Those damn millennials: Why Goose Gossage, and everyone, should lay off
Goose Gossage's rant against today's baseball players was just one example of older generations ranting and raving against millennials. Here's why everyone should cut them some slack.
Goose Gossage's recent rant against today's baseball players became national news, as the Hall of Fame relief pitcher ripped everyone from Jose Bautista to statistical analysts working in baseball. Never mind that Bautista is a terrific player whose greatest crime was showing emotion during the biggest moment of his career (and one of the biggest in Canadian baseball history), or that teams are using data to do the one thing Gossage would say he loved more than anything else: win ballgames. We get older, our moment in the sun passes, and stepping aside to let the next generation shine can be a painful experience that many of us aren't ready to handle.
Gossage would fit right in at The New York Times Style section, and its apparent crusade against millennials. This section's latest assault against 20-somethings came last weekend, when Ben Widdicombe profiled Mic, a New York-based news site operator run by millennials, and aimed at millennials. The article's mandate becomes clear from the moment you read the headline. By playing up the flaws of Mic's institutional culture, Widdicombe wants us to believe we can better answer the question, “What Happens When Millennials Run the Workplace?”
What follows are 1,566 words that purport to try to answer that question, using Mic as one giant anecdotal example. We quickly learn that Mic employs more than one person who's done something aggressively quirky. There's the entry-level employee who called out the boss in front of several co-workers for not apologizing to a colleague. The 28-year-old reporter who Tweets at an editor sitting right next to her. The smoking-gun example is the 27-year-old director of programming who asked for a week off work to attend a wake, only to run off, build a treehouse, and write about it instead. It's a master class in clickbait, meant to entice Style section consumers into hate-reading tales of young adults acting entitled.
This isn't the first time the Times has encouraged readers to point and laugh at millennials. Did you know that some of these kids have the nerve to dye their hair gray?Wear $1,000 backpacks? And for heaven's sake...monocles?! The paper of record is hardly alone in its mockery -- if anything the old gray lady is more subtle than some of its media brethren. The Boston Globe declared millennials to be “A generation of idle trophy kids”. Time does offer some praise for millennials, but labeling them the “Me Me Me Generation” (even if that's partly Time paraphrasing others' view) sends a clear message. The notion that millennials are lazy, self-absorbed, and narcissistic has become so ingrained, you can even find a study in which the majority of young adults self-identify that way.
These generalizations lack two major pillars that should be present both in media assessments, and our everyday understanding of human events: context, and empathy. In other words, why are things happening?
Let's first examine the oft-stated claim that a large percentage of young adults lives at home. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, this is, in fact, true. Does that mean that millennials are spoiled? In some cases, sure! -- just as it's also true that a bunch of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-, and 70-somethings might have been spoiled in the past, with negative consequences. But there are numerous other reasons why millennials might choose not to leave the nest.
Some of that is job-related. If you can't find a steady job and your family's not loaded, good luck living on your own. But wait, what about the data within that Pew study which show the unemployment rate among young adults dropping sharply in the past five years, from around 12 percent in 2010 to just 7.7 percent last year?
Here's where raw unemployment data don't tell the full story. For one thing, top-line unemployment numbers fail to account for people who've dropped out of the labor market entirely, by no longer actively looking for a job. For another, workers in the modern gig industry, which could include everything from Uber shifts to holding three part-time jobs at once, could be underemployed, even if they might not count as unemployed. Also, once you adjust for inflation, American workers' median wages are at the same level now as they were 48 years ago.
Meanwhile, just about everything costs a hell of a lot more than it used to ... starting with education. If you're one of the privileged few with both the scholastic bona fides and the ocean of money to afford four years at Harvard (followed by business school, law school, or medical school), your hefty investment stands a good chance of paying off big. Go down an educational tier or two, and you get young adults who either won't monetize their heavy investments in education until well into their 30s, or maybe won't ever see them pay off.
How bad have college tuition costs become? Today's college seniors are paying eight times more than their parents did three decades ago. If you're an older millennial who graduated college seven years ago, you still paid six times more than your mid-80s-graduating parents did.
Can you guess what happens when college tuition skyrockets? That's right, student debt costs -- and loan delinquency rates -- skyrocket right along with them.
