Our Responsibilities to Young People

Is it young people who have changed over time, or is it the rest of us? Maybe the under-performance we think we see in this up-and-coming cohort is due to Boomer entitlement, not Millennial laziness.

By Michelle Martin
Published November 18, 2014

A favourite novel of mine includes, among its many subplots, the story of a twenty-something young man named Fred. Fred takes a Bachelor's degree to meet the expectations of his upper-middle-class family. Raised in comfort, he is used to stylish clothes and accessories.

Upon graduation and after deciding he is not cut out for the career in ministry that had been earmarked for him, he returns to continue living at home, with no apparent prospects. Fred's father, especially, makes his disappointment quite clear and doesn't do anything to help his son find a practical alternative.

A deal from which Fred had hoped to profit goes sour, leaving a dear friend on the hook as his guarantor for some earlier debts. He's pretty sure he'll be able to cover it when an inheritance he is expecting comes through (his father certainly won't assist), except that it doesn't: the ailing relative who enjoyed toying with his hopes leaves the estate to someone else instead.

So, in the first part of the story, we have slightly shiftless twenty-something who doesn't seem to know how to begin adult life. He is getting precious little advice from those around him, who are either blind to his faults or else all too ready to point them out. Most who know him assume that he will not amount to much, but will continue to sponge off of his parents, the better to maintain his wardrobe.

Yet for all his faults, Fred is a decent, good-hearted young person, who loves and respects his parents though they have given up on any illustrious career for him.

It is this young man's friend and guarantor, an older man who has known him from childhood, who sees that what our young hero lacks is a mentor. He's watched Fred learn some hard lessons, but still sees the potential in him, and sets about training Fred to work in his own business, as a property manager.

Fred, by dint of hard work and with his old friend's patient oversight (including some early rebukes around sloppiness in basic record keeping), becomes successful enough to move from home and start a family of his own.

Last month the Hamilton Spectator cited a study conducted by Workforce Planning Hamilton in which the majority of employers surveyed expressed the opinion that "getting workers with the right 'soft skills' is becoming more difficult."

If only in justice to the young people I have known both professionally and personally over the years, I need to speak out.

I have had the opportunity to be served by many people in various positions, including but not limited to billing clerks, doctors, realtors, store clerks, plumbers, teachers, customer service representatives, lawyers, professors, hairstylists, and nurses. I have worked alongside many different people with a wide range of backgrounds.

One thing these encounters on both sides of the service desk has shown me is that those personality traits and social graces - the so-called "soft skills" - that make an employee desirable are not exclusive to people over the age of 30.

At the same time, I have an abiding respect and admiration for the young people of my acquaintance, many who have been colleagues over the years, others who have been friends of my own young adult children.

These twenty-somethings communicate clearly and politely, apologize if they have made a mistake, and keep a cool head in a crisis. They are thankful for opportunities and for timely words of advice. They take correction to heart, and adjust their approach.

Any lack of experience is more than compensated for by their enthusiasm, fresh ideas and sheer physical energy.

With all this energy, why don't young people don't pursue, in the words of that Spectator article, the "academic upgrading and continuous learning" that "are essential for job seekers to be competitive" in the job market?

Remember that we aren't talking about a two-hundred dollar course or two, here. A college diploma or continuing education certificate can end up costing many thousands of dollars, and involve time away from other paid work-no small consideration for a 25 year-old with rent and student loans to pay.

Some may choose to move back home to save a little money and afford professional development: cue another newspaper article about basement-dwelling millenials. They can't win, can they?

"A young fellow needn't be a B. A. to do this sort of work, eh, Fred?"

"I wish I had taken to it before I had thought of being a B. A.," said Fred. He paused a moment, and then added, more hesitatingly, "Do you think I am too old to learn your business, Mr. Garth?"

"My business is of many sorts, my boy," said Mr. Garth, smiling. "A good deal of what I know can only come from experience: you can't learn it off as you learn things out of a book. But you are young enough to lay a foundation yet." Caleb pronounced the last sentence emphatically, but paused in some uncertainty. He had been under the impression lately that Fred had made up his mind to enter the Church.

"You do think I could do some good at it, if I were to try?" said Fred, more eagerly.

