Saturday, July 24, 2010

Four Factors Affecting Millennials (and the rest of us)

Correspondent Charles M. illuminates four primary factors affecting the Millennial Generation.

I have been covering Millennial and other generational issues from the very inception of this weblog. To note but two:

Boomers, Prepare to Fall on Your Swords (June 2005)

Trends for 2009: Generational Optimism (January 5, 2009)

Correspondent Charles M. read one of the more recent entries, An Open Letter to the Millennials/Gen-Y, and responded with an excellent overview of four related factors which are generally left unaddressed.

First, let me say that I enjoy reading your blog, and couldn't agree more with many of its points. I've found them to be quite elucidating on many levels, and often parallel my own ponderings on modern economics.

I was taking a break from writing my PhD thesis and read a number of recent posts today, one being An Open Letter to the Millennials/Gen-Y: Where Are You? (June 23, 2010). I have some thoughts I'd like to share regarding Gen Y as to possibly why we don't see the heroics or leadership you noted of your friends and in general for previous generations.

1) Everyone's a terrorist. Post 9/11 I have watched as the U.S. created the biggest scapegoat in all history, and has used the fearmongering to justify ridiculous expansions of government power, massive unchecked increases in military spending, and the creation of the incompetent DHS/TSA. Remember in your younger days how high school students could stage a good old-fashioned prank and get everybody laughing, despite probably causing grief to some people? Nowadays, kids of Gen Y who do similar things are sent to jail (or at least strongly threatened with it) -- sometimes under the guise of anti-terrorism laws (a stink bomb would be labeled a terrorist weapon).

The heroics you mention regarding your lifelong friends would have been classified as terrorism in today's world. A quick review of Russian history under Lenin and Stalin would show the alarming parallels. Simply threaten the masses with strict criminal penalties, make very public examples of a few people, and you will get complacent and orderly people who will not do anything heroic.

2) Some of this push to silence the masses began well before Gen Y. I'm part of Gen X, and I distinctly remember with disgust how the 9th/10th grade campus of my high school was built like a fortress which had large sliding metal gates that were used to lock the kids in during the day. It was almost as if it was indoctrination to prison life. However, this high school was not located in a violent area -- just a normal suburb. Fortunately, I found a loophole by which I could get out for part of the day, as my drama class was held on the 11th/12th grade campus, which was nice and open. I grew up during the time when the "get tough on crime" movement gained much of its momentum.

It's the same thing as #1 above, but it was its precedent: labeling normal human behavior as criminal and maximizing the penalties (3 strikes, etc.). There was little focus on actual rehabilitation and self reflection at the society level. I'm sure there are larger examples that better highlight this point.

3) Make everyone too busy to get involved. This is another trend I've seen in the U.S. The 40-hour workweek has gone from being full-time to being nearly considered part-time. Most people I encountered during my 10 years of corporate employment worked 50 hours a week or more (it's a far different argument for self-employed, as they directly reap the benefits of all the extra work, in good years and bad). I lived in Dallas, and saw how numerous people thought nothing of spending 10 or more hours per week commuting between work and home. The average workday for most people begins with getting up at 5:30-6 a.m.; out the door by 6:30-7; arriving at their desks around 7:30-8; then leaving work around 5:30-6 p.m.; arriving back home by 7; eating dinner around 8; then going to bed by 10. There's little free time during the week under that kind of schedule, and the weekend is often when the accumulated chores get done. Under such a schedule, there is certainly no time to thoroughly research political candidates, dig up scientific information on consumer products, attend local council meetings, pick fresh food from a local farm, etc.

Information gets reduced to simple soundbites because that is all people have time to digest. From Gen Y's perspective, if this is all the information that older generations base weighty decisions on, why should they pick up any more information themselves? The older generations have shown Gen Y that life is meant to be a rat race of massive consumerism -- yet Gen Y sees that there are no rewards in overworking (today the company appreciates you, tomorrow you are laid off), so escapism (Facebook and so on) becomes an outlet.

4) Opportunities have been stripped down. I read a recent article in the NY Times about good opportunities being elusive for Gen Y (American Dream Is Elusive for New Generation). The article seemed to focus on the young kid's expectations against the success of other members of his family -- but I couldn't help but notice the details of the father and grandfather. The grandfather had no training as a stockbroker, yet after WW2, got directly hired by a friend's father and trained on the job. Nowadays, one couldn't even get a call in for an interview without full pre-existing qualifications. The father walked into a manufacturing job and became a manager.

Had either of those men been put into today's job market, they would discover the "I can learn, give me a chance" air of optimism just doesn't cut it. Even though I grew up learning that same attitude from my family, it never once got me a job.

