Dazed & Confused in Plan B Nation

268/365 - Default State

In July 2010, amidst con­tin­ued fall-out from the Great Reces­sion, the New York Times pub­lished a front-page story about an unem­ployed col­lege grad­u­ate liv­ing with his par­ents in a Boston sub­urb who’d just turned down a $40,000-a-year job as an insur­ance claims adjustor.

I am absolutely cer­tain that my job hunt will even­tu­ally pay off,” said 24-year-old Scott Nichol­son, a Col­gate Uni­ver­sity hon­ors grad­u­ate with a degree in polit­i­cal sci­ence, explain­ing his deci­sion to hold out for some­thing bet­ter even after two years of fruit­less searching.

The piece quickly became noto­ri­ous, set­ting off a tsunami of online comments—1,487 at last count—the vast major­ity express­ing out­rage at what read­ers per­ceived as an absurd sense of enti­tle­ment enabled by a too-indulgent family.

Turn­ing down a job for $40,000 a year after grad­u­at­ing from a sec­ond tier (at best) school because he is too good for the posi­tion? The kid deserves what­ever hard­ship he endures,” was one typ­i­cally harsh response.

I recently thought back to this article—and the heated debate that ensued—when I got a call from a friend who heads up a big depart­ment of a big orga­ni­za­tion. She’d read some of my posts about the chal­lenges of look­ing for work after the Great Reces­sion and wanted to share her own quite dif­fer­ent perspective.

I can’t give jobs away!” he (or she—I promised anonymity) insisted. “Nobody knows how to work any­more. They’ll say ‘I might have to miss yoga today, and that’s not okay.’”

I have to say I found this fas­ci­nat­ing. And while it was (and is) hard for me to believe that the sit­u­a­tion for employ­ers is really quite so bleak, I did start to notice other signs of sim­i­lar frus­tra­tion. For exam­ple this plain­tive tweet from a local tech entre­pre­neur, for­merly of Microsoft: “Why do so few job appli­cants bother to fol­low up? And some of the best cover let­ters don’t even show up for interviews.”

The more I thought about it, the more con­vinced I became that such behav­iors, along with the result­ing frus­tra­tion, can be traced to a pro­found con­fu­sion about what work is and is not, as well as what it should be—a con­fu­sion now thrown into relief by the stres­sor of hard times.

It’s not news that the so-called millennials—the cohort now enter­ing the workforce—grew up with extra­or­di­nary expec­ta­tions fueled by Baby Boomer par­ents who encour­aged them to dream big. Fur­ther feed­ing such atti­tudes was the Oprah-fication of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture along with self-help clas­sics such as Do What You Love and the Money Will Fol­low and the mega-bestseller The Secret, which posits a “law of attrac­tion” that allows each of us to “man­i­fest” our desires. Even the pop­u­lar maxim that “any­one can be pres­i­dent” (never mind the nation’s declin­ing place on social mobil­ity mea­sures) can be traced to this cul­tural strand.

At the same time, our nation is deeply rooted in the Puri­tan work ethic, with its empha­sis on fru­gal­ity, dis­ci­pline, and self-reliance. Such teach­ings have been with us from early days, find­ing expres­sion in the best-selling writ­ings of Ben­jamin Franklin up on through present-day polit­i­cal rhetoric. (Think Mitt Romney’s tire­less if prob­lem­atic claims of being a self-made man.)

Fol­low your dreams, what­ever it takes.  Pay your own way, what­ever it takes.

That mil­len­ni­als are strug­gling should come as no sur­prise, given these exact­ing and often con­flict­ing cul­tural expec­ta­tions. Those of us who came of age in the Boom Years may have man­aged to bridge the two. But when money is scarce and jobs are few (Hello, New Nor­mal!), this is no easy feat.

So what’s a mil­len­nial sup­posed to do? Pre­sented with con­flict­ing absolutes, how are they sup­posed to choose?