"That depends," said Caleb, turning his head on one side and lowering his voice, with the air of a man who felt himself to be saying something deeply religious. "You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honorable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying, There's this and there's that-if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is-I wouldn't give twopence for him"-here Caleb's mouth looked bitter, and he snapped his fingers-"whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn't do well what he undertook to do."

"I can never feel that I should do that in being a clergyman," said Fred, meaning to take a step in argument.

"Then let it alone, my boy," said Caleb, abruptly, "else you'll never be easy. Or, if you are easy, you'll be a poor stick."

"That is very nearly what Mary thinks about it," said Fred, coloring. "I think you must know what I feel for Mary, Mr. Garth: I hope it does not displease you that I have always loved her better than anyone else, and that I shall never love any one as I love her."

The expression of Caleb's face was visibly softening while Fred spoke. But he swung his head with a solemn slowness, and said-

"That makes things more serious, Fred, if you want to take Mary's happiness into your keeping."

"I know that, Mr. Garth," said Fred, eagerly, "and I would do anything for her. She says she will never have me if I go into the Church; and I shall be the most miserable devil in the world if I lose all hope of Mary. Really, if I could get some other profession, business-anything that I am at all fit for, I would work hard, I would deserve your good opinion. I should like to have to do with outdoor things. I know a good deal about land and cattle already. I used to believe, you know-though you will think me rather foolish for it-that I should have land of my own. I am sure knowledge of that sort would come easily to me, especially if I could be under you in any way."

At the age of 23, my father, not long married and with an infant at home to feed (me), was let go from a job he didn't have the heart to do diligently (working in collections and repossession). With nothing but a high school diploma, he found an entry-level position in a large multinational corporation where he worked his way up the ladder in sales, eventually selling large contracts.

By the time he left that company decades later, the people being hired for positions like his had MBAs. A 23-year-old man or woman in similar circumstances today would be hard-pressed to attain a comparable level of success: the McMaster University website lists the tuition for a full-time MBA as $36,650. For someone living hand-to-mouth, a $3,000 certification in something or other can be just as unattainable.

Meanwhile, the Governor of the Bank of Canada advises young people to work without remuneration, since, you know, they're already living in their parents' basements for free.

I am not aware that he has yet addressed how working for free will allow them to pay for some additional qualifications to give their resumes an edge, nor how young people without access to rent-free accommodation will manage to bankroll unpaid internships.

Perhaps they can work a fast-food graveyard shift for minimum wage. That would leave them a couple of hours a day to do the reading for a continuing education course or two, right?

They just have to get over themselves and adjust their attitude. There's no such thing as a free lunch. You've got to spend money to make money. Stay hungry. Lean in.

So we expect our hungry young people to work for free or very little in positions where they may well be at the mercy of harassers like one former CBC personality whom we won't dignify by naming, or in jobs where they are considered so disposable that no one is looking out for their physical safety.

Surely for the sake of human dignity we owe them more than that, even if prevailing wisdom is that they are somehow not up to the mark.

Is it young people who have changed over time, or is it the rest of us? We view their foibles as unique to them. Yet if we, whose lives are halfway over, remembered our own young adulthood with any degree of honesty, we would recognize that we, too, were once a little heedless, perhaps a lot heedless, at times.

Maybe the underperformance we older people think we see in this up-and-coming cohort is due to Boomer entitlement, not Millennial laziness. We should ask not what our young people can do for us, but ask what we can do for our young people - an attitude adjustment, if you will:

"Yes, my boy, you have a claim," said Caleb, with much feeling in his voice. "The young ones have always a claim on the old to help them forward. I was young myself once and had to do without much help; but help would have been welcome to me, if it had been only for the fellow-feeling's sake. But I must consider. Come to me to-morrow at the office, at nine o'clock. At the office, mind."

—George Eliot, Middlemarch

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.


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By JustinJones (registered) - website | Posted November 18, 2014 at 10:21:28

This piece is yet another in a long line of writing that's been highlighting the challenges of being young and ambitious in the new millennium. I have been, for a long time, exhausted by the "kids these days" attitude of many in the boomer generation who place the blame on the shoulders of fickle millennials who won't stay at a job, whose work habits and desires are different and whose lack of forward progress often leaves them living in their parents basement well into their twenties without looking in the mirror to see what the cause of those trends are.

