Messages To Millennials (3): Work

millennialsIn part 2 we looked at the way, according to a recent Pew Study, Millennials relate to the visible, institutional church. The third major topic is work. As Bradford Wilcox summarizes the results of the study he notes that 80% of those aged 24–29 are employed. Only 44% of those aged 18–29 are employed full-time. That latter number seems quite low. I’m not a social scientist and I don’t play one on the web (as an undergrad I used to social “science” when required but I was more interested in arguments than statistics). One study claims that Millennials are about four years behind the previous generation in reaching the same level of income. According to this study, one reason is that, even though they are nominally educated (i.e., they’ve gone through late-modern educational process) young men particularly have failed to develop the necessary skills to flourish in the workplace. Paul Solman claims

Millennials aren’t employed at lower rates because they’re lazy or bad at math; they’re the most educated generation ever. But they’re also the first generation to face the new demands for education and skill — and a bad economy, a much higher cliff to climb than previous generations.

Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that might be an overly optimistic assessment. The educational system has largely failed the Millennials. They have gone through the process but I doubt that they are as highly educated as Solman claims. Since the arrival of the modern, industrial age, many generations have had to adapt to changing conditions and market demands. There have been bad economies before, though this seems to be the worst post-Reagan economy by a longshot. I’m having flashbacks to the Carter years.

Vince Ginn is probably correct, however, that the job market is working against them. This is not the go-go 80s where young people can expect to find a good job easily upon graduation from college. They are competing for low-skill jobs once thought to be the domain of High School graduates or even High School dropouts. Millennials certainly face an uphill climb. Obamacare, rising college costs (and the resulting loan debt—many grads are now carrying the equivalent of a mortgage as they graduate from college),  apparently failed policies such as the Affordable Care Act, and a generally unsettled economy (which makes companies reluctant to take risks, to invest, to expand or to recover some of the workforce they laid off after the crash of ’07–’08) seem poised to make the economic future of Millennials darker than previous generations.

Even with all that, the Great Recession was not the Great Depression. This was a post-Reagan recession. The Malls remained relatively full. Yes, there were some empty shops but I recall recessions under Nixon-Carter-Reagan (’80–81) where there were empty shelves, empty stores, gas lines and the deprivation and poverty of the Great Depression was markedly worse than than anything we’ve experienced since.

One thing has changed, however, since the Great Depression: the work ethic. There are two great social changes afoot that will mark this generation. Homosexual marriage, which the Millennials generally support partly because it makes them feel enlightened and morally superior to support what they see as a cause of liberation (allowing people to do what they want). It seems like a pain-free way to say: follow your bliss. They don’t, however, seem to grasp the significance of what it means to re-define marriage in purely affective terms, without reference to nature. They will.

The second great social change that marks this generation is the legalization of pot. As an GenXer (you’re not a Boomer if you didn’t see Howdy Doody or if you can’t remember where you were when JFK was assassinated) raised with some Dustbowl economic values, I worry about what the legalization of weed signifies. Perhaps it means nothing but weed does nothing if not destroy one’s desire to work and accomplish. That’s not true for a glass of wine or even a beer—a six-pack maybe or a whole bottle of wine but now we’re not comparing apples with apples.

Recently we’ve had national leaders extolling the virtues of unemployment. We’ve heard national political figures sounding very much like Marx regarding the virtues of leisure. It wasn’t that long ago that mainstream politicians of both parties sounded very different. That they can now speak like Marx makes one think that there has been a fundamental cultural shift relative to work and it’s hard not to think that people (including Millennials) no longer view work as inherently good and valuable.

As I argued back in September, however, work is inherently good. God is a worker, a Creator. We were made in his image. We are given work to do in the garden even before the fall. Work is an important way in which we express our status as bearers of the divine image. Work continued after the fall, even if it became difficult and frustrating. When the Apostle Paul learned that some believers were quitting their jobs because they thought that Jesus was coming immediately, he told them to get back to work and that if they didn’t work, they shouldn’t eat.

Then there is the ancient biblical and Christian idea of vocation. Where the medieval and Roman churches tended to locate vocation only in the sacred, in Monasteries and in the call to ministry, the Protestants argued that every image bearer has a vocation, that secular work is not inherently defiled or defiling. It is just an honorable as sacred work. We’re called in Scripture to do our work to the glory of God and to the well-being of our neighbor.

All business people are not Gordon Gekko. Starting a business, selling a service or a product, meeting a need in the marketplace at a fair market price is a good thing. Business is noble, not evil. Investing and getting a return on that investment is a good thing. Being successful and employing others is a good thing. One of the fastest growing segments of our economy is the non-profit segment. That’s all well and good but who is going to fund all these non-profits? Business people. We can’t all work in non-profits and I say this as an employee of a non-profit. I’m deeply grateful to those business people who make it possible for me to do what I do at work and here at the HB.

I fear that the reaction to excess (real or perceived) is grounded not in a Christian evaluation of work and leisure but in a sort of Gnostic, docetic denial of human reality. As a largely urban and suburban culture, Americans don’t seem to understand clearly any more, e.g., from where food comes. They think it appears magically in the grocery. It doesn’t. A farmer risked his capital (money) to buy/rent land, to buy equipment and animals, to buy seed and materials. That farmer got out of bed (sometimes in awful weather), grew it, sold it, and a company processed it and turned it into food. People risked themselves and capital (money and resources) in order to produce it. So, of course, they aren’t going to give it away. They can’t even if they wanted to or they wouldn’t be able to continue growing food.

The same is true of something as apparently simple as a pencil.