This is pre­cisely the sort of dilemma con­sid­ered by Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist Robert Kegan in In Over Our Heads: The Men­tal Demands of Mod­ern Life. As Kegan sees it, we live in an age where demands are many and often at odds, and guide­lines for choos­ing between them are scarce. At the same time, rel­a­tively few of us are suf­fi­ciently grounded in our own beliefs to stand up to social pres­sures and chart an inde­pen­dent course—to be what Kegan calls “self author­ing.” That’s not such a big prob­lem when society’s expec­ta­tions are con­sis­tent. But when a cul­ture makes the sort of con­flict­ing demands that ours rou­tinely does, things can turn ugly very quickly.

Which is where many mil­len­ni­als find them­selves right now: Want­ing to do the Right Thing but with­out a way to decide what that right thing is. Where is the line between self-confidence and enti­tle­ment? Where is the line between admirable risk-taking and fool­ish behav­ior? Where is the line between being respon­si­ble and giv­ing up?

Depend­ing on whom a mil­len­nial asks, they’re likely to get dif­fer­ent answers, and regard­less of which one they choose, they’re likely to find them­selves at odds with some­one whose opin­ion they value. There may not be much that we can do right now to change this cul­tural con­text. What we can do is to acknowl­edge that Scott Nichol­son and other mil­len­ni­als have good rea­son to feel dazed and confused.


Edited 3/15/12: Var­i­ous non-substantive revi­sions for style and clarification.

© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

27 thoughts on “Dazed & Confused in Plan B Nation

  1. I’m GenX by most time frames and find myself con­tin­u­ally bump­ing into the con­flict­ing voices of “fol­low your dream” and “pay your own way”. For myself, re-entering the work­force (stick­ing my toe in, rather) but want­ing to pur­sue some­thing other than speech-language pathol­ogy, in which I hold a master’s degree. Iron­i­cally, it is one of the few fields that is actu­ally hir­ing, espe­cially in the pub­lic schools. But being older and wiser than I was in grad school, I now know that work­ing with chil­dren en masse is not my call­ing and would result in a very mis­er­able and hard-to-live-with spouse/mom. So I have a part time job in retail that 1) gives me a small out­let for cre­ativ­ity and 2) allows me to send my youngest to pre-school so that 3) I have one day a week to work on “the dream”. Plus my hus­band is gain­fully employed.

    My old­est son is 20 and has been in and out of part time jobs. He hopes to go to col­lege but is also fully aware that it is no guar­an­tee of future employ­ment, which under­stand­ably damp­ens moti­va­tion. He strug­gles with a learn­ing dis­abil­ity that makes his job options even nar­rower in this crappy econ­omy. We strug­gle with when/how he should “pay his own way”. Cur­rently he is fill­ing his time with vol­un­teer work.

    I strug­gle to define “work” for myself and deter­mine “rea­son­able” expec­ta­tions of ful­fill­ment. Very inter­ested in read­ing Kegan’s work…sounds right up my alley, as the post and com­ments have been here.

    • Hi Tammy–many thanks for shar­ing your story in this thought­ful com­ment. Very inter­est­ing to see how you’ve worked to bridge the divide and what you make of it all. Also, I hope you saw that I posted the link to a sort of sum­mary of Kegan’s the­o­ries on your com­ment below in response to Sarah’s. (It was some­thing I found really help­ful when I took his class.)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Why follow-through is overratedMy Profile

