The Few, the Young, the Underemployed

Recently, I wrote about how people of certain age and generation have found themselves locked out of the opportunities presented by our current economy. And I wasn’t talking about the very old or the very young.

Many (myself included) have remarked about how tough things are for young people just now finding their way in the job market. And while that continues to the true, these recent graduates have something in common with people a generation or so older who were caught off-guard by a massive economic shift.

Specifically those who graduated from college between 1989 and 1992. Let me explain.

Picture with me career advancement as a made-up metric called “level of opportunity” (hey, it’s no weirder than the term “utility” used by economists). Granted, there is no way to project across a population how successful each individual will be, due to the unique circumstances of each person. What this metric measures, then, is what the chances are (the probability) that someone at that age will be able to achieve career goals and a satisfying return on their education.

Normally, the expectation is this:

oppur_graph1

Generally, under normal circumstances, one’s level of opportunity rises with age and experience (ignoring other factors such as financial means, gender, and race). As you get older and accumulate more experience in a career, you are regarded as more valuable. You have a greater ability to receive higher pay and to make a positive influence on your field of expertise. The curve drops off around retirement age.

This stands in contrast to what people of my age group have been dealing with:

oppur_graph2

As you can see, instead of rising over the years, our professional lives have been slammed with repeated setbacks that have left us far below where we expected to be.

I thought that by now I’d be in a position to make a difference in this world instead of continuing to be underemployed, plodding toward retirement. As I approach the 50-year-old milestone, I am only as far along as someone in their early thirties.

I actually know several younger people who have surpassed me, doing what they enjoy in a way they want to do it, including:

  • a senior principal at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association,
  • the senior manager of communications at the Share Our Strength non-profit,
  • the executive director of the Association of Clean Water Administrators,
  • the chief executive officer of an international luxury jewelry company, and
  • an assistant television editor for such programs as “Jennifer Falls,” “Whitney,” and “Mulaney.”

In addition, I know many others who’ve started their own businesses.

This proves two things. First, being too young is not the problem. For years, I told myself that if I just was patient a bit longer, my worth would be proven, my years of service recognized, and opportunities would open up. Now I’m convinced that ain’t gonna happen.

And second, my generation–or my slice of it–is especially blighted. Due to the fickle nature of economic and demographic trends, we, for the most part, have missed out on the benefits that should have accrued to us. We’ve been overlooked, swept aside by the tides of history and there’s no going back.

The upshot is this: for those of us who are low on the opportunity totem pole, the impacts to our lives are very real and quantifiable. We don’t get asked to join meetings or conferences, which in turn means we have a very small network of colleagues. Our contributions are undervalued, which leads to a corresponding devaluation in our career field, both inside and outside of our organizations. This can lead to lower than average salary and fewer chances to move up. We don’t get asked for advice or input despite the fact that our ideas are as good as, or maybe better than, those of better-known colleagues. We aren’t recruited for new job openings.

Which only reveals one thing that we already know: life ain’t fair.

Now that I’ve vented a little, maybe it’s time to get something done.


 

Stay tuned: in the next few days, I will be inviting folks to take a survey about how your work/life attitudes may be affected by your generation. I hope you will participate.

Twenty-five Years of Nothing

celeb90

On the eve of my 25-year college reunion, something struck me in a recent article in the Washington Post, something that made me take notice:

The first decade of the 21st century produced two recessions and two “jobless recoveries,” and when it was over, the vast majority of Americans found themselves no better off than they were a quarter-century ago.

This is the career landscape into which I and my classmates graduated. Hopes of finding meaningful work have all but evaporated over time. We are now just trying to get by.

I’m not struggling, by any means. I and my wife have healthy incomes. But we have two children nearing college age. We live in a modest house with a modest mortgage. We have two modest cars. We go into debt to take a modest vacation once in a while. I’ve been laid off once, so far.

In contrast, by the time he was my age, my father was the president and part owner of a company in San Francisco that employed hundreds of workers. There is no way I will ever reach that mark now.grads

Nor will anyone of my generation. As I have said elsewhere, people who graduated from college between 1989 and 1992 have, for the most part, vanished from the public sphere. It does not mean that we are not smart enough, or talented enough, or ambitious enough. Rather, it has everything to do with the economy.

