Lazy Academia = Labelling Generations

My boss recently gave us at work a copy of the book, “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement” by Twenge, the same bright bulb that authored “Generation Me”. The vernacular popularized by this psychologist has now been utilized to inform working/ evaluation practices in dealing with adults around my age group, as well as now informing pedagogical responses to curricula.

My first response, without delving too deeply into this book, was bullshit. First off, any book that jumps to the conclusion of calling something that is ultimately as unprovable as an “epidemic” has flawed methodology. More than an interpretation of one generation’s responses to social, economic or cultural stimuli, the book merely sets out the writers’ bias and lack of rigorous methodology within their own studies. 

I am one of those who falls in between Generation X and Generation “Me” – those that were born in the 80’s. I didn’t quite glom onto the films Reality Bites, or Singles, other than falling in love with the soundtracks. I knew of Nirvana, thanks to my exposure to Bleach when I was in grade 9, but never was involved in the ‘grunge’ scene, as I was too busy trying to finish high school. By the time that I was accepted into University, Kurt Cobain was dead and so was the grunge movement for the most part. It was a weird cultural vacuum, populated by new boy bands and new girl singers. I necessarily buried myself in the radio station on campus, ignoring all of those trends in favour of Ani Difranco, PJ Harvey and Courtney Love.

I started my university career in 1994 – when we just barely had personal computers, and when, in fact, I did my first few papers on a typewriter because I would not stand in line to wait for a word processor in the basement of the library. I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I wanted to take – and my first year was an eff year. I really really let go – and that was evidenced in my grades. You live you learn, right?

So, in looking at what courses I wanted to take, and where I wanted to end up, my main goal was to get my degree – that was it. It was more than my parents had achieved for themselves education-wise, and at that point I would have been the only person in my extended family (cousins/ aunts/ etc) who had finished a four year degree.

But reality set in in year two for me; what in hell would I do with an English degree? At one point I was considering going into Psychology, but I realized that I had too much of a “bias” and I wasn’t willing to diagnose profiles based on generalized descriptions. So it was English or nothing. Now doing the math in my wee pee brain, I calculated that I would be approximately $30K in debt by the time that I was finished my degree – and with no specific job in sight after graduation, I couldn’t justify being in debt if I really only would be working at subway afterwards.

So – in the summer of 96 – I took my student loan money and didn’t go to classes. I flunked out. It was a fun summer though – a story for another time.

But the thought process that I went through at the time was pretty solid as far as planning and looking at my role or my lot as a middle-class Canadian woman – really – who will save me if I load myself up with debt? And will I really get that reimbursement back from the $30K that I spend on education? Fine if someone else was carrying the bill, but when you are 19 and faced with no job prospects and a massive debt, it isn’t a happy future to start planning.

So I took a few years off, went to work, then went back to school to finish off my courses. I was a bit older, I guess a bit wiser, and was able to complete my degree both through part-time courses and in-person courses. It was fine – I had to live a life in there somewhere. Mind you, I was able to travel a bit as a result of my degree, and as a result I still have student loans even though I worked for a good portion of my degree.

So, why did I go back to school, and what on earth does this have to do with Generation Me? Well, I decided to go back to school based on the feedback of a former boss, where she had said, “I’d love to promote you, but you don’t have a degree – it would be hypocritical”; and that was the explanation. As someone who was employed in post-secondary, I suppose it made sense to delineate potential applicants that way, but for someone who had literally pulled herself up by her bootstraps, it was very disheartening.

So I go back to school, armed with the research that it doesn’t matter what area you go into, so long as you have your degree is the biggest economic indicator. So I choose Film  and Media Studies – it was fabulous, it combined philosophy, media texts and a bunch of reaaallly big shovels. I liked challenging my brain, thinking critically, and I enjoyed my classes.

I remember applying for jobs and not having a degree, where I’d have to explain why I stopped or why I didn’t want to go back. I was specifically restricted because of my lack of a credential. I was told from the time I was a youngin that I would have at least 5 different careers in my life, and that in *no* time, the boomers (my mom’s age and younger) would be retiring and there would be gaps of employees left by the boomers, which would allow our generation to move ahead in their careers.

