Dazed & Confused in Plan B Nation

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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.

Copyright © 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.)

  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. :-)

  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.

    • 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.

  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?

    • Thanks so much for these fascinating insights from the trenches–with the added + that you’ve made me want to re-read Melville. My readers are the best!

  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.

  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.)

  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?

    • 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.)

  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.

    • 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. :-)

  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.

    • Scott Nicholson could have used your voice when those hundreds of outraged NYT commenters made a beeline for the site after reading the piece. ;-)

  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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