June 15, 2010

A MILLENNIAL CRI DE COEUR: InstaPundit reader McKean Evans emails in response to this Michael Barone post:

I’ve read your blog nearly every day since I was in high school (class of ’04), when the 2000 election disputes and 9/11 really woke me up to the world of politics, and while I haven’t always agreed with you about everything, this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to write to you. So let me say in advance that for about ten years now I’ve been an avid reader and for the most part, very much appreciated what you’ve had to say. I’ve done my very best to avoid ranting and to produce a courteous and reasonably concise statement of why, longtime reader that I am, I’m frankly quite angry with some of your recent postings. Of course, you’re the one with the blog, you’ve got the right to your opinion, and it’s an opinion that I’ve had a great deal of respect for for a long time, so all I ask is that you think about what I have to say in the future.

There’s been a real trend in the blogosphere lately, among people with a variety of different views, to make arguments which run something along the lines of: “the Millennials are lazy, they had everything handed to them on a silver platter, they’re the byproducts of the cult of self-esteem and they’ve never had to work for anything before now, so why should we care if they have trouble finding work right out of school?” Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always found a lot of what seems to characterize my generation as fairly repellent (Exhibit 1: /Jersey Shore/), and I think that there are a lot of very valid, very important criticisms to level at the the way in which our society has extended adolescence into (apparently) perpetuity, not to mention the wisdom of borrowing yourself into six figures of college debt. However, this new trend of shamelessly and self-righteously laying into 20-30 year olds who, for example, are forced to move back home after graduation because they can’t get a job, or who are forced to remain on their parents’ health insurance, is just counterproductive. Moreover, it’s incredibly insulting. New college graduates are among those most impacted by the recession, and they’re in the worst position to handle unemployment. We don’t have savings, or CD’s, or a 401(k), or home equity to fall back on. What we have is our parents. And make no mistake, nobody, but nobody, is excited to move back home with the folks.

Now of course it’s tempting to make the point that most of us wouldn’t be in this position if we hadn’t borrowed so heavily for school, and that’s absolutely a valid point. That’s a discussion that absolutely has to happen in our society. But it’s completely unjust and inappropriate to simply tell everybody who graduated in the past two years, who still can’t find steady work, that it’s their own damn fault. We weren’t of voting age when Congress decided it was a great idea to undermine the housing and financial sectors, by giving huge home equity loans to persons with no capacity to ever repay them. You wouldn’t have found us among those who blindly followed the financial gurus of the late 90’s and early aughts, who just /knew/ that you could buy a house and that its value would increase forever. You definitely wouldn’t have found us working for the UAW, while the unions bled the heart of the manufacturing sector dry over the past thirty years.

But I’ll tell you where you would have found us over the past ten years, while the stage was being set for everything to go to hell. We were at school, in the library, doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing. And if there’s one great sin of my generation, it’s that we blindly listened to everything that our parents and teachers told us about the value of a college education, of a “liberal arts” degree, and the risks of heavy student loan debt. To grow up in the late 1990’s and in the aughts was to be constantly inundated with the importance, the absolute necessity of Almighty Higher Education. I started hearing about planning for college when I was around 13, and my parents were comparatively very laid back. For the vast majority of people who are now in their 20’s, adolescence wasn’t about anything at all but getting in to college. Our teachers talked about College the way that Churchill talked about Victory. I’ve long argued that the reason why popular culture among young adults today is so obnoxiously, insufferably adolescent is at least partly due to the fact that we were never /allowed/ to be adolescents. You didn’t play sports or write for the school newspaper or volunteer at the soup kitchen because you wanted to, you did it to pad that college application. I can’t tell you how many times I was told, point blank, that the way to success was to get into the best college you could, and borrow as much money as you could to pay for it. Of /course/ college was worth six figures in debt. To even ask the question was unthinkable for most of us, because we had never been allowed to consider the possibility that it might be otherwise.

So now we’ve just graduated, and the fact is that there are simply no jobs. I myself graduated in May from a very competent, middle-of-the-road law school, and probably around 75% of my class is unemployed. And I can tell you first hand that none of them are happy about moving back in with the folks. They’re not doing it because they’re too lazy to support themselves, they’re doing it because they’re looking at 150-200k in student loans and no employment. When I say “no employment” I don’t mean a lack of big-law, 100k associate employment. I don’t even mean that we’re having trouble getting the clerkships and government jobs that the ivy league law schools so despise. I mean nothing–there are simply no jobs.

Did my generation grow up with unreasonable expectations about life, employment, and the value of a degree? Absolutely. But before you’re so quick to judge us, please remember that for the vast, vast majority of our admittedly short lives, we worked intensely hard to do what we were told was the right thing to do, the only thing to do, by absolutely everybody in authority. The worst you can really say about us is that we did what we were told when we were children.

Yeah, it’s a really tough jobs environment out there right now. And Barone’s comments, while correctly observing a trend, are somewhat at odds with his book Hard America, Soft America, which says that America has the worst 18-year-olds and the best 30-year-olds in the industrialized world.

UPDATE: Reader James Ruhland emails: “The best reply a Boomer can give to McKean Evans comes from Animal House: ‘You f’d up. You trusted us.'”

