This is a guest post by Michael Hendrix in response to the recent debate sparked by a provocative post on millennials and Gen Y “yuppie culture.” Michael serves as the director for emerging issues and research at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews and a Texas native.

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By Michael Hendrix

Over the past few weeks, much has been written on GYPSY unicorns and my generation’s dashed hopes (warning: strong language). For my fellow millennials who get overly defensive on such matters, I have a request: Get over yourselves and get to work.

We are entering an era of profound economic change, and I fear that the career prospects of many in my generation have too much in common with those of the horse at the advent of the automobile. Consider these words from the economist Gregory Clark, who’s quoted at a key point in Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine:

There was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early 20th century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. … But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century rapidly displaced workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than 2 million. There was always a wage at which these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.

Structural changes are coming. Information and communications technologies (ICT) are bringing about a shift equally as profound as that of the Industrial Age. Just as steam power and the internal combustion engine swept away inefficient production and labor, so too will the Information Age’s connectivity and automation advance on so many of the jobs we hold dear. What Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue — and not without controversy — is that technology is advancing on mankind’s comparative advantages in a way that previous revolutions never could. Building a steam-powered hammer to take on John Henry’s brawn is one thing; fashioning a highly cognitive robot with fine motor skills is quite another. And while this future hasn’t fully arrived yet, it’s the process of getting there that we must prepare for.

Every industrial revolution comes in stages, and today is simply the beginning of what the Information Age will bring. Just think about the Industrial Age one more time. It came in two main stages, beginning with steam and railroads in the early 1800s and then culminating decades later in a new burst of innovation with electricity and the engine (and much more). Even then, the true precursors to the revolution began in the 1750s. Similarly, the ICT revolution required telephone lines and punch card computers before we could ever get to the iPhone. Although the lines from today’s Siri to tomorrow’s SkyNet remain blurred, they do exist.

We should be excited about this future. Vast new opportunities are coming that will alter the course of human history. Technological change today is already occurring faster and more substantively than we realize (the rate of algorithmic growth is but one indicator of this). As with any change, however, there will be winners and losers.

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For these reasons, I’m beginning to think that the angst-ridden articles written by my fellow millennials are evidence of much larger forces at work. Changes are happening so fast that as jobs and career opportunities are being destroyed, the ability to retrain or reset expectations isn’t keeping pace. Even if people could retrain, the cyclical downturn we’ve experienced since the Great Recession has meant less job creation over all. To twist the knife further, even smart journalists are feeling the pinch as some types of knowledge work go the way of manual work. Is it at all surprising they feel obligated to spill so much ink as their livelihoods slip away?

Here’s the economist Tyler Cowen, who’s done much of the good thinking on today’s stagnation:

Self-driving vehicles threaten to send truck drivers to the unemployment office. Computer programs can now write journalistic accounts of sporting events and stock price movements. There are even computers that can grade essay exams with reasonable accuracy, which could revolutionize my own job, teaching. Increasingly, machines are providing not only the brawn but the brains, too, and that raises the question of where humans fit into this picture—who will prosper and who won’t in this new kind of machine economy?

Who will prosper indeed? If you are highly-skilled at the things that are in demand today, are a capital-owner, or are a superstar in your field, you will succeed beyond your wildest imaginations. The rest of us will fight over the scraps — that is, until organizational innovations and broader human capital developments are able to re-wire the economy so that average workers can thrive again.

How do we stay among the winners? By building on our intuition and creativity—two things that, placed in the right sphere, remain immensely valuable. We must also recognize the intense global competition each of us faces as a worker. We mustn’t just work—we have to work hard. Unfortunately, too many members of my own generation can’t seem to wrap their minds around that reality. They don’t readily fit into the four types of people Cowen believes are likely to thrive in the future:

  1. The conscientious and motivated
  2. People who listen to computers and who can work well with them
  3. People with a marketing touch
  4. Managers who are motivators

It isn’t so much that we’ll have winners and losers that gets me. It’s that many millennials aren’t facing up to the tough choices they’ll need to make to align their visions with reality. When the internal combustion engine came along and rendered horsepower to the pages of Motor Trend, these animals had little choice over their fate. We are different. We can look square-eyed into a future of vast change. We can work hard at the tasks set before us, for we were made to do so. Put another way, we can avoid the glue factory.

