Generation Jobless, or Generation Doesn’t Really Want to Work?

The Inquirer's new series is missing a big part of the employment equation: Work is hard sometimes.

I went to a going-away party over the weekend for a young man and his girlfriend. They’ve been living in Brooklyn, working at Starbucks and trying to get music careers going, but that’s been tough, so they’ve decided to head out West and find whatever work they can. They figure they can get by.

At the party was another young man, one who used to be in the Boy Scout troop my husband helped lead for years. Doug asked how life was going for him, and this young man—let’s call him Jesse—had an interesting tale to tell. He’s an art teacher at a high school in Maryland. Sounds like a pretty plum job for a young man these days, doesn’t it? Landed a teaching gig in his desired field right off the bat?

But it wasn’t that simple. Teaching school, Jesse told Doug, is really, really hard. Lots of the kids don’t want to learn. They give you attitude. They text on their cell phones. They don’t care if they flunk your class. Sometimes you run out of supplies and have to buy them yourself. He didn’t feel he was touching any lives, changing anybody’s soul. So at the end of this school year, he’s quitting his job and moving back to this area with his girlfriend. He wants a job now, he says, that pays him just enough to get by—one that leaves him with time to rock-climb. He’s hoping to become a tattoo artist. That, he thinks, is the kind of job that could accommodate his artistic interests but also afford him a lot of time off.

I hope he isn’t carrying too much student debt.

I could see Doug trying to figure out how old Jesse was. “How long have you been teaching?” he finally asked. “Two years,” Jesse said.


I’m not saying teaching isn’t hard. It can be a terrible grind. It was hard when my parents were teachers decades ago, and I don’t imagine it’s gotten easier over time. But man oh man—two years and Jesse was burned out? That’s a mighty short wick. I thought about Jesse when I read part two of the Inquirer’s new series, “Struggling for Work: The Broken Dreams of a New Generation.” It’s a sad recounting of kids who can’t find jobs because of the recession. According to the report, one in three liberal-arts and social-sciences majors are working menial jobs—“waiting tables, answering phones, and working retail.” The series has a new term for them: the “mal-employed.”

If I were Jesse’s mom, I’d probably consider tattoo artist mal-employment. But I’m becoming convinced that Generation Jesse views work in a very different way from its parents. They don’t consider waiting tables to be “mal-employment.” It may be exactly what they’re looking for.

I was talking to a close friend about this recently. He has a 20-something son who’s dropped out of college and is currently unemployed. My friend pays for his son’s apartment in West Philly, pays for his groceries, lets him buy gas on his credit card. My friend is trying to decide if he’d be justified in telling his son that when his apartment lease is up at the end of the summer, the free ride is over: Time to get a job.

“The thing is,” my friend says, “he knows how hard I’ve worked all my life. He saw the soccer games he was playing in that I had to miss, the weekends I went into the office, the nights I worked late. And he also saw that I got laid off, despite all that hard work, and had to go on unemployment. He saw how I had to scramble to find another job—a job he knows I hate. Is it any wonder he’s in no hurry to jump onto that wheel?”

I can sympathize with this. But what my friend has failed to pass along to his son is why he was working those late nights. And the answer isn’t just the money. It’s because work is satisfying. Work can feed the soul, not just sap it. Work done well can give a structure and purpose to life.

Somehow, our kids have grown up to see work as the enemy—perhaps because their self-esteem suffered when we had to miss those soccer games. Our careers haven’t just been about SUVs in the garages of our McMansions. They’ve been about the joy of accomplishment.

Were we selfish, we boomers? I suppose we were, from our children’s standpoint. When you’re a kid, anything that takes your parent’s attention away from you sucks, even if that parent overindulges you in thousands of different ways to make up for the slight. We did—we do—care about our careers, which is one reason people like my friend were so shocked, so hamstrung, when they lost their jobs in their 50s and 60s, just as they were supposed, finally, to be reaching the top and relaxing a bit.

Women’s magazines always talk about the “life/work balance.” They caution us not to spend energy on our careers at the expense of home and family, yoga class, the softball league, gardening. They, too, assume that work is the enemy, an adversary to be guarded against. What I don’t see them talking much about is how richly rewarding one’s work can be. So I’m making a point of telling my kids: I love you, but I love my job, too. I hope you’ll have jobs you love someday.

And if you turn out to be tattoo artists, I’ll try to be cool with that.