It’s easy to look at the generations that come after you and judge them in negative ways. In fact, it’s so easy that every single generation does it. In the 5th century BCE, the playwright Aristophanes complained that the youth of his day learned all the wrong lessons in life: “You will be persuaded also to regard as splendid everything that is shameful and as shameful everything that is honourable; in a word, you will wallow in degeneracy.” His own generation had proper manners: “they would not have dared, before those older than themselves, to have taken a radish, an aniseed or a leaf of parsley, and much less eat fish or thrushes or cross their legs.”
These corrupt young whippersnappers and their excessive radish eating!
The context for these comments helps paint a picture. When Aristophanes was young, the city-state of Athens had helped drive off the Persians and developed an empire. They were the dominant force of their world. But all that went away after the rival city-state of Sparta defeated Athens. Why had this happened, people like Aristophanes wondered? The answer was simple—the youth of today were not as good as his own generation had been.
One thing worth noting is that among the youth that Aristophanes was calling out as useless was a young man that people called Plato (which could be a nickname, since it refers to a misshapen nose). Plato is widely considered to be the most important figure in all of European philosophy. One of Plato’s students, Aristotle, had not yet been born when Aristophanes wrote the words above, but he would be another critically important figure in intellectual history. In other words, Aristophanes was wrong. The kids were alright. They just really liked radishes.
Today we see the same kind of complaints, about Millennials who feel entitled to a living wage (how dare they!?) and complain about the tens of thousands of dollars in student debt they accrue while going to college (they borrowed it! No one forced them!). And so on. There are dozens of articles complaining about Millennials out there. I’m not going to link to any of them; you know how to find them, if you want.
I remember the same sort of complaints about my generation, known as Gen X. We were lazy, cynical, apathetic, spoiled, and so on. We didn’t care about politics. We didn’t care about anything. We listened to shoe-gazing music and our cultural icons dared the world to “entertain us”.
Of course there were articles about how we would do nothing, and civilization was in decline, and where had all the country’s values gone…and so on. So we created the internet, as you know it, and social media, and helped push for a more pluralistic society. We played a huge role in electing the first Black President, an idea that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. That’s not to say we are perfect. We could be held at least partly responsible for rising college prices, lack of employer loyalty (we famously switch jobs a lot! So perhaps we aren’t worthy of such loyalty) and whatever other modern day problems you want to lay at our feet (but at least for now, please include the Baby Boomers as co-conspirators!).
Lumping a group of people who happen to be a certain age into a group labeled ‘Generation’ is a bit of a silly idea, but it isn’t a new one. What happens is that each generation looks at the youth and decides “They aren’t doing what I did!” For various psychological and sociological reasons, we tend to look for the positives in ourselves and the negatives in others. As a result, you’ll see plenty of people posting macros on FB that basically state “If kids today were spanked, like I was, they’d be much better people!” Almost every person I’ve ever seen post those words should be careful about the stones they throw. I know them, and they are not great examples of the benefits of corporal punishment.
But let’s set aside the fact that hating on the next generation is a historical given, and look at why it is so problematic in this particular case. Many older Americans seem completely unaware of just how privileged they have been. Baby Boomers, and even Gen Xers, who complain about younger people wanting to raise the minimum wage or have free access to college, really should think back to all of the advantages that they had. When you say that a minimum wage job isn’t meant to be a living wage job, you miss a few important facts.
First, the President responsible for implementing the minimum wage (FDR) specifically said that all full time workers were entitled to a living wage. Opponents of raising the minimum wage like to point out that the first minimum wage was only 25 cents an hour, which is nowhere near $15 an hour in real dollars (meaning adjusted for inflation). However, that misses the point. There were many political reasons why the first amount was what it was, but the spirit of the push for a minimum wage, by the person who pushed for it, was that would allow a living wage. When people today say that you aren’t supposed to live on minimum wage, that’s their view, but not the view of Roosevelt when he created it as part of the New Deal.
Second, minimum wage jobs are no longer for teenagers, or at least are no longer filled by teenagers alone. In fact, most of the people who would be affected by raising the minimum wage are over 20. This links to a third issue, which is that the minimum wage when Baby Boomers were making it at 20 years old went a lot further than it does today. In the 70s, there was less expectation that both men and women would be working, and many people were able to go to college while working minimum wage jobs without having to take out loans. Today’s students can’t do that; college prices are way too high. Also, in the 70s, getting that degree almost guaranteed you a decent job, while today’s students almost have to have one in order to get anywhere in their careers. However, having a college degree does not guarantee you a job at all, much less a good one. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, for most people (which means you have to have it to have a chance, but it doesn’t necessarily give you what you want).
The result is a generation that is looking at crippling debt before they even get a chance to start their career, which is likely going to take years to get going properly and will constantly be undermined by student loan payments. Meanwhile, they are being told that they must save up over a million dollars before they retire and that social security won’t be there for them (I think it will, but that’s what they are told). Job security? Nope. Pensions? Seriously? Oh, and many of their elders want to lower or get rid of the security nets that might help those young people who fall through the cracks. Scary world.
So when you tell Millennials that if they don’t like what they are paid, they should change jobs, you are living in a world that is long gone. Job fluidity is down 15% in many places, compared to 1980. Moving to another state is impossibly expensive for low income people. For the average American, the idea of simply switching jobs when you are unhappy just isn’t realistic. They had a hard enough time finding the job they currently have. They can’t risk losing it. Many of the people living around me in rural Ohio are dwelling in locations where the median household income is less than $30k a year. You’ll note that this is the exact figure that a new minimum wage of $15/hour would give someone if he or she worked 40 hours a week. A family, with children, making less than $30k a year has very little chance to save up enough money to move to another state, even if there were real opportunities for improved employment (which there often aren’t).
So today’s youth are caught in a strange trap. They are told that minimum wage jobs are not meant to be real jobs. To avoid them, they have to go to college. But going to college puts them in debt and does not necessarily give them a job of any sort, much less a good one. Instead, it is a necessary step in having someone look at your application, alongside tens or hundreds of other similarly qualified people desperate to get their feet in the door. Oh, and they have to make these decisions before they even turn 20, which science has shown is before our brains are fully developed for good decision making. And when they do make a choice, no matter which one is made, they are blamed if that choice does not work out for them. Lose-Lose for them. As a bonus, they get to read articles about how terrible they are and see those lucky friends of theirs on Facebook who somehow did find a good job. It’s enough to raise depression and drug use rates!
I was a college student in the 1990s. I’m a college professor in 2016. Today’s students aren’t worse; nor are they better. What they are is frustrated, and they have every right to be frustrated. They really have inherited a world that is worse than the one that those of us 35 or over faced. Recognize that, and stop cheering every time you see another article condemning a whole generation of people that have problems you never had. And before you yell at them to get off your lawn, let them have a few seconds to capture the Pokemon that’s sitting next to your water feature, which might be the only good thing that happens to them that day.