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.

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.

The Enigma of Hair

For nearly 15 years, I hated my hair.

I know what you’re thinking–it’s a long time to be in conflict over something about which one can do little. A few years back, I reached a sort of truce with my hair and began to accept it for what it was. But it is an uneasy truce, one that threatens to erupt into conflict again at any moment.

So you can imagine my surprise when a woman I’d never met before stopped me recently to tell me I have “gorgeous hair.” I was flattered. Furthermore, it made me reassess my feelings about my hair.

Me at 4 years old.

Me at 4 years old.

When I was born, I had straight, blond hair. Somewhere around 8 or 9 years old, however, it began to darken and curl. Having lived with one kind of hair up to that point, I was unprepared for this change.

Curly hair does not run in my family. Both of my parents have essentially straight hair. Of my two sisters, one had straight-as-straight-can-be hair, and the other has what I would call wavy hair. My younger brother has wavy hair too. Mine is undeniably curly.

My mother tried to blame the change on me, that I was not taking care of my hair properly and so causing it to curl. In hindsight, I see how ridiculous this is, but at the time, I listened to my mother. So I washed it excessively, combed it excessively, and tried different hair cuts, all in an attempt to bring back the flaxen hair I had. It was no use.

Me at 11 years old (with orthodontics).

Me at 11 years old (with orthodontics).

I was at a loss for how to care for my new hair, and in fact was doing more damage than if I’d just accepted it and let it be. This being the late 70’s, what I wanted was hair like David Cassidy–long, rich, flowing hair. I tried to grow mine longer, but it went cockeyed, poofed, and frizzed. I looked more like Gabe Kaplan, and I wasn’t amused.

Hair is a strange thing, if you think about it. Every other mammal on the planet is either completely covered in hair or is completely naked. People, on the other hand, have this strange patch on the tops of our heads. It doesn’t seem to serve any functional purpose, so we create meaning for it. Native American men grow their hair long as a symbol of their strength and cultural identity. Sikh men grow long hair as a symbol of piety. Buddhist monks shave theirs off, also to show piety.

Me at 15 years old, with frizz in full swing.

Me at 15 years old, with frizz in full swing.

It’s hard for an individual to be accepting of what one’s been given when culturally we don’t seem to know what to do with our hair.

To this day, I normally don’t think of my hair as an asset.  So to have a complete stranger tell me my hair is gorgeous came as a bit of a shock.

“Really?” I said.

“It’s like Richard Gere hair,” she said, smiling.

Wow. Who knew?