But something happened along the way. The Boomers – those that are highest paid, have the most experience, the most responsibility within the organizations, have failed, or failed to pass on their knowledge to their next in line. And they also have forgotten to retire. There is almost this idea that because they have the expertise, that they can work forever. So here I am, Bachelor’s degree in hand, saying “hey, isn’t it time you trained me for your job?” and the response billowing back is something about responsibility, ownership, generation me, blah blah.

So, I’ll admit that my generation hasn’t saddled ourselves with the burdens of marriage, child-rearing or mortgages as early as the Boomers did – but with our amazing debts, I would say that it takes a bit longer for people of my generation to get going. Sure, give me a $40K grant to go to school, once I got out of uni I could buy a house – but with $40K in debt, how can someone really just commit to a mortgage? That coupled with the ease of international mobility for a lot of my peers, ‘putting down roots’ really doesn’t have the appeal that it would have even 25 years ago.

Another interesting phenomena has occurred in the past while – we have seen the Boomers age. And be kicked forcefully out of jobs. People of my parents age, after their years and years of dedication, working up from the ground floor, have been given the boot all with some excuse about timing/ profits/ outcomes. All of their work, packed up into a box, and sent home.

So this sets an interesting stage for me and my peers. I’ve been told – be prepared for multiple careers, be prepared to be flexible, and be cautious, – oh- and be careful of which employer you do ultimately choose, because they could shitcan you after a day, a year, or 10 years even if you have been a loyal employee. Oh, and because you don’t have a family or a mortage, you obviously aren’t responsible, so we arent’ going to assign you any tasks of importance.

With this build up of factors, neverminding the b.s. lable of the “Me” Generation, here it is – I’ve been told that I’m not responsible, so not given responsibility; I’ve been told that the job market will open up like sun after a cloudy day, and the jobs would be plenty – this hasn’t happened, and probably now won’t happen because of the market crash a couple of years ago.

My folks weren’t helicopter parents. I walked to school myself when I was in kindergarten (we only lived a block away), and all of my education was pretty much self-administered. I didn’t want help. It could have been perhaps to my detriment because when I did get to university when I was 17, my parents weren’t involved in the least, and that is where I ended up really effing up my university classes.But inthe time when I was at school, my parents had their own issues – my father had an undiagnosed genetic disorder that was literally killing him, my parents almost lost their house, and they had to tap into their savings just to live.

But to give credit for all of my university career, and my subsequent work experience, to my parents belittles any challenge that I’ve come across in my own education and in my own career. That makes me a bit angry. And it speaks to the general laziness of those that write pop culture books that more lean toward sociological anecdotes than any sort of reliable or peer-reviewed useful research.

I realize that I come from a position of privilege, in being able to come from a middle class family and attend university. But unlike 25 or 35 years ago, this ‘rite of passage’ is no longer an option. If you want a position that is anything past retail in scope, you need a degree. This degree doesn’t provide the cognitive skills to get into a job nowadays, it is the main basic marker for these positions – it isn’t looked upon as a basis of education, but rather a rubber stamp. And rather than recognizing the value of that degree – usually by those HR representatives that are boomers themselves and haven’t had to go to University- that degree is interpreted as “Oh, well you aren’t retarded. Good for you.”, and then the trainers commit to treating you as if you are five years old.

I’ve seen a similar pattern in another place I worked, where instead of evaluating someone specifically, and being very clear about outcomes, if someone looked like they weren’t handling something correctly, that task was quietly taken out of their job description and given to someone else to do. Funnily enough, one of the basic traits of a Generation Me person was their inability to process feedback. I don’t know – but out of any jobs I’ve had, I’ve welcomed constructive feedback. Not someone flying off the handle for no reason, but the constructive advice that helps me do a better job, and ensures that my boss is getting what they need.

After all this rambling, let me sum up a bit. In my humble opinion, Generation Me:

– has been given mixed messages (ooh, commit to the company, but, we will fire you at any time, and be ready to switch careers at any time, and probably over 5 times in your life)

– has been given false promises (a degree = a job, boomers will retire = a job, you can work your way up = a job)

– as a generation, we are saddled with enormous amounts of debt (starting at $30K for most students, although for professional designations $50K to $100K aren’t unheard of).