If you're 25 and ambitious, one way to try to kickstart your career (and hopefully make enough money to pay off your student debt) is to move to a bigger city that might offer better employment opportunities. Sounds great in theory. But housing costs in those top-tier cities have also exploded, often for reasons that have more to do with real estate as speculative investment vehicles than basic housing needs.
OK fine, but what about these damn millennials being glued to their phones all the time? Aside from Tinder and Snapchat being really fun, there are practical reasons why young adults might give the impression that their phones are their best friends.
Think about the dramatic ways in which the U.S. economy has changed over the past few decades. Forty years ago, American companies with the highest market caps often hailed from industries from the manufacturing, mining, and construction industries. Finding a secure, well-paying job and keeping it until retirement was thus a viable option for wide swaths of Americans, including non-college graduates. Those kinds of jobs have dried up, with manufacturing jobs going overseas, and the richest companies now hailing from other sectors.
At the end of 2015, the three richest companies by market cap (and five of the top eight) hailed from the tech sector, where the number of knowledge workers that form the backbone of those companies pale in number compared to the manufacturing giants of the past. General Motors reached its peak employment figure in 1979, when 618,365 Americans drew paychecks from the car-making giant. By comparison, today's largest company by market cap, Apple, employed just 110,000 people last year. Meanwhile Facebook, which entered the top 10 in market cap among publicly traded companies in the third quarter of last year, counted fewer than 13,000 employees in 2015.
With fewer and fewer jobs available at the biggest companies, those companies mostly operating in the tech world, and recent college grads more likely to get jobs as social media managers than as steelworkers, millennials better master the art of using their phones. (And if you still view phone fixation as an obsession with material possessions, remember that millennials have eschewed many of the gaudy status symbols that previous generations chased after, most notably cars.)
Now, this is hardly the only generation that's had to grapple with significant economic barriers. We saw double-digit inflation and sky-high unemployment for much of the 1970s. The early 90s brought the first jobless recovery. The early 2000s featured the tech bust and the accompanying stock market swoon. It is also possible that some members of this generation do possess specific traits that make them ill-suited for success.
Still, let's not sugarcoat all the forces working against millennials today. We have a growing dispersion effect, with the gap between haves and have-nots widening. A tiny sliver of 25-year-old geniuses with access to capital are starting wildly successful companies. But the vast majority of young adults are struggling terribly to find the kind of reliable jobs that their parents were able to land. Throw in some terrible timing (the oldest members of the millennial generation entered the job market right after 9-11, while men and women now in their late-20s graduated college during the peak of the 2007-2009 Great Recession), and you can start to understand the hardships that millennials have faced.
Or at least you can, if you channel some damn empathy. Leaving aside all the hard economic data which underscore the challenges faced by today's young adults, consider all the social change that's happened as they've come of age. This is a generation that's embraced a broader spectrum of sexual identity and gender fluidity, and helped push for more mainstream acceptance of both. It's one rife with crusaders for social justice and racial equality. One that by at least one measure has more of its members engaged in volunteerism and charity work than the previous generation ever did. And before you chastise the entry-level employee who talks back to her boss, remember what can happen when we place our blind trust in authority figures.
Maybe the simplest way to appreciate younger generations is for those of us in older generations to get our heads out of our own asses.
The good news? The present is bright, and the future even brighter. Technology could soon enable small groups of individuals to achieve innovations once only attainable by giant corporations. As a result, there's hope for new industries and new job opportunities emerging, and for innovators to solve the great global problems of our time, such as food and water shortages, and shortfalls in education and medical care.
And if you'll permit a single anecdote to go along with all these data, consider what we're teaching the generation that will follow millennials into the workforce. In the elementary school down the street from my house here in Denver, my six-year-old twins learn reading and writing, math and science. But the guiding principle of their school isn't academics; it's strength of character. By infusing traits such as respect, acceptance, and kindness into every single day for every class, the school aims to do more than raise successful students. It's striving to mold more empathetic people.
Here's hoping those lessons stick. Then 50 years from now, when my kids and their classmates are nearing retirement and millennials are in the old folks' home, they can look to the next generation, appreciate their strengths, and understand their struggles. These kids today, they'll say...they're not half bad.
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