As I am finishing my PhD and re-entering the workforce, I am encountering the same situation in my new career field. I left a 10-year career in I.T. because despite working hard to acquire new skills and performing well in each job I had, year after year I got the same sob story during my performance reviews. Money was tight (and this was well before Recession '08!), we just had to lay off a few people, here's more responsibilities to add to your job, and we have managed to be able to give you a 2% raise. Meanwhile, I knew how to read financial statements and could see the companies I was at actually performed rather well during those years, and the executives had all kinds of fantastic perks on top of 6-figure bonuses.

On a different level, I saw the same thing you have pointed out in your posts about the reshuffling of wealth in ways that rob the peasants blindly. As my salary had not grown at all during my 10 years in I.T., I could see the writing on the wall -- it simply wasn't going to grow no matter what work ethic I had. I embarked on a career change to become a scientist. In my ignorance of the post-doc market, though, I did not realize that there was a glut of PhDs in the U.S., enough to reduce post-doc salaries down to the mid $30s.

In generations past, one would be expected to get a PhD, work for a couple of years in a post-doc position, then accept a tenure-track position at a university and have a career for life. That, too, is no longer the case. Many people are now doing post-docs for 5 years or more.

So those are my main points that I think tie in to the discussion on Gen Y (hopefully I haven't rambled too terribly). As the world becomes more complex, mobility significantly decreases. Most any job ad nowadays lists very specific skills sought in applicants. Those whose skills do not match that specific list don't stand a chance, whether it be I.T., finance, or science. I don't think there is any non-scam job offer posted anywhere that simply states, "job with decent pay looking for hard-working individuals, willing to train."

Gen Y is going to have to be far more creative to find job opportunities as rewarding as what previous generations enjoyed. Nobody wants to keep looking over their shoulder for the next layoff or a company's imminent collapse due to reckless management. At the same time, if one goes through the trouble of gaining skills to fit a particular job, in the time it takes to get those skills, they or the job could become obsolete. Everything in today's world moves quickly -- but there is no royal road to learning. University education now carries with it far more risk (debt, in particular, but wasted time also).

About me: I have a bachelor's in Russian (great subject to study -- absolutely useless in the job market), a master's in applied physics, and am completing a PhD in chemistry (materials science). I have been to Russia 3 times, once for an extended period of 5 months. My 10 years in I.T. (even surviving the dot-com bust) was due to self-taught programming skills I acquired over the years, and I continued working full time in I.T. while pursuing my master's degree in the evenings.

I am getting my PhD in Australia, because I could not get anything that amounted to a decent scholarship in the U.S. At the university where I got my master's, I could have received a PhD stipend of $13K/year, and the mandated student insurance would have eaten $600/month. Just as with the dismal job market I dropped out of, I refused to play the losing end of such an economic game. Once I am done with my PhD, my wife and I will be moving permanently to Canada so that we will continue to have time to enjoy life and our families.

Thank you, Charles, for an insightful commentary. I would add these comments:

1. These trends also affect the other generations as well. Boomers and Gen-X have to be just as wary of challenging authority or the Ruling Elite as Gen-Y. In general, the less entrenched/dependent you are on the Powers That Be and their institutions/cartels, the more freedom you have to challenge mainstream orthodoxies.

2. Gen-Y, like previous generations, in being enticed to join the Ruling Elite: question nothing, accept the Status Quo, and maybe you'll be granted the security of a plump position in the shadow State or shadow financial sector. As alternatives dwindle, then the implicit pressure to game the system and become complicit grows ever more persuasive. Correspondent Chad D. sent me this essay which I recommend as a refreshing look at the Power Elites and the technocratic Upper Caste which enforces their rule: America's Ruling Class -- And the Perils of Revolution.

3. As I suggested in "National Security:" A Global Police State-Within-a-State, the "shadow government" and its private sector partner, the shadow banking/financial system, have poisoned the entire culture: resistance is either "domestic terrorism" or delegitimized, etc.

4. The government sells its control of the economy and every aspect of civil life as the solution to all problems: no matter what the issue, the solution is always more government control and a greater share of the dwindling national income being diverted to, and redistributed by, government and its Power Elite cartel contractors.

5. Regardless of one's age or generation, the first step to is to avoid becoming a debt-serf who is then beholden to the government and its 3,000-page statutes controlling payment of debt and other obligations to its Fiefdoms and favored private-sector cartels.

A high cost structure based on ever-rising debt forces participants into the killing lifestyle Charles M. describes: killing levels of debt, servitude to corporations or the government in order to "afford" "the good life" funded by debt, complicity in global Empire and rule by the Plutocracy lest you lose your share of the State/cartel swag, and the destruction of family life via long commutes, constant overtime, medication-nation "fixes" for a very natural alienation from what passes for "lifestyle" in the U.S., the attractions of distractions via 24/7 "entertainment" and social media, etc.

6. When sacrifice, trade-offs and accountability are anathema, then so too is liberty.

All of this flows from the Survival+ critique.

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