And, for those of us who are doing reasonably well monetarily, we are paying in other ways: lack of career advancement. We will shuffle through our mid-level jobs, never rising to our potential. There are consequences to that.

We are part of America too, so our story is America’s story. The Post article wraps up with this:

[America] has waited decades for middle-class jobs to come back, through a loop cycle of political bickering, to no avail.

I can vouch for that.

Extending an Offer

When I was laid off from my job four years ago, everyone told me that it was not a reflection of my work, skills, or commitment. It was just the nature of the business.

“I know that you are not happy with what happened,” the general counsel who handled my severance said in an e-mail. “However, for what it’s worth – I want you to know that I enjoyed working with you and if you need anything, feel free to contact me and I will try to help however I can.”

I tried not to take it personally, I really did. I secretly hoped that someone would step forward and tell me that my years of service were appreciated. “We don’t want to lose you,” I imagined they would say. “We have an opening in another department we think you’d be good for.”
the corporation

But that didn’t happen. And since then, I wondered whether that kind of thing happens only in the movies.

Recently, though, I overheard a conversation between a couple of colleagues. One said that when she’d first applied to the company, she thought she was well-suited for the opening. But the company liked her so much, they made her an offer for both the job for which she’d applied and one for which she hadn’t. “We know you didn’t apply for this position, but we think you might be interested,” she recalled the HR person saying.

It was two for the price of one for my colleague. Those HR people recognized in this colleague some skills badly needed, which, of course, is as it should be. But more than that, they took the initiative to extend an offer that she hadn’t known was there. I guess the key is having the skills, and making sure that others know you have the skills, that are in need at that time.

So this really does happen. It just didn’t happen to me.

I personally know of at least five people, in addition to me, who were laid off and subsequently rehired by the same company. If you consider the payouts for severance and the subsequent costs to publicize the position and reintegrate the workers into the corporation, it seems like an inefficient process. I’m not sure who benefits from this. I certainly didn’t.

Stay At Home

As much as I like the idea of becoming an unconventionally employed, stay-at-home dad, I get to wondering what impression I would be giving to my kids.

“What does your dad do?” they would be asked.

“He does a lot of gardening, and laundry,” they would say. “Sometimes he plays his guitar.”

“No, I mean, for a living,” the questioner would say.

“????”

We’re told that work is a thing you do, not a place you go – a common saying of telecommuters and the tech industry. Right?Trust me.

But part of being a parent is being a model for your kids to learn from, for better or for worse. They get their impressions of being an adult based on what they see the grownups in their life doing. If I took on the role of primary householder, what model does that present, especially to my son? Would it show the benefits of an unconventional life or demonstrate that dad is a slacker?

A lot hinges on semantics: what do we mean by “do”?  When people say “what do you do?” they really mean “what activity do you perform for which you make money.”  For some people, the answer to that question is obvious and clear: “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a lawyer.”

For many others, however, what they “do” and what they want to be doing are very different, and answering the question can be much more complicated. “I serve coffee, but I’m really a musician,” for instance. Or the job has no recognizable label: “I key summaries of government activity into a database so that others can search and retrieve the information based on topic or stage of government action.”  It does not roll of the tongue easily, or have the same cachet as “I’m a reporter.”

My kids are already at a disadvantage because they don’t really know what I do.  I leave for work every weekday and come home in the evening, presumably having done something valuable in that time. It is hard for me to explain it to them because what I do is very academic and very derivative, and it takes place out of their view and field of experience (more on that another time).

Back during my involuntary hiatus in employment, I was telling a neighbor about how my job search was not going well.  I had hoped to use the situation to find an ideal new job but was close to settling for any job offer that came across my desk. “As long as it’s not soul-sucking,” was his advice.  And he is right, of course, but sometimes you have a trade away your soul because you’ve been left with no choice.  Forget about gaining phenomenal guitar-playing prowess. These days it is enough just to keep the roof over your head.

In this age of declining prospects for employment for the next generations, I see two alternatives.  One is that we continue with the current model for education and career and hope to God that it is not your kid that ends up on unemployment.  That requires a lot of blind faith and wishful thinking.