  2. Once again, another ter­rific post. Thanks for point­ing out the dan­ger­ously seduc­tive mes­sages of “Do What You Love…” and “The Secret”. I’ve never been able to rec­on­cile those posi­tions when faced with a market-oriented econ­omy, where there are skills that sell, and skills that don’t.
    It’s risky to open the door on the gen­er­a­tion issue. I’m Gen X in my early 40’s, and our issue is that the labor mar­ket is dom­i­nated by the Boomer gen­er­a­tion, who have more expe­ri­ence, there is sim­ply more of them, and they are liv­ing longer than their par­ents did and either won’t or can’t (due to the econ­omy) retire. So Gen X is stuck in second-tier posi­tions for decades and is get­ting frus­trated at the lack of career mobil­ity (there’s stud­ies that sup­port this).
    I have to agree with Barbara’s com­ment above, and I’d like to add that my view of work was to aim for ful­fill­ment, but set­tle for secu­rity if it pro­vides what you need. A bit like a mar­riage. Only when that secu­rity is gone with the loss of a job does ful­fill­ment become appeal­ing again. Ful­fill­ment is impor­tant if your going to make a pal­try salary, because it fills the gap that the mate­r­ial com­pen­sa­tion is not cov­er­ing. Nobody wants to live a life in “quiet des­per­a­tion” as Thoreau put it (and Pink Floyd too).
    By the way, I’ve read every sin­gle one of your posts on this blog. Thank you Amy for shar­ing. I look for­ward to more.

    • Won­der­ful points, Matthew–thanks so much for shar­ing them on the blog. And wow, SO APPRECIATE your sup­port for Plan B Nation. The blog goes off in var­i­ous directions–from big pic­ture to per­sonal experience–and I’ve wor­ried at times that no one per­son will (like me) find them all inter­est­ing. Glad to know that at least one other per­son out there does! Many, many thanks. :-)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Play­time in Plan B NationMy Profile

  3. Fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle with won­der­fully thought-provoking com­ments. I have to agree that I too suf­fer from this dilemma at times, but because of my upbring­ing and per­haps my own sense of prac­ti­cal­ity, I would always opt for some kind of oppor­tu­nity over no oppor­tu­nity. As you have said many times in your blog, con­nec­tions mat­ter and can lead to inter­est­ing new oppor­tu­ni­ties. Tak­ing a job, no mat­ter how bor­ing, can lead to unfore­seen con­nec­tions and thus new employ­ment. In addi­tion, isn’t it always eas­ier to get a job when you have one? But yes, don’t get stuck. Look around. Play the field. Be on the look­out for upward mobil­ity and new opportunities.

    As an edu­ca­tor to mil­len­ni­als, I can’t say that they are sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent than they were 14 years ago when I started teach­ing. Some work really hard and make the most of their efforts, oth­ers are slack­ers that do the min­i­mum (or less) because they think they are above it all.
    Molly@Postcards from a Peace­ful Divorce recently posted…The Right ChoiceMy Profile

    • Thanks, Molly! I get the sense that you (unlike many of us) have done pretty well in weav­ing together the com­pet­ing pres­sures into a coher­ent frame­work. To my mind, a first step for those still pushed and pulled is to rec­og­nize the dilemma and deal with it as such.

      PS: Your per­spec­tive on mil­len­ni­als pretty exactly mir­rors that of a Smith pro­fes­sor I was talk­ing to this morning–you two have been teach­ing about the same amount of time.
      amy gut­man recently posted…Play­time in Plan B NationMy Profile

  4. My dayjob (I’ll have to be a bit coy about this) has to do with careers guid­ance for stu­dents and whilst I see a fair bit of this kind of think­ing, I’d say it’s the excep­tion rather than the rule. I hire a lot of peo­ple for their first job and 90% of them come in on time, work hard (and play hard! I don’t even pre­tend to keep up) and get a lot of sat­is­fac­tion out of deliv­er­ing some­thing they feel has a lit­tle social value. I also talk to a lot (and by “a lot”, I mean hun­dreds a year in per­son and thou­sands by exten­sion through the work we do) and whilst this atti­tude is expe­ri­enced by some, there seems to be much more real­ism in the UK about the need to earn a liv­ing. Reces­sions are use­ful for that.

