Millennials are often accused of being lazy, or too idealistic. From my experience that’s the kettle calling the pot black. Or, to put it more harshly, these lazy baby boomers are projecting their own problems onto a younger generation.
Let me step back a moment.
According to Forbes, millennials are currently the largest pool of laborers in the American workplace, but often don’t demand traditional benefits like higher wages, or a fancy title. Instead we’re out there to get things done. We were pushed out into the workplace during the Bush recession, which meant slim pickings in nearly every field. People with four-year degrees were reduced to flipping burgers, which lit the fire under the minimum wage revolution. (That is to say, we’re pushing back the minimal wage.) The hardest hit was clearly the liberal arts, which rebounded spectacularly with Youtube stars, blog formats and other innovative entrepreneurs who decided “Fuck that, I’m making my own shit.”
From my experience as a restaurant line cook during this time period, talking up your contacts and making anally pinpointed powerpoint presentations doesn’t fly. Chefs want things done, and they don’t want excuses. They don’t want people scheduling meetings, or deferring to a higher power, or making an underhanded power play because of any of a number of politics. But that’s the only thing I’ve seen for a few years now, after quitting line cooking and getting into a few offices. Mediocrity at every level, and bullshit of the highest caliber. If we could harness the conniving that goes on in every workplace in New York we would have Cuomo ousted and this housing crisis fixed in no time. (By the way, notice how the papers stopped reporting on it after November? Those people in shitty housing have died or moved over the winter.)
It’s important to note something like the housing crisis, because that’s one of the symptoms of a culture of mediocrity. Shelters and halfway houses sit neglected and full of rats, run by shoddy crooks, mostly because the regulatory agency is underfunded and plausibly corrupt. Funding is another can of worms, but its easy to be ineffective when you value working practices that don’t produce results. And boy, are they the epitome of bureaucratic evil.
I partnered with a coworker to clean out the office refrigerator today. It’s an office of about forty to fifty people, and we all share a dorm-sized fridge for our lunches, milk for coffee, etc. Everybody leaves their open, unmarked, undated food inside to rot and poison the whole office. Nobody is specifically asked to clean it. But everybody shits on it. And when we bring it up, suddenly a sign appears to remind people to clean up after themselves. An internal memo is circulated. Calls are made to summon the porters. But nobody actually cleans it. So it’s up to the people who have a sense of sucking it up to wipe that mother out. Guess who actually steps up? That’s right. The millennials and the 9-5 workers, not the people who made the memos and put up the signs. There’s a stinking fridge in every office somewhere, metaphorically or literally, that’s plastered in passive-aggressive posturing. I guarantee it.
At some point I started to think there’s a whole generation that had to go through a period of working in fundamental industries. I’m talking about fast food, naturally, but also high-end cuisine. We were garbagemen, stockboys, barbacks. Some of us gave up on our original majors and went on to become mechanics, or electricians, or plumbers. Technically certifiable trades. It’s not that we actually wanted to make a difference at first, it’s just that those were the jobs that were needed, but nobody wanted to do them. The world needed stinky fridge cleaners because nobody from the previous generation wanted to do the job.
The good thing is that very same millennial generation is returning to the middle class. The economy is much improved, corporate profits are at an all-time high. Our old careers are opening up again, entry-levels offered. My generation is bringing a can-do attitude to offices full of mediocre powerpoint people.
The bad news? Wages have not kept up with profits. That means we’re paying all these stinky fridge cleaners less that those passive aggressive memo-mavens.
I think at this point it’s perfectly acceptable to feel a level of righteous indignation. We’re the people focused on getting the job done. Progress. Not getting ahead, not running the rat race, but making our world better with innovative products and services. But somehow, the previous generation who caused our problems with their negligence and are now our bosses find our idealism is an excuse to pay us a fraction of what they used to earn at our positions. Is there a generational misunderstanding? Do they not remember what it was like at our age? Are we fundamentally incompatible with the prior generation of shirkers?
I mean, it can’t be that they know we would be better at their jobs than they are. That would just be silly.