Would this make you somewhat sarcastic? Unresponsive? Possibly would you have a bleak outlook?

In the overall approach for “dealing with Generation Me”, one needs to watch the film “Office Space”. The main character Peter, played by Ron Livingston, is a completely disconnected worker at an IT firm who really has given up on work, to the point where he decides he is going to go fishing instead of clocking in. In the midst of a restructuring where a long-term employee is canned because they can’t figure out what he does, the disengaged employee Peter waltzes in to his interview with the consultants. And Peter starts the best dialogue outlining the issue, as I see it, with the divide between the Boomers and Generation Me,

Peter Gibbons: The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.
Bob Porter: Don’t… don’t care?
Peter Gibbons: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation? And here’s something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.
Bob Slydell: I beg your pardon?
Peter Gibbons: Eight bosses.
Bob Slydell: Eight?
Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

And, coupled with this, that the Generation Me are highly educated, very computer literate, and are possibly able to do tasks in lightning speed compared to their Boomer counterparts, can make for an interesting complication to the workplace. So you have one generation that thought they would have the same work hierarchy as was in place when they went through their career ladder, and one that hasn’t kept up technologically with the times, battling it out versus a new, young, group of highly educated students who are – lets face it- probably over-trained for most entry-level positions, and with their debts, they are eager to climb the ladder in order to move out of their parents homes, or in order to start their lives, or to even start paying off those loans so they can one day think of owning a home.

So that is a bit more context, I think. I’ll admit, as a member of Generation X/Me, I’m very disengaged from my workplace. I go to my work, I do my job, I come home. I’m friendly, but I have no urge to become friends with everyone that I work with – I like to have a separate home and personal life. Even though I have no formal troubleshooting training, I’m the defacto computer expert on our floor- by virtue of the fact that I’ve grown up with computers. And I also am somewhat disengaged from the outcome of the job I’m at, because I’ve seen my colleagues that have been working for 20+ years in the same department let go with no notice. It is tacky. I don’t know if there were business ethics in the previous generations, but this Boomer generation sure has flushed those ethics down the proverbial toilet.

All this babbling hopefully has lead to the final paragraph or two – solutions. I’ll do them in point form, because my paragraph-writing fingers are getting tired.

– first, don’t call social movements or theories epidemics, unless they are. people don’t need more scare tactics and fear-mongering in their lives.

– for those Gen X/Me’ers – yes, you will have to start from the groundfloor and work up. Patience is a virtue.

– For those supervisors of Gen X/Me’ers – you might need to be very specific with work duties, and very specific about feedback. But you won’t build an employee base unless you assign the responsibility; so you assign the responsibility, and if the employee doesn’t measure up then let them go. But this whole egg shells routine is getting tired.

– Also, please supervisors – realize that your employee is probably a critical thinker, and very well-educated, and may not be fulfilled by doing menial tasks. If you can give projects or larger tasks to accomplish, even within the most basic positions, this will help you delegate, and will help your employee get more out of their jobs. A new employee will probably have a monologue prepared about where they believe their career will go and when – don’t be alarmed at this, because we’ve been coached on this speak for years. Just allow your employee to build upon their interests and skills, and treat them as you’d like to be treated.

– Finally, don’t misread cultural cues and interpret them with your own limited media vocabulary. What I mean by that is don’t automatically assume someone as narcissistic when they have a facebook page, twitter, etc – for people of my generation and younger, this is the main way to keep in touch with friends, family, etc, and one of the main ways to get information. A bold profile on any of these sites doesn’t equate to bloated self-esteem or self-importance, it is simply a different way of speaking a different language. In the 50’s there was a phone book with your family name in it, and your phone number beside; today, you have your picture, phone number, email, friends, interests, etc on one page. Sure, some profiles are quite bold, but within the language of facebook, the interactions between users is a different experience than what someone who isn’t fluent in those languages can understand. For someone of an older generation, they would pick up a phone; for someone of my generation, I look up someone’s facebook page and contact them through there.

So, I still feel like I’ve glossed over the response with anecdotes, but I will be reading this book in a bit more depth shortly. Originally I had started this blog post as a quick response, but I just kept going – but I still feel like there are some gaps. It isn’t an easy topic to address, but one that is unfortunately not going to go away too soon.

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