then let it alone, my boy," said Caleb, abruptly, "else you'll never be easy. Or, if you are easy, you'll be a poor stick."
"That is very nearly what Mary thinks about it," said Fred, coloring. "I think you must know what I feel for Mary, Mr. Garth: I hope it does not displease you that I have always loved her better than anyone else, and that I shall never love any one as I love her."
The expression of Caleb's face was visibly softening while Fred spoke. But he swung his head with a solemn slowness, and said-
"That makes things more serious, Fred, if you want to take Mary's happiness into your keeping."
"I know that, Mr. Garth," said Fred, eagerly, "and I would do anything for her. She says she will never have me if I go into the Church; and I shall be the most miserable devil in the world if I lose all hope of Mary. Really, if I could get some other profession, business-anything that I am at all fit for, I would work hard, I would deserve your good opinion. I should like to have to do with outdoor things. I know a good deal about land and cattle already. I used to believe, you know-though you will think me rather foolish for it-that I should have land of my own. I am sure knowledge of that sort would come easily to me, especially if I could be under you in any way."
At the age of 23, my father, not long married and with an infant at home to feed (me), was let go from a job he didn't have the heart to do diligently (working in collections and repossession). With nothing but a high school diploma, he found an entry-level position in a large multinational corporation where he worked his way up the ladder in sales, eventually selling large contracts.
By the time he left that company decades later, the people being hired for positions like his had MBAs. A 23-year-old man or woman in similar circumstances today would be hard-pressed to attain a comparable level of success: the McMaster University website lists the tuition for a full-time MBA as $36,650. For someone living hand-to-mouth, a $3,000 certification in something or other can be just as unattainable.
Meanwhile, the Governor of the Bank of Canada advises young people to work without remuneration, since, you know, they're already living in their parents' basements for free.
I am not aware that he has yet addressed how working for free will allow them to pay for some additional qualifications to give their resumes an edge, nor how young people without access to rent-free accommodation will manage to bankroll unpaid internships.
Perhaps they can work a fast-food graveyard shift for minimum wage. That would leave them a couple of hours a day to do the reading for a continuing education course or two, right?
They just have to get over themselves and adjust their attitude. There's no such thing as a free lunch. You've got to spend money to make money. Stay hungry. Lean in.
So we expect our hungry young people to work for free or very little in positions where they may well be at the mercy of harassers like one former CBC personality whom we won't dignify by naming, or in jobs where they are considered so disposable that no one is looking out for their physical safety.
Surely for the sake of human dignity we owe them more than that, even if prevailing wisdom is that they are somehow not up to the mark.
Is it young people who have changed over time, or is it the rest of us? We view their foibles as unique to them. Yet if we, whose lives are halfway over, remembered our own young adulthood with any degree of honesty, we would recognize that we, too, were once a little heedless, perhaps a lot heedless, at times.
Maybe the underperformance we older people think we see in this up-and-coming cohort is due to Boomer entitlement, not Millennial laziness. We should ask not what our young people can do for us, but ask what we can do for our young people - an attitude adjustment, if you will:
"Yes, my boy, you have a claim," said Caleb, with much feeling in his voice. "The young ones have always a claim on the old to help them forward. I was young myself once and had to do without much help; but help would have been welcome to me, if it had been only for the fellow-feeling's sake. But I must consider. Come to me to-morrow at the office, at nine o'clock. At the office, mind."
—George Eliot, Middlemarch
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