Young people are much more likely to work for minimum wage than those over 35, but raising the minimum wage would mean more economic output by the employers, which would mean a temporary dip in their profit margins (studies have shown that the long term impact of a higher minimum wage tend to be dramatically positive for all sectors of the economy, but that's another issue for another day), which means lower returns for their shareholders (the bulk of whom are 35 and older), which becomes a non-starter - so there's that aspect of all of this.

Next, since the 1980s, the rallying cry of the boomers has been "LOWER TAXES". As a result, we've watched the revenue tools available to our governments dwindle to the point where we run deficits every year, even in good times, with the brunt of that burden being borne by our municipal sector - the sector that delivers the most value for our dollar. Regressive tax policies like GST cuts, cuts to corporate taxes and cuts to the taxes of the highest earners, to say nothing of the silly (and devastatingly expensive) income splitting scheme have meant more money in the pockets of the top 20% of Canadians while the bottom 80% see fewer services, and are forced to pay more out of their own pockets for things like daycare and after-school programs to ensure that their children are looked after and that they have time to put in a full work week.

There's many more points I could make here, but the one that I see as the most important and insidious is the assertion by companies that the talent pool just doesn't have the skills that they need anymore. The population has never just magically had the skills that are necessary to make the economy work, but up until the 80s, companies actually invested in their employees. They trained them, nurtured them and provided them with secure, full-time employment. That's not the case with my generation - we're expected to either have the full, exact skill set that the employer wants or we're expected to go out and acquire that skill set either at our own expense (by returning to school) or by working for free. And even if you do have the skill set required, you're still likely to only be offered a contract - no benefits and no security included. This speaks loudly to the author's final point - about the generation currently occupying the upper echelons of power needing to reach down, as it were, to offer a helping hand to the generation waiting in the wings. That's exactly what happened in generations past, but those in control of the economy have been so preoccupied with using both hands to stuff their pockets that they have neglected to take one out and reach down to help those who will support them once their economic prime has passed.

I sincerely hope that more of the boomer generation reads articles like this, and starts to realize that the millennial generation isn't just a bunch of lazy, iPhone crazed sexters - we're an ambitious bunch with great ideas and a passion to create a better world for us and our children, just like you were. We just need the same support to do so that your generation received from your parents, just like their parents before them. It's not too much to ask, especially when it's your future at stake too.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted November 18, 2014 at 16:10:48 in reply to Comment 106269

Yes...part of the issue is the fact that we tax returns on capital at a much lower rate than returns on labour.

There's no reason that passively earning capital gains, say by owning a share of a public corporation, is inherently better or more valuable to society than earning a wage from one's labour. Yet we tax the capital gain at half the rate we tax the earned income.

Since capital is primarily owned by those who have amassed wealth, either from their labour or the labour of others, it is overwhemingly in the hands of those in older generations, so you can say that this is a key way in which the deck is stacked against those who are starting out.

As for income splitting, it's a good idea in theory that enables greater choice in how we organize our families and supports the concept of the family as a unit. It should not necessarily be a condition to have children, and we have to take care to ensure that the 'family' is viewed without discrimination while at the same time have checks and balances so that it's not exploited by transitory arrangements (roommates for example).

On the whole, I'd rather see more taxes on things that harm society (consumption, pollution, corporate profiteering) and less taxes on things that benefit society (working, creating family bonds, volunteerism).

One concept that sounds interesting to help youth succeed is a lifetime income exemption - for example the first $500,000 someone earns in their lifetime would be exempt from tax - similar to the old capital gains exemption but applied to all forms of earnings including wages.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted November 18, 2014 at 10:46:30

'Boomer entitlement'.

'Millennial laziness'.


More 'Us vs Them'.

I read this article this morning and immediately put fingers to keyboard. Five hundred words later, and I still hadn't vented sufficiently...or as cogently as I'd wanted. So I took a pill ('Pithy': When you need 'more' to be 'less'. Brought to you by Pfizer)

I salute the author's intent. But I'm disappointed that the piece really doesn't address the core issues fully, nor does it further the discussion. Which is a shame, because I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of RTH readers are not of the Boomer generation. (As I'm typing this, I can see the comment by Mr. Jones, one that does a wonderful job of fleshing things out. Kudos to you, sir.)

