This month’s issue of The Atlantic contains a long, thoughtful and depressing article by Don Peck about the possible effects of long-term unemployment on the American national character.
One section in particular is very much up my alley: about how the shifting job market and how it might affect the Millennial generation. Graduating into a recession, it turns out, can afflict your income for a lifetime. “Seventeen years after graduation, those who had entered the workforce during inhospitable times were still earning 10 percent less on average than those who had emerged into a more bountiful climate.”
As my sister Kezia, a 2009 Yale graduate, commented on Buzz: “UM….scary for peeps my age :(” And her friends chimed in , “Schnikies.” “ i had this article mentioned to me today during a job interview. needless to say, there was no real job being offered.”
The article argues that Millennials are especially ill-equipped to deal with this unprecedented era of long-term joblessness because of their (supposed) cripplingly high-self esteem, and because they don’t understand the meaning of hard work. It also argued that there are widespread social consequences of long-term joblessness–especially for men–including depression, alcoholism, and broken families.
But…I think there’s a hole in this logic. . Graduating into a recession can hurt your income in two ways. One is if the first few jobs you choose are a bad fit, because you grab anything you can find in desperation. The other is if you become risk-averse in reaction to the trauma, because switching jobs is the best way to increase income. Millennials, by their very nature, are resistant to these problems. We are born for change, and our belief in ourselves is strong. Millennials aren’t full of despair if we don’t get the “perfect” job right out of college. Young men are free from the demand that they automatically be breadwinners. Young people are learning to cultivate other values outside of work, and to take risks to seek work that meets their values. All that time we’re spending inventing and building social networks and new ways of communicating with each other will translate into ever-higher levels of social capital and will serve us to build a society that doesn’t depend on income to buy happiness. We will increasingly turn to each other to get what we need and to make what we want.
Yes, we still need to figure out better ways to get people health care and housing and education, and to deal with personal and national debt. The legacy problems of an economy in decline are not going away any time soon. But I have confidence that past performance does not have to guarantee future results. And this generation might just be the perfect people for this time.
It crystallized for me yesterday when I was part of a panel (including this technologist, this simplicity expert, and this social media maven) speaking to Professor Kyra Gaunt’s Anthro 101 class at Baruch College. We talked with this very diverse group of 19 and 20 year olds about hacking their way through the system to get what they need from it without giving up what’s most important to them. Looking at their faces, I realized that it’s exactly this generation’s unreasonable optimism that gives me the most hope for our country’s future.
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.