All those people, through whom a pencil eventually comes into existence, are doing something valuable. That’s the way God made the world. Work is not greedy or money grubbing. It’s one of the reasons we exist, to fulfill our vocation, whatever it may be and to play our part, to the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbor.

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  1. Thanks for this movie. I once looked up how a pencil is actually crafted, and that’s really fascinating as well. It requires an amazing amount lot of precise mechanical expertise.

  2. Clark,
    Thanks for these posts to my generation. I am 19, and your assessments as far as I can tell with my limited perspective, are spot on. Although I would consider myself a confessional reformed Christian, the social climate which I live in is often very persuasive, and I find myself going to work everyday, not because of the above mentioned reasons, but for selfish reasons. That my vocation is merely a means to an end of my own satiafaction, rather than and end in itself to support a message that has more of a global impact. The same I notice among my peers in the workplace, essentially life only ever happens outside of work, because when we’re there, all of what we have been taught through school, (ie not only formal education like math, English , etc.. But also the modern philosophy: you know what’s best for yourself/follow your heart) comes into the equation and the whole thing feels like bunk. I’m thankful for these posts, they have given me some perspective on my often short sited evaluation of these things.

  3. This is a great essay, perhaps the best yet of the three so far. One thing I would add to the opening paragraphs about the economy is the “globalization” of production at a level which is unprecedented. The US economy grew rapidly during the 50’s largely because most of the factories had been bombed (and a great number of the workers were dead) in the rest of the world. Japan, in particular, sprung back more quickly thanks to the efforts of W. Edwards Deming only to suffer a great set back during the 80’s devaluation of the Yen.

    But the cold war, Viet Nam, a massive shift to the military/industrial complex, numerous embargoes, “oil shocks,” followed by a propped up series of incentives during Reaganomics, moved the game players around completely. How many material goods (and food stuffs!) now come from China? How many phone calls to toll free assistance numbers are now answered in Pakistan or India? And this “globalization” will keep shifting from one country to the next in search of the lowest dollar-per-hour worker.

    This is not intended as a defense of a slack work attitude on the part of anyone, especially the Millennials, but simply an attempt point out that there’s very little likelihood of the average US worker ever regaining an economic income stream that matches the previous post-war generation(s). The easy give-and-take bargaining with unions during the 50’s and 60’s may be responsible for falsely inflated incomes that drove a lot of the business off-shore. Those days are gone.

    Having said that, I often wonder in amazement how the Millennials can afford some of the “toys” they all seem to have; the latest and greatest 4G device, video game platform, automobile, etc. One can only conjecture that the next generation behind them is funding a lot of it and whenever that revenue source dries up it’s anyone’s guess what might happen.

  4. Many college educated young people have an inflated view of their own skills due to grade inflation, which is chronic in the prestigious colleges and universities. The parents aren’t paying and borrowing a bazillion dollars for a C or B average, so the institution is under enormous pressure to ensure that Johnny or Susy are constantly reminded of how special they are. Nothing says special like an A! They aren’t being taught that working successfully is not primarily a function of what you know, but of what you can do for the person or firm that is paying you.

    From the Washington Post…Dec. 20 2013

    Harvard’s student newspaper recently reported that its median grade for undergraduates is A- and its most frequently awarded grade is A. The story produced a media hullabaloo, but grade inflation is neither new nor surprising.

    College student grades in the United States have been rising steadily since the 1960s. In 1969, 7 percent of undergraduates had grades of A- or higher in contrast to 41 percent now. Similarly, grades of C or less have dropped from 25 percent to 5 percent.

    …According to deans of students, current undergraduates are more coddled, protected, and spoiled than previous students. They told us, “This is a generation that has never been allowed to skin their knees.” “They all won awards at everything they ever tried—most improved player, fourth runner-up, best seven-year-old speller born on March 8.” Their parents are the “helicopter parents” whose children were “never permitted to fail” at any undertaking. They grew up with an inflated sense of accomplishment and expect to continue to receive awards or at least praise for everything they do.

    • That made me laugh. It its so true! Reminds me of the Incredibles when Bob (aka Mr. Incredible) says, “…he’s moving from the fourth grade to the fifth grade. They’re always coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity!”

    • Thanks Will.

      I’ve been commenting on this problem for a while on the HB. It’s a big problem. I blame the Dept of Education but behind that was a shift in educational philosophy dating to the late 19th century, from the objective to the subjective. That leaven has finally worked all the way through the dough.

  5. Speaking of coming across a timely topic, there’s this:

    Don’t know about the source – never heard of that journal. But if even a portion of it is true it shows an interesting trend. Trouble is, we just had a primary election in Illinois two days ago and voter turnout was a very disappointing low. And this is a significant state with a major metropolitan area, both of which are in deep financial trouble. Although the incumbent governor will continue to run for re-election, he is not widely respected for producing much in the way of forward progress. Meanwhile, four Republican candidates were vying for the position against him in November and there’s record low turnouts!? Something doesn’t add up.

    These primary election results seem to be at odds with the referenced journal article; instead of the Millennials gravitating toward the Republican Party it seems like they’re just giving up and dropping out of it altogether.

  6. One good piece of advice I heard came from a talk show host, Dennis Prager. He basically said that people should be encouraged to get a good job, and let their passions be a hobby. So if you love literature, it may be better to get a job doing something unrelated and not become indebted at an expensive university for a degree that won’t be useful. With a job, people can indulge in passions comfortably.

    Also, those passions might change later on when young people have children. They may find greater pleasure in seeing their children well dressed and fed. I am not a father, but it makes me happy to see my little sisters smiling and well.

  7. Love the video! FEE does great work. Now, if we could only apply the logic of free markets to healthcare…

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