The other is that we redefine the concepts of employment, career, and what people “do”.  If we did that, we must infuse these concepts with personal passion and social goals.  We must be more liberal about labels and pigeonholes, and what is deemed “okay” for one’s life pursuit. If a kid wants to be a “rock and roll education reform administrator” instead of “lawyer”, we should not just think it is fine; we should encourage that choice and support it unreservedly.

I think I’m too stuck in the old industrial model of dad-commutes-to-work, dad-brings-home-the-bacon for there to be any hope for me.  But I hope my kids can find not a career in the conventional sense but a life’s work. And if that means staying at home, let it be so.

Finding My Way Along the Career Path

“Why don’t you go to any professional development seminars?” my boss asked me once. She wasn’t just my supervisor; she was the division head. Since our division was relatively small, I had frequent interaction with her. Rarely did she ask such a pointed question.

I mumbled some reply and moved on to another subject. But it was a valid question. I had done little in the way of career development training and it left me with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. And now I know why.

I didn’t know what career I was in.

Back in 1994, I joined a journalism organization with the intention of becoming an environmental journalist. Think Bill McKibben. I started as a researcher but figured that, before too long, I would be able to move up to more prominent writing positions. Years went by, however, and I ended up not doing much journalism. I am partly to blame for that because I was, I now realize, ambivalent about journalism in general.

In college, I worked on my student newspaper but never took a journalism class. After graduation, I tried to write for newspapers, but never applied for a staff position. Writing held an allure for me, but pursuing journalism for its own sake–all that interviewing and beat reporting–did not spark my interest.
23

After college, I saw two paths to where I wanted to go. One was that of the environmentalist who was also a writer. The other was the journalist who specialized in the environment. I preferred the former but left myself open to the latter if the right opportunity presented itself.

I once asked an editor whether he was looking for the environmentalist writer or the specialized journalist. “Journalist,” was his answer. I was dismayed because I did not believe that journalism was the only path to being an effective writer.

In the area of nature and the environment, some of the nonfiction writers who I admire the most–Annie Dillard, David Gessner, John McPhee–do not consider themselves journalists at all.* And in spite of that–or because of that–I feel they have contributed the most to the conversation. Not needing to fit into the constraints imposed by modern-day journalism, they are free to push the boundaries.

Journalists appear to believe that they have exclusive access to the facts, and that writers who are not journalists are sloppy or unable to grasp the story. Journalists act as members of a club–the Fourth Estate and all that–and consider writers to be wannabes lingering around the fringe. (Writer Joan Didion refers to “the contempt for outsiders” in her article about journalists and the political types they report on.) Needless to say, I disagree.

To many people, the terms “journalist” and “writer” are interchangeable, which is not surprising since the majority of the current generation of writers came up through the ranks of journalists. But it’s worth asking whether that was just a historical coincidence. Today, when news is published on what one writer calls “the vaguely Soviet-seeming syndication-fed news pages,” journalism and real writing seem to be drifting further and further apart.

Frankly, journalism as a career path for a young writer is dying. The website CareerCast, in its annual Jobs Rated report, lists newspaper reporter as the number one worst job in America in 2013. “The opportunity to climb the [career] ladder disappeared,” says one reporter who was interviewed. Furthermore, according to one recent poll, only 28 percent of the public think of journalists as contributing a lot to society’s well being. This does not make for an enticing career choice.

The writing I’m interested in is less about a recitation of the facts than the finding of greater truths. To do that, writing must have a strong voice and an informed point of view. Journalistic objectivity doesn’t allow for either of those.

Gould

I’m no longer afraid to make known my lack of journalistic ambition. Journalism is not my career, and being around journalists day after day has not provided the professional development that one would expect from over 15 years on the job. I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed, but I’m sure of one path to avoid.

*McPhee, in a piece in the July 2, 2012, issue of The New Yorker, refers to himself as a “writer of long fact” and that he teaches “factual writing.” Another writer who I deeply admire, William Langewiesche, studied anthropology in college and “does not want to be viewed as a straight news reporter” according to one interview.

 [Do you think you might be in the wrong career? Take The Glenn O’Neill Test and see.]