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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Anne Arundel 100

Mind the (Generation)Gap

Written by Marianne Wood '08

How Are Millennials Faring in this Job Market?

I left my job.

In the midst of a recession, when some of my friends were living at home with their parents and working retail jobs to earn some cash, when others were unemployed and not faring well in this economic climate, and still others were in grad school because they didn't have anything else lined up, I chose to leave a secure job, with benefits, that allowed me to live in a nice northern Virginia suburb, pay for a pricey gym membership, and go to post-work happy hours.

I know I was one of the lucky ones: I went right from graduation in 2008 from St. Mary's College to a job in a law firm in D.C. All I knew was it was what I was going to do for now. Then I started to think about what I wanted to do for real. Or, at the very least, next.

Was leaving my job a naïve, youthful, and selfish thing to do? Who did I think I was that I could give up something others wished for? Was I crazy? Was I just too sensitive to the realities of working a "real," full-time job? Would I be making the wrong decision?

And does this make me, at age 24, what experts call a typical "millennial?" A recent Washington Post article defined millennials as those between the ages of 18 and 29, who, most notably, fail to cite "work ethic" as an important factor in defining themselves. "In a survey of about 1,200 people of all ages," the Post article reads, "millennials chose other traits to define themselves: 24 percent said ‘technology use,' 11 percent went with ‘music/pop culture,' 7 percent chose ‘liberal/tolerant' and 6 percent said ‘smarter.' Only 5 percent noted their generation's ‘work ethic' - the same portion as who chose ‘clothes.'" Moreover, according to this article, we are the only age group who did not cite "work ethic" as a defining characteristic.

Using this standard, it is easy to see where experts are quick to accuse my generation of being lazy and not as focused on success and moral values as those who came before us.

However, I disagree. Like Generation Xers who also were once characterized as selfish and lazy, I think that my generation is going through its own period of finding itself. Having been weaned on television and video games and spending much of our adult lives tethered to computers, it is no wonder that we are a generation used to instant gratification. However, this doesn't necessarily make us selfish or entitled; it simply makes us different.

We were raised differently from our parents, many of whom had tangible links to those who suffered through the Great Depression and worked hard to ensure success for their families and for our country. Because of the work of our grandparents, many of our parents were able to attend college themselves and move on to prosperous jobs which, in turn, afforded us the opportunities to join Little League and learn to play the piano, to travel, and to see the world as a place of wonder and opportunity, ensuring we had enriching and engaging childhoods.

Moreover, for much of our lives, up until we graduated from college, there had been very finite plans about where we would go - step by step - and what we would do.

It was fairly self-evident that after graduating high school we would go on to attend college. After college, we all assumed we would find ourselves on a career path and start to forge our own ways in the real world. However, unlike our prior experiences in high school and college, life in the real world is not neatly organized and categorized with a class schedule and distinct names for where you fall on the continuum. In the real world, we were learning, we had to grow accustomed to a new set of standards and realities.

When I was originally asked to write this article, I would say I was in the middle of what my generation hastermed the "Quarter-Life Crisis." This crisis is defined in a 2009 Eye Weekly article as "unrelenting indecision, isolation, confusion and anxiety about working, relationships and direction reported by people in their mid-twenties to early thirties who are usually urban, middle class and well-educated; those who should be able to capitalize on their youth, unparalleled freedom and free-for-all individuation." It goes on contrarily, however, to say these twenty-somethings (present company included) "can't make any decisions, because they don't know what they want, and they don't know what they want because they don't know who they are, and they don't know who they are because they're allowed to be anyone they want." We are overcome with trying to figure out where we fit, both in terms of what we want for ourselves and for our futures, and also in terms of what others - parents, friends, coworkers, bosses - expect of us.

For those of us who graduated from St. Mary's and moved right into full-time jobs, we had to learn to appreciate bright spring days from our one-hour lunch breaks, rather than through hours spent lying out on the docks or socializing on the Campus Center patio. We had to grow accustomed to waking up before noon and not having the freedom to go places without shoes. We had to learn to affect change in new ways, since we were now a part of a much larger, and a much more judgmental, community.

Marianne Wood '08, above with her boyfriend, John Forrest, talks about how her generation copes with the job market. Photo by Charlotte WoodI can see where some might look at us and see only a group of young people who want to wear jeans to the office or work from home and to be able to hold more responsibility and earn more money without putting in the necessary work. I, however, see my generation as one that can do these things while doing great work and bringing a new perspective to the mix. We are still settling into the realities of the working world, but once we figure out what makes us great, and, just as importantly, what makes us want to be great, I think that we will settle into a healthy mix of work and play. Because we are hard-wired to a world of instant gratification, we sometimes struggle when our realities don’t match up with our intentions.

Over time, I think we will learn from the older generations and work ethic will begin to creep back in as a way of defining ourselves. Like any learning experience, we will have ups and downs, but we are all still young and are trying to figure out what skills we bring to the table. We are not quite ready to settle into the grind of the 9-5. Instead, we want to see if we can’t find ways to affect change right now, in our own ways, without having to log the endless hours of preparatory work. We are a little impatient, and a little rough around the edges, but I think we bring a fresh perspective to the way our country sees work. I hope that instead of berating us for having a desire to live life first, then have career come second, the older generations just might learn to live a little more instead of becoming too wrapped up in the rat race of prestige and title and money.

Like anything, learning to find one’s way in the world is a daunting, exhausting, exhilarating, confusing, compelling, and fulfilling experience. Like me, many in my generation are trying to figure out how to reconcile what’s important to us, such as spending time with friends and family and balancing a career and life, with what others expect of us. We are faced with a million questions, each with a million answers. It is only through living through these questions that we will be able to eventually settle down and see our generation for what it is – a brilliant new edition to the legacy of those who came before us. And I can’t help but think that, like those before us, we will soon be looking out at the next generation wondering who they think they are and challenging them to build upon the foundations that we have left.

As for me, I am still seeking the answers to the million questions. For now, I have taken a new job, in the same field as my first job, having leveraged my experience into a new position that I hope will allow me to do more of the work that I like, and less of what drove me away from my first position. Combined with an overall better benefits package, I can’t help but think I’ve survived this first job change quite well. Now the question is what will I do for real.

Generations by Era

Baby Boomers                          1946-1964*                         Idealists, stressed, team-oriented, self-absorbed workaholics

Generation X                             1965-1983*                         Reactive, skeptical, street-wise

Millennials                                  1984-2002*                         Civic, peer-oriented, sense of entitlement, seek immediate gratification

   *Years vary by source