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Douglas Landrum writes:

My heart goes out to McKean Evans. My son just graduated from college – a very tony private school and his Mom and I footed the bill. Our son is still on the payroll – to our chagrin. The rap that Millennials are lazy or had everything handed to them just isn’t so. I think they will be the next greatest generation. They see the ultimate greed of the Boomers (of which I am ashamed to be one). We are the greediest generation. We expect to have our Social Security and Medicare too. We expect to benefit from Obamacare – or so the predominant liberal core of the Boomers do – all at the expense of younger generations. My son has degrees – business marketing major and studio arts minor. He has no job in his field. My son is an ocean lifeguard and delivers pizzas. I am sure he would work as third job if he could find it. These kids will mature up tough and savvy. They will also allow us to be death paneled out of their lives. Don’t under estimate their grit.

Well, the death-paneled-out thing doesn’t sound so great. Meanwhile, Charles Austin writes:

He has it down pat, the whole it’s somebody else’s fault but mine. But as their expectations of the high paying career they are entitled to are smashed between the Scylla of debt as far as the eye can see and the Charybdis of progressive nanny-statism and they are forced to move back home to stretch their adolescence out just a little farther, is it fair to say the chicks are coming home to roost?

I graduated in 1981. That too was a tough job market. If anything really does annoy me about this kind of commentary it is that they think it has never happened before and that they are a special case worthy of special treatment.

The Carter generation vs. the Obama generation. I think the latter has it worse, personally. At this point, a Carter rerun would be an improvement.

MORE: Reader Steve Poling writes:

Your post http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/101267/ is one of those rare, long ones that always pique my interest. I don’t think the millenials are lazy, but they may have been misled, victims of educational malpractice. If you have an entire country in which nobody learns how to create value, you should not be surprised if nobody has a job. There will be work for lawyers as long as human nature is as it is. Plumbers, electricians, mechanics, cooks and barbers will also be needed as long as people use such things, get hungry or have hair that grows.

However, a sizable portion of the academy has been diverted into useless endeavors. How many religion and gender studies majors does this nation need to keep America strong and prosperous? How many fill-in-the-blank studies departments exist to provide sinecures to politically connected fellows whose core competency is railing at cops and drinking beer with the President? If your college major teaches you how to create trouble for others, I’m happy when you can’t find work. Conversely, if you can make something besides trouble, then I hope you’ll create value for yourself and for society.

My daughter graduated from Michigan’s Engineering school last year and turned down a job offer in lieu of graduate study. When she finishes her Masters next month, she’ll be able to find work at several places worldwide because she picked a useful major.

Well, creating value is less rewarded than it used to be. And people tend to flock to things that are rewarded. And reader Robin Tillings writes:

I think the themes of your posts yesterday are at a confluence. McKean Evans’s email was a convincing argument for teaching critical thinking skills, which might seem to be in the realm of school curriculum, but really falls into parental responsibility.

Evans is correct that our society emphasizes the roll of higher education as a gateway to a better living. But, as you pointed out in that link to the WP article about college grads going into the trades for a more secure future and readily available jobs, reality intrudes when parents offer their kids the sink or swim choice. Somehow, I don’t think young Mr. Evans is envisioning a future of plumbing despite his dismay at living at home post-college, but that might change if Mom and Dad were asking for rent and utilities money.

My husband and I both hold degrees in liberal arts from good schools and graduated into the 1990 recession. My parents wisely counseled graduating without debt ( Dad a conservative after all), which was the best advice they ever gave me as we had to work a lot of unpleasant jobs to pay the rent post-graduation, a turnip farm one summer being the most memorable and unpleasant. My husband learned the trade of fine cabinetry and construction, which has been extremely lucrative and allowed me to be a stay at home mom and homeschool our eldest. Every valuable skill my husband has in his proverbial toolbox, he learned himself or on the job, and even in this deplorable job market, he landed a wonderful job when his own business went sour with the housing market.

While it’s nice to tell acquaintances in our Ivy League town that we have college degrees (fits the snob appeal), the truth is I’m not sure I’ll counsel my children that college is the single path to success, despite cultural pressure. Self education is a wonderful journey and what we’ve learned on our own stumbling path is that demonstrable skill sets and a strong work ethic trump degrees for most careers. These days it seems that college degrees are paying for a title and a Rolodex of contacts, which can’t be dismissed as unimportant, but should be placed in context of the big picture. Would you pay $100K for a list of names?

Well, I suppose it depends on the names. But point taken. Another reader emails:

I’m a member of Gen-X and have found that the baby boomers seem to claim that any subsequent generation to theirs is lazy and shiftless. I’m firmly of the belief that the boomers project their own vices upon subsequent generations without any true understanding of the wreckage that they’ve left in their wake. Our generations have been starting the career ladder facing higher college debt, higher rent/housing prices, and older employees who have benefited from improvements in health care and don’t intend upon retiring from their well paid perches. From a Gen-X perspective, we have been judged by how much less our generation has produced despite the fact that *per*capita* we’ve outperformed the baby boomers, there are just fewer of us. I’ll bet that the millenials will be at least as productive as we, and there are more of them. The baby boomers should be singing our praises in the streets, for without our industry *and*tax*dollars* that is where they’ll be in their twilight years.

Stay tuned.

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