Talkin’ Bout My Generation

Talkin’ Bout My Generation December 27, 2011

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first and set the mood:

I’m a Millennial. Gen Y, if you will. Y? Y not? With two older Gen X sisters and being born practically on the cusp, I spent my childhood desperately wanting to be part of Gen X. When I was old enough to be able to listen to my own music, after listening to my parents country and oldies all my life, I hungrily sought out Madonna, The Cure, Beastie Boys and discovered Nirvana 6 years after Cobain’s death. It took me awhile to catch on to Gen Y music, and even now it still seems a bit weird to realize Matchbox Twenty is the music of my youth.

Recently two articles have come up that sort of speaks to the current generational struggles. The first, and most distasteful, is a compilation of tweets from teenagers disappointed at their Christmas loot. The second is an article on about how Baby Boomers and Gen X ruined Gen Y. Here’s the gist of the article, minus the colorful expansion:

#5. Making You Ashamed to Take Manual Labor Jobs
#4. Implying That College Would Guarantee You a Good Job
#3. Adding Seven More Years to Being a Teenager
#2. Creating the Idea that Entertainment Has No Monetary Value
#1. Taking Away Every Reason To Go Outside

I have friends who’ve graduated from college only to find no jobs waiting for them, so they went back. There’s a hope that if they stay in college long enough, piling on degrees and racking up loans, that eventually there will be an economy that values them.

I remember as a kid the one thing I really wanted to do was go to college. Because I heard they had libraries. Big ones. By the time I was a teenager though, I’d already grown cynical. My haphazard homeschooling left me with a voracious appetite for knowledge, and the crappiest advanced math skills. When I finally decided to take my SAT’s in my mid-twenties the result resembled a cake that had fallen sharply on one side. Knowing my parents wouldn’t be able to contribute to my education, that I would be starting at a disadvantage given my quirky education and that I’d likely be unable to support myself and pay for school at minimum wage, I gave up on the idea of college.

This disappointed a lot of people. I’ll never forget the disappointment on my father’s face when he asked me my plans. He tried to mask it by giving me helpful trade school advice, but then how could he expect something different from me, when he wanted to be an engineer and became an electrician instead for practical reasons? My early twenties were rough. I wasn’t welcome in my family at all then, and I was flipping burgers to make rent. My sister-in-law at the time hated me, and I remember her making pointed remarks about how stupid people who left home to get low wage jobs instead of living off their parents and going to college were.

Over the years I spoke to a lot of very positive admissions (sales) people. I considered a lot of schools. I spoke to a lot of disgruntled and unhelpful financial aid people. I worked hard to finally make enough to drag myself up from the poverty line, only to find once I was able to pay my rent and fill my gas tank there was no financial aid available. In the end, studying and paying to take the SATs was just vanity. It proved to me I wasn’t stupid, just bad at algebra. I was ok with that.

The world isn’t ok with that though. Jobs that require nothing more than a pleasant phone demeanor and basic filing skills demand a bachelors degree, and to add insult to injury in this hideous economy, perfect credit. Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers formed a Greek chorus stating their disappointment in me. “Why don’t I go to college?

I wish I could say I feel vindicated looking back. Justified maybe in the lack of debt, but I see so many of my young friends saddled with crippling debt with no options. Some of them received an education that even in a good economy wasn’t worth what they paid for it. Spending so much time around college kids in my mid-twenties brought the idea of a college education down off its pedestal for me.

I eventually got the kinds of jobs that college graduates are yearning for now. And you know what? I missed flipping burgers. I missed working as a barista. I missed the jobs I got sneered at for having, because they were honest work with palpable results. I had to wear a uniform and work odd hours, but I wasn’t expected to be on-call 24/7 or navigate the intricacies of office politics. As a barista, when I did a good job people tipped me. As a project estimator for a highway construction company, bringing in millions in contracts didn’t even merit me a day off without pay. When I left the fast food kitchen, everything sparkled clean and bright. When I left the office, there was a pile of work on my desk and in my e-mail waiting for me in the morning.

I think the Cracked article by John Cheese raises some important questions. What will the economy look like in the years to come? What will our values be? Will we value manual labor jobs again? Will the factory jobs that gave my parents and grandparents a decent life return? Will we transform our society into a more realistic and grateful culture? Or have we sold a generation down the river? What will happen when the Baby Boomers are gone and an angry, frustrated Gen Y becomes the largest generational force in the US?

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