    Also, this isn’t new. One might take the inert epony­mous hero of Melville’s ‘Bartleby’ as an image of the impulse to resist the con­struc­tions that work imposes on our iden­ti­ties. And who’s to say Bartleby was wrong?
    Dad Who Writes (Gabriel) recently posted…What is a grown-up?My Profile

  5. As the arti­cle alludes to, and I’ve seen it fairly often with mil­lenials in my own work expe­ri­ence, they have this idea that work is sup­posed to be ful­fill­ing. This is a rel­a­tively new idea in the his­tory of work. They also have this idea that they ought to come into an entry level posi­tion on the top (or at least some­where in the mid­dle). Gone is the con­cept of “pay­ing your dues”, or “start­ing at the bot­tom”. That doesn’t exist in their minds, I’ve noticed. More­over, mil­lenials really believe that their cowork­ers, many of whom have been work­ing since before the mil­lenial was born, actu­ally think their views, ideas, and per­spec­tives ought to be placed on the same play­ing field as theirs. They really are con­fused (deluded, is a bet­ter word) as to what work really is and what they should rea­son­ably expect from it.

    • Thanks for your per­spec­tive, Eric–I know it’s widely shared. Have you read Jean M. Twenge’s Gen­er­a­tion Me? It’s a really fas­ci­nat­ing con­sid­er­a­tion of these issues and their ori­gins. (She’s a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at San Diego State). Again, many thanks for read­ing and tak­ing the time to com­ment.
      amy gut­man recently posted…Play­time in Plan B NationMy Profile

  6. I remem­ber the Scott Nichol­son story. His frame of ref­er­ence was his older brother who had the good for­tune to ride an eco­nomic high tide; not so this sec­tion of the cohort.
    As a Boomer par­ent whose daugh­ter expects to grad­u­ate from col­lege in May
    I’m encour­ag­ing my kid to cast a wide net at the same time she fol­lows her dreams. We hope its not wish­ful think­ing. She’s has part time jobs since high school and a string of intern­ships. Still as long as com­pa­nyies per­sist in not hir­ing and at times seem­ing to favor unpaid interns because they don’t cost any­thing, a new phi­los­o­phy may be necessary.

  7. What a per­fect post on this topic Amy, thank you. I’m with Kegan–we have so many demands and they ARE often at odds with each other. I have a 15 year old daugh­ter who is already plot­ting out how to choose a career that will guar­an­tee she has enough money to feed her grow­ing depen­dency on shoes… but she’s also been told to fol­low her dreams. Hav­ing a mother who’s a jour­nal­ist, divorced and wor­ried about her own finan­cial future, has prob­a­bly steered her away from Scott Nichol­son kind of think­ing. Still, it’s a tough world in which to be grad­u­at­ing from col­lege. Unem­ploy­ment is high for that cohort and they’ve been raised to believe they can con­quer the world. I don’t envy them.

    • Thanks so much, Eilene–your com­ment made my (yester)day. It’s always such a great feel­ing when a reader seems to take away exactly what you (I) meant to say. Also, as I asked Eric above, have you read Jean M. Twenge’s Gen­er­a­tion Me? Lots of food for thought (she’s a San Diego State psy­chol­ogy prof as well as being a mil­len­nial her­self.)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Play­time in Plan B NationMy Profile

  8. This is def­i­nitely not only about the mil­lenials. In the mid-1990s, there was a “right liveli­hood move­ment.” The dot-com boom fol­lowed. And sub­se­quently a period of a tighter and tighter land­scape of work. All of those nar­ra­tives live because they all hold truth.

    The work-at-a-job-you-hate-if-you-must is los­ing ground because the cost-benefit analy­sis has changed. Fifty years at a job you hate with a house, kid col­lege paid for, and a secure retire­ment is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent option from fifty years at a job you hate and still strug­gling finan­cially, but just with slightly more junk.

