A Love Note to Millennials
Updated: Apr 16
Did you hear that? It’s the collective sigh of the millennial generation that’s been denied its birthright of a timely ascension to a comfortable middle class. This view is articulated by Malcolm Harris, the millennial-aged author of Kids These Days, in his radio interview with CBC’s Sunday Edition host Michael Enright. Harris argues that the childhood of millennials was turned into a highly competitive training ground for future careers that will never offer them the compensation worthy of the substantial education – or “human capital”, as he terms it – that millennials bring to the work force.
Harris believes the defining characteristic of his generation is “the divergence between productivity and income,” a circumstance he attributes to increasingly ruthless employers who have the luxury of limiting the amount they’re willing to pay due to the oversupply of this human capital. Harris explains that employers are getting the most out of millennial workers by forcing them to compete with each other while paying the least, and then turfing them when the next cheapest option shows up. Sure, it’s tough out there, but that’s hardly the defining distinction of millennials in my view.
As a Gen X-er who returned to college later in life, I was suddenly surrounded by more millennials than I’ve ever been around all at once. I noticed many share a common trait, which may be the logical consequence of their helicopter-parented rearing, which, as Harris observes, denied millennials the opportunity to "build their own selves" without adult oversight. I offer my observation here hesitantly, fully cognizant that it risks sounding like a rant from the president of the Old Biddies Club (Get offa my lawn, punk!), but here goes. It seems to me that many millennials expect without hesitation that all the authority figures in their lives are obliged to ameliorate their every discomfort. It’s not that I don’t understand that you millennials have many discomforts.
You graduated with a university degree and debt, but then discovered you had to do more than think deeply about intangibles to get a job, so you went back to college where you acquired practical skills, more debt, and then eventually found work. Part time. With no benefits, pension, sick days, paid vacation or guaranteed hours, you’re soldiering on while listening to company old-timers with all those advantages complain about their working conditions. You have it rough – oh, wait a minute. That was the Gen X experience, which was still way easier than generations before had it. It seems you weren’t the first rookies that didn’t get to trade education for the good life upon arrival in the workforce.
Enright points out to Harris that some parents he’s spoken with acknowledge that education is good, but that if any of their children became “a plumber or a contractor or an electrician they’ll have a better chance of getting work.” The undercurrent in this statement is the unquestioned assumption that the education required to learn how to plumb, build or wire a house is inferior knowledge compared to the academic and technical education that millennials have been geared toward since childhood. Harris agrees that many people are coming to the conclusion that their kids may have to settle for the trades, the implication being that it’s not fair that those with inferior knowledge may be better off. With this culturally normalized bias against the trades, it’s no wonder there’s a shortage of skilled tradespeople in North America.
As Harris sees it, the tragedy is that the millennials’ childhood was sacrificed to all-consuming competition for a prize most of them won’t even win. He concludes that if a large number of families accept the view that not every kid can be groomed for the top spots in our economy, then “we really do have a sort of hereditary caste system developing.” I'm not sure what's petting my fur the wrong way more: his entitlement or his bias against non-academic education, which is symptomatic of the very problem he’s bemoaning. Mr. Harris, how about you summon your youthful energy and work diligently toward filling a need in our economy? I expect that of your generation because the most inspiring people I know are millennials.
I was privileged to work with some of the finest members of this generation when a series of young reporters came to the TV station. I assumed an unlikely role of den mother to a few of the women, thanks to the first one whose presence left me feeling truly awed. Jessica was energetic, tech savvy, ambitious, world-travelled, and undaunted by challenge. It frustrated and saddened me when others at the station didn’t recognize what I considered her gleaming, untapped potential. Our operation wasn’t the place where this gem would be polished, and her hours were cut. The next vibrant, talented young reporter, Amanda, was loved by our manager, but not by his boss. That guy even told her she’d be better suited in the service industry. I’m surprised he didn’t tell her to settle for a trade.
The millennial I worked with most recently was Emily, an exceptionally hard-working keener who committed herself completely to any task she was given, even if it was a real dog of an assignment. Emily was such a bright light with an immense contribution to make to journalism; it broke my heart when she was laid off. Despite these demoralizing setbacks, they all moved on, and moved on up to the top like the Jeffersons, as us Gen X-ers used to say. Today, Jessica is on international assignments when not on an anchor desk in the big city, Amanda is her similarly talented colleague, and Emily is working for a major university while getting a Masters degree in her spare time. Their inspiring example reminds me that youth isn’t always wasted on the young.
As for Harris and the millennials on whose behalf he commiserates, I want to say this: Chill, dude. If you’re only a quarter as good as the best of your generation, you’re going to be just fine. Take it from a member of the generation that entered the workforce as overeducated, underemployed, longtime tenants of our parents’ basements. Your greatness is not your human capital, but your tenacious determination to become the “successful revolutionaries” you envision. Your generation is plenty capable of that achievement, even if no one makes it comfortable for you. I have every reason to be hopeful that millennials will change the world for the better, a view I offer fully cognizant that I risk having my membership in the Old Biddies Club revoked.