Sunday, June 09, 2013

The kids are still all right

As times continue to be tough for millions of Americans, fingers inevitably keep on pointing in all directions. One group critics keep hitting particularly hard is my generation. And I think a lot of it is unfair.

I was born in 1980, which falls either under Generation X or the Millennials (aka Generation Y), depending on who’s counting. Personally, I identify with both groups equally — X for my early cultural influences and experiences, and Y because I still hold a youthful outlook and can identify with recent graduates’ rough economic prospects. For this blog’s purposes, I’m going to lump the generations together; the differences between X and Y are far less substantial than between them and the baby boomers. Plus, it’s fun to be the self-appointed voice of two generations.

Every generation has people who are industrious and others who are lazy, because that’s human nature. Circumstances, more than innate quirks, define generations — give one a World War to win, and their resolve will be remembered forever. Give another quieter times, and they might slip by silently. Greed might sink yet another. But again, these are overarching descriptives that don’t necessarily flatter or indict individuals. No generation is all perfect or all terrible, and people shouldn’t necessarily be judged by their actuarial pigeonhole. Humankind is far more complex than that.

Nevertheless, generational gaps persist. And the prevailing stereotype about mine from on high is that we’re spoiled, entitled brats. That we’re too coddled to succeed.

My generation gets to hear how good everything used to be, inevitably followed by how everything has since gone to hell. Absent during most of this reminiscing is precisely why things went bad. Rarely absent is at least some soft admonishment that it’s our fault. That we’re ungrateful, unprepared for the real world and ask for too much.

How true this is depends on how we define “too much.”

A common refrain is that my generation thinks they deserve everything right out the gate. And no doubt some think exactly that. But in my experience, that isn’t what most people my age expect. All they want is a future consistent with the sweat they’ve put into attaining it. That’s why they labor toward college or vocational degrees, often while slaving away at one or more menial jobs. They’ll also work at internships and apprenticeships, building skills for the career they choose. Even if they wind up not working in their field for whatever reason, their discipline, work ethic and networking skills can prove valuable assets in another line of work.

Increasingly, such paths don’t pan out as hoped. Graduates are swallowing their pride and are taking what’s available, even if (as is often the case) it’s far below their abilities and needs. For their trouble, they’re labeled as whiny and wanting “too much.” Expecting hard work to pay off gets them lumped into the same category as bratty trust-funders. Somewhere along the line, the sensible wisdom of “you have to earn it” became the Orwellian “don’t expect it just because you earned it.”

We’re the generation hit by the perfect storm of job-killing technological leaps and a job-killing economic crash. Many of us were in school when this happened. The old joke about useless philosophy and basket-weaving degrees now applied to journalism, teaching, agriculture, engineering and pretty much everything else. Even vital blue-collar jobs like manufacturing, clerical positions and civil servants became increasingly redundant. Aspirations gave way to survival.

My first full-time job out of college was in retail. Not sales, but pulling stock off warehouse shelves and sweeping floors. That was seven years ago, and even then the employees included (like me) students with graduate degrees, computer programmers and other stalled young professionals. None of us considered that our ideal job — our pay certainly didn’t reflect it — but we performed like it was. Because when you’re inclined to do your best, you do it always.

That’s also true of the tens of thousands of troops who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — and continue to maintain a presence practically everywhere America has ever fought a war. Most of those wars and occupations have been questionable at best, begun by older generations with varying degrees of practicing what they command. But those troops sure have done their jobs — entirely on a volunteer basis, no less. That by itself should cement that my generation is anything but soft.

The entire point of the United States of America, if what we’ve been taught our entire lives is true, is that it’s the land of opportunity. That with hard work and education, we can make better lives for ourselves. That social contract has fallen through for a lot of us. We’re the first generation to be chided for wanting to believe in the American Dream. We’re making the best of our cards, but forgive us if we find that upsetting at times.

We’re in a new age of discouragement, telling students not to expect too much. Perhaps that’s preferable to the apparent bait-and-switch that blindsided this generation, but it still seems wrong somehow. It’s one thing to acknowledge reality; it’s another entirely to resign oneself to it. We should always strive to improve, no matter how much of a struggle that is. Past generations didn’t settle, and neither should we.

A lot of us have had to downgrade our dreams, perhaps permanently. But don’t dare call us any variant of lazy. Cleaning up the mess we were left for the rest of our lives doesn’t give us time to be lazy.

Indeed, it might define our generation forever.

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