My experience has been that the Boomers and Millennials I've come in contact with deserve better than the labels applied to them.

I can't help but be reminded of how our recent election campaign was almost devoid of hard questions. Which we really, really needed. Instead, we got milquetoast moderators whose timidity and blandness banished the discussion to the Land of Meh. The 'generational divide' dialogue similarly deserves a much more diligent effort than is regularly paraded about.

I dunno; maybe it all comes down to being a Boomer and that I have a sense of entitlement regarding good discourse.

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By NoItIsnt (anonymous) | Posted November 18, 2014 at 10:56:35 in reply to Comment 106270

Sometimes there really is an 'us' and a 'them' and we need to talk about the real differences between the two. "Good discourse" means we need to talk about it, not hold hands and sing kumbaya. I'm a Boomer and I strongly believe we're giving young people a raw deal. Look at all the ways we're screwing them over, this isn't just a "label" it's a mathematical fact. And I don't understand what the election debates have to do with our responsibilities to young people, sounds like you've just got a bug in your bonnet.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted November 18, 2014 at 22:06:48

Nice article, Michelle. I really enjoyed it.

I would like to say to Justin: Not all Boomers have "stuffed their pockets". Many (me included) have just tried to make it in an ever-increasing technological world, while raising child(ren) single-handedly. Now ageism is alive and well, with many organizations aimed at young people - e.g. "40-under-40", YEP, etc.

I lived through the early 80's. We graduated from high school and many of us just went to work. But before we could find jobs (secure, full-time with benefits, etc.), we had to do the shit jobs too. Because we had no experience, but to get experience, we had to get a job. Every generation has its coming-of-age issues. I know it's tough today, I get it. But Boomers, by and large, left home in their early 20's and used milk cartons for bookshelves. Our parents didn't build a basement living space for us, and we struggled to save a down payment for a house, while real estate prices went through the roof.

While adult children stay in their parents' basements, the parents CAN'T RETIRE and make way for the new generation. We have to keep working, so it becomes a vicious circle.

Look, blaming each other is not the answer. But there are always two sides as answers to the same problem. I think Boomer parents bend over backwards for their kids, more than our parents did for us. And I'm not sure that it was the right thing to do. But we just have to do our best and hope for the best.

Millenials are more confident in themselves and have a closer, friendlier relationship with their parents. So, that's a good thing.

But make no mistake. Coming-of-age has never come easy.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 19, 2014 at 08:55:16

A couple of observations on a more personal note - I've watched our six oldest, now, enter the working world for part-time jobs, summer jobs and then jobs in their chosen field. What I have noticed about the part time and summer jobs is that they are much harder to find than they were for me and my friends in the 70s and 80s - you don't get to knock on doors and introduce yourself any more to begin the application process, you apply and in some cases are pre-screened online with questionnaires. etc. Then once they get a job, they are willing to put up with a lot of things that I would have left a job over because they are so worried about losing a reference - indeed I did a couple of times, and found another job easily without losing a day's pay.

Nowadays, high school kids are getting part-time jobs during the school year in order to ensure that they will be working during the summer months. Many university students also work part time - ours have/do. Unless they are campus jobs, employers don't typically give a lot of consideration to the needs of students around exams, etc. Even if they've booked a shift off weeks in advance, I've seen our own kids have to go in to work anyway due to a scheduling error when they couldn't get anyone to trade. And part-time jobs in retail are not what they once were - megastores (the ones that hire the most) are open seven days a week past 9 pm, MacDonald's is open 24/7. But this goes on because employers know that a position can easily be filled with the next application on the pile.

When we graduated and married in our early 20s, we were a little on the young side, sure, but not out of the ordinary - many of our classmates also did. And we were able to set up housekeeping and begin to establish ourselves right away. Yes, it was tight and difficult, but do-able. Our oldest three have left the nest, and are treading water. They pay ridiculous rent for tight or shared living quarters, as do their friends - no trips to Europe or voluntourism projects for them. As much as none of us wants it (yes it is the nature of things that young adults drive their parents bananas as much as the reverse), if they had to come back home, they could (they'd be sharing a bedroom with siblings, though). I don't know what young people do who don't have that option in their back pocket. It must be so bloody discouraging.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2014-11-19 08:56:26

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