Generation Screwed?

Change is tough in the best of times; worse still when the air is filled with invective and half-truths. Fabrications and distortions are predictable features of any election year; but the most pernicious lie is the invented future. Anything said about tomorrow is speculation. There’s no empirical evidence to prove or disprove that which has not happened. Not that any of this inhibits a legion of political fortune-tellers in an election year.


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The invented future du jour goes by the name of Generation “Screwed,” a metaphor which suggests coercion (or sex without pleasure). Generation Screwed is supposed to be that part of the Generation Y cohort, now entering the workforce, who will not be as well-off or as pampered (with jobs, Social Security, or Medicare, etc.) as were their parents.

A generation is usually thought to be 20-25 years; a “generation gap” is the assumed difference in beliefs or perspective between parents and their children. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that every generation has a unique worldview. You need a scorecard to play the generation game.

GI Generation (1920-1945) – [six million extant] – also known as the “greatest generation,” children of the Depression who fought and won WWII.

Baby Boomers (1945-1965) – [66 million] – the population bloom that followed the war, mostly prosperous Cold Warriors and early rockers.

Generation X (1965-1985) – [88 million] – the Vietnam War generation. In part, the drug-addled cohort who said, “Hell no, we won’t go” and did not trust anyone over 30 years of age. Many might be academics, journalists, or government employees today.

Generation Y (1985-2005) – [76 million] – also known as the “trophy” (everybody gets one) or the “Peter Pan” (I don’t want to grow up) generation. This cohort is mostly 20-somethings or younger. The whiners in their midst see themselves as victims, hence that sense of being “screwed.” Presumably, the children of Gen Y are really screwed. Like, totally, dude!

Alas, none of this is evidence or science. Dates, cohort numbers, and attributes are all arbitrary, and packaging groups by age with opinion surveys is what sociologists do to sell books — and cultivate those conflict futures — i.e., inter-generational angst, real or imaginary. Given extended life expectancy, an individual might traverse three or four generations and absorb half a millennium of attributes. But now, a tattoo, or a nose or lip ring would be most likely.

Generation-labeling is a fad — like Game Boys, Facebook “friends,” tweets, or tattoos. Science is never as important as perception, and if the blogosphere provides a clue, the notion that Gen Y has been victimized is thriving in journals as diverse as Macleans and the Daily Beast.

The filmReality Bites (1994) is thought to be the anthem for Gen X and Y-ers, a story of the disenfranchised: an “A” student who can’t get a job but loves a loser; a gay chap looking for acceptance; a floozy who settles for minimum wage and flirts with too much sex and AIDS; a straight suit with a real job; and a stoner who wants to rock and roll for a living. Cum laude girl kicks the suit to the curb for the R&R stoner. Fade to black. The female lead in Reality Bites is played by Winona Ryder, an actress whose life seems to imitate her art.

If there are victims, there must be villains. Gen Y seems to have the “boomers” in the crosshairs. Making elders out to be the fall guys for the entitlements crisis is a little like Gen X blaming those over 30 years of age for the ills of the Vietnam era. The boomer cohort is about to peak. Benefits could be reformed — if youngsters did more voting and less whining. Since the voting age was lowered (1971) in America, youth voting — that’s Gen Y — has actually declined precipitously.

Tally the named generations, and you don’t get a total of 311 million. Portions of the unattributed are probably immigrants (15-30 million, maybe). If you look in your backyard, in any fast food restaurant, on any farm, or at any American construction site, you are likely to encounter this demographic. Most immigrant workers don’t have high school diplomas or college degrees, but they do have jobs — usually any job. In fact, the undocumented take all those jobs that the Winona Ryders will not. The figure for unemployed U.S. natives is about half the total of undocumented immigrants. In recent years, non-native workers have better employment numbers than the homeys. Los campesinos not only get work; they know how to keep it.

At the other end of the wage spectrum, those high-paying jobs — those positions with firms like IBM, Microsoft, and Apple — are outsourced or imported from India and China because the American academy has failed to produce qualified American applicants. Schooling for Gen X & Y became a very expensive bad joke when credentials got confused with education. In the marketplace, no skills, no experience, and no relevant education means no job. Nobody cares about your diplomas when you actually know how to do something with your head or hands.

Beyond a few anecdotal speculators, the only organized or visible youth reform movement on the Right is Ron Paul’s Libertarians. These youngsters, like the “occupy” political flash mobs on the left, seem to celebrate petulance at the expense of prudence. And there’s always the possibility that a good part of any disaffected youth vote will simply stay home and pout — a Gen Y foible that might explain the steady decline in youth voting. Barack Obama had a lift from youngsters in 2008, but that was a bump for more of the same, not reform.

We should also think of exorbitant defense spending as the price we now pay for the abolition of the draft (1973), another Gen X hallmark. When you cannot, or will not, pursue victory, you need to bribe the perennial aggressor. Defensive, unwinnable, interminable small wars with an unnamable enemy are very expensive. When the pain of small wars is restricted to volunteers, the price of any war is open-ended. Politicians are more likely to be frivolous with debt than with draftees who might vote would be. Appeasement is expensive at home and abroad.

This is not to characterize Gen Y as slackers. Indeed, when it comes to spending and debt, this generation holds its own. Gen Y has absorbed the deficit ethos. Let’s not even
discuss Obama economics — although he is a creature of, if not an icon for, Peter Pans. Take student debt instead as evidence. The American trophy generation has burdened itself with the greatest school debt in the history of such things. The emphasis here should be on the reflexive pronoun.

Schooling has become a very expensive bad joke. Gen X created and Gen Y attended the worst and most expensive K-12 school system in the world. Many universities are not far behind. In any market, no talent, no experience, and no relevant education means no job. Again, few employers care about diplomas when you actually know how to do something, possess a marketable skill. The problem with American Gen X/Y schools is that they created the credentials myth — i.e., more sheepskin equals higher wages. Unfortunately, a degree does not guarantee employment. Nor does it make a job more likely.

The success demographic already pays most of the municipal, state, and federal bills, too. Demonizing the wealthy, another favorite Gen Y pastime, is not just a case of biting the hand that feeds or killing the golden goose; worse still, it’s like trashing Dad’s Ford because it isn’t a Bentley. Personal and corporate prosperity has always been sinusoidal.

A few closing thoughts for our young victims, or those who have taken to calling themselves “survivors.” First, lose the “screwed” metaphor. If you whine like a victim, you will probably live up to your low expectations. Then get a job, any job — and learn something about life. When you are employed, get off your azimuth and vote. Vote for change, not deficits as usual. If you can’t do these things, shut up! Only spoiled children whine and pout. If you don’t have the initiative to change your future, you deserve whatever comes your way.

And if your first paying job is as a twenty-something post-graduate, you are not a victim. You might just be a credentialed moron. And one last clue for the sheepskin jobless. Before the next job interview, cover the tattoo, unplug the lip ring, and lose the attitude.