  9. Yes! I have been feel­ing this so much lately, Amy. It’s amaz­ing too that even indi­vid­ual peo­ple will waf­fle back and forth between the two or say con­flict­ing things. I mean, Bar­bara Sher tells peo­ple not to quit their day jobs… totally con­fus­ing. I’m try­ing to fig­ure out a good way to stop lis­ten­ing or stop rely­ing on oth­ers’ opin­ions — not quite there yet, but work­ing on it. I would love to read that book but hav­ing trou­ble find­ing it at rea­son­able prices! Do you own it?
    Sarah recently posted…I Would Have Been Happy ThereMy Profile

    • That’s an excel­lent point about even indi­vid­u­als being conflicted–one that’s at the heart of what Kegan is talk­ing about. The book itself is pretty dense, as Kegan is the first to admit. (The intro con­tains a let­ter, from which he glee­fully read aloud dur­ing one of our first classes: It begins: “Dear Dr. Kegan, We had to read you book in our psy­chol­ogy class. I can’t believe the pub­lish­ers let the thing out in this con­di­tion. No one in our class under­stands what you are say­ing. Not even our teacher, and he assigned it” and con­cludes “I got so mad read­ing your book I wanted to come to Boston and break your teeth.“
      That being said, depend­ing on your level of inter­est, it still may be worth read­ing. In the mean­time, I’ll email you a doc­u­ment that one of his grad stu­dents put together–a very use­ful overview of his the­o­ries. (If I for­get, remind me.)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Play­time in Plan B NationMy Profile

  10. Another great post, Amy. I’d just like to add that this con­fu­sion is not unique to recent grad­u­ates; I see it a lot in my own gen­er­a­tion (okay, not exactly my own, but the gen­er­a­tion I date, i.e. guys turn­ing 40.) There has been a par­a­digm shift from my father’s era: He worked for 40 years in a job he hated because it paid well and allowed him to send two kids to law school. His atti­tude was “that’s why they call it ‘work’”.
    I have a 53 year-old friend, with a law degree and a for­mer 6 fig­ure job in finance, who is now paint­ing houses while look­ing for a bet­ter job.

    But peo­ple raised by flower-power par­ents expect to find full­fill­ment from
    their work. It’s great to have that as a goal, and I guess how long one can hang on to that ideal depends on the avail­abil­ity of par­ents or part­ners who support/indulge this quest.
    Ellen recently posted…Karneval in TrierMy Profile

    • Very good point about it not ONLY being millennials–I see it in myself as well as among older & younger friends. The cul­tural con­fu­sion is pretty per­va­sive, it just seems to be hit­ting the mil­len­ni­als par­tic­u­larly hard b/c of the fact that they’re try­ing to get careers off the ground now.

      Would love to know more about your housepainter/lawyer friend–that sounds like my kind of story. :-)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Play­time in Plan B NationMy Profile

  11. I’m with Scott Nichol­son. I’d rather live with my par­ents than be an insur­ance claims adjus­tor. I know too many peo­ple who took the sen­si­ble job right out of col­lege and 25 years later are trapped in a field that isn’t right for them and never really pur­sued what they loved. Actu­ally, I’m mar­ried to one of them. You really do have to find the bal­ance between what is sen­si­ble and what is ful­fill­ing and that is awfully hard.
    Megan Zinn recently posted…All Way­ward Crea­tures Great and SmallMy Profile

  12. I’m a Boomer and the mother of 3 Mil­len­ni­als (2 in col­lege, 1 about to be) and I ask myself the same ques­tions every day! (I will share the post with my kids, but no one likes to hear this kind of thing from their mother.) All I can say from the other side of the gen­er­a­tion gap is that some com­pa­nies are play­ing both ends against the mid­dle if they favor younger (more afford­able) can­di­dates in the hir­ing process and then com­plain about their work ethic. I’m not look­ing to get rich, but is it too much to ask to wake up excited about the work day ahead, to feel my ideas and effort are val­ued and to be proud of what my com­pany stands for or sells? Med­ical and den­tal ben­e­fits would be great, too!

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