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Blame the Parents?

When adult children can’t find work or when the jobs they do land leave them unfulfilled, who is to blame? The parents, of course, or at least according to two Gen Y authors and commenters in two recent articles.

“Are Twentysomethings Expecting Too Much?” in The Washingtonian:

If  twentysomethings are expecting anything, it’s only because those expectations were set up for us since birth. We were told from the moment we started pre-school that if we study hard, if we persevere, and if we gain knowledge, we will be rewarded with a choice of profession, a fulfilling life, and an appropriate financial means to raise a family. This promise is proving to be false, and it’s not our fault.

“The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright” in New York:

Our generation is the product of two long-term social experiments conducted by our parents. The first sought to create little hyperachievers encouraged to explore our interests and talents, so long as that could be spun for maximum effect on a college application…In the second experiment, which was a reaction to their own distant moms and dads, our parents tried to see how much self-confidence they could pack into us… and accordingly we were awarded clip-art Certificates of Participation just for showing up.

The Washingtonian magazine

The common denominator in these pieces is that parents supposedly promised their children the impossible dream: Follow your passion and work you love will follow. Even without a recession and record unemployment, how many people can realistically expect to achieve that goal? But we were so wrong to encourage our children to aim high and hope that they will eventually find a variation on a theme: work that satisfies them intellectually, socially, emotionally or economically, or some combination thereof? Perhaps what got lost in the translation is that fulfillment from work or even the satisfaction from a job well done does not often happen right out the gate in a first job, and sometimes it takes some hefty dues paying.

The Beltway millennials dissected by 29-year-old Hannah Seligson in The Washingtonian are dismayed by their unfulfilling  jobs. Part of the reason for their disappointment is that they have delayed marriage and family for climbing the career ladder only to find they’re stuck at the bottom. Frustrated, these young adults plot their next moves out of stuck-in-the-stone-age government jobs and 60-hour-week corporate law positions. Yet, they are surprisingly confident that they will snare dream jobs, reflecting an attitude shared by their generation, according to a recent Pew survey.

Up I-95, New York writer Noreen Malone, 27, found a somewhat different sampling of young adults, jobless or underemployed. Those who landed good positions consider themselves “lucky,” and are holding on for dear life. Unlike the Washingtonian sampling, these NYC millennials are not strategizing the next big promotion. One friend tells Ms. Malone. “Well, maybe I don’t have to be in charge. Maybe I’ll be okay with just keeping afloat rather than making a splash.” Lowered expectations appears to be the way these millenials take charge of their destiny. They can’t be disappointed not to be a master—or mistress–of the universe if that wasn’t the goal in the first place. Ms. Malone calls it “managed decline”:

That’s what we’re doing when we decide that we can be okay with having more unpredictable careers and more modest lifestyles, if that’s what’s in store: Even as we hold out hope that something will reverse the trajectory, we are managing our decline, we are making do.

Baby boomer parents can only watch from near and far as adult children claw their way up the career ladder or accept a step beneath their potential. What do we tell them if they ask for our advice, or whine with frustration or cry with disappointment? A thoughtful reply was offered by one of the Washingtonian article commenters:

Fulfillment doesn’t appear full-fledged on your doorstep; it develops as you go…. Fantasies aren’t real. Pick what matters and give your best to it…. As John Lennon said, life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans. It’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s how you respond to it.

And regardless of your path, not everything is fulfilling. Learn to whistle while you work and the work you do will matter less than the fact that you’re doing it well. Life is far more about attitude than it is about whether or not you get off on it.

Words to pass along to our children.

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