Guest contributor, Michael Hendrix

Guest contributor, Michael Hendrix

Things will get worse for this generation before they get better. The real tragedy of big government in this world is that we have a less agile economy, unable to adjust and absorb those who will inevitably lose out. Instead, the losers are really lost—and they will have been done in by the very institutions aimed at protecting them. Are we facing social disruption? Completely, and it will prey especially on family dissolution.

We should rest our dreams in the reality of the future, rather than in the shuttered factories and dissolved pensions that are now a legacy of the past. That’s where many on the Left falter and will continue to do so in the years ahead, looking to past dividends in order to bail out their futures. But that won’t work.

The future is enough trouble for the millennial. We can and should work toward far better dreams.

You can follow Michael Hendrix on Twitter at @Michael_Hendrix.


  • Dylan Pahman

    This is a great survey of the economic changes the Millennial generation faces, but on what are you basing your assessment of them?

    For example, at the end of April this year, Reuters reported that over 40 percent of recent college graduates were underemployed, indicating a willingness to work but an inability to find (or make) jobs that corresponded to their education level. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/30/us-usa-graduates-jobs-idUSBRE93T0WB20130430

    Furthermore, some of your claims are fairly contentious:

    What percent of Millennials, for example, are not “conscientious and motivated”? All of them? Only some? And how is this determined? It seems like a pretty subjective assessment apart from any data.

    And in what way are Millennials not the sort “who listen to computers and who can work well with them”? According to Pew, in 2010, 24 percent of Millennials said that use of technology as the most distinctive quality about their generation, double the number of Gen-Xers and even more than other generations.

    According to the same study, three quarters of Millennials have profiles on social networking sites, yet we are to believe that as a generation they lack “a marketing touch”? Doesn’t social networking involve a self-marketing component, to greater or lesser degrees? http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/02/24/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change/

    This is not to say that no Millennials need to work harder. You’re claim might be true. But rather my point is that such broad generalizations require data to back them up. But the data, so far as I’ve seen, either doesn’t exist or tends to say the opposite of what articles like this claim.

    • Michael Hendrix

      Dylan,

      Thanks for your terrific comments. My piece wasn’t meant to be data-driven, but to tell a story by responding to particular commentators. To say that this generation has its work cut out for it, no matter whether they’re employed or not. That being said, data are important.

      Underemployment is a cancer on Millennials. It eats away our hope and skills. Those who are underemployed are willing and able to work. This is where you see the cyclical downturn at play and a reason for my mention of it. How many are in this group? It’s hard to tell. BLS says that 19.1% of recent grads are underemployed. The AP found 53.6% of degree holders under 25 years old were jobless or underemployed. Demos pegs 10.3 million young Americans as “stuck” in under- or unemployment in 2012.

      Let me tell you what I’d especially focus on though if I were writing a data-driven piece: the drop in labor force participation, not just underemployment. Within this group of labor force dropouts are those young people left behind by a changing economy and who are unable to work or find work. To go to a later question, how many of these are not “conscientious and motivated”? I’m not entirely sure, but the answer is found somewhere in these stats. Here’s a related post which does a good job of breaking our pop/emp by age: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/06/forget-the-unemployment-rate-heres-the-chart-to-focus-on-on-jobs-day/

      As for the degree to which some Millennials may not be of the sort who listen to computers and who can work well with them, let me answer in three ways. First, I’m not sure that calling up Millennials on their iPhones and asking them whether technology makes them distinctive is at all telling. I’m being facetious, barely. Second, working well with computers in the future will require a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge. I doubt future employers will be impressed that their Millennial job applicant feels special because they grew up with technology. The bar will be much, much higher than what Pew is measuring. Third, look more at STEM graduation rates to see how much further this generation has to go. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/tables/dt11_286.asp

      As for a marketing touch, let me be clear: posting on Twitter won’t turn a Millennial into Don Draper.

      Tyler Cowen wrote on this far better than I can. Here’s a relevant section from his new book, Average Is Over, that gets at my overall point (and addresses a few of your points on data).

      “Among the young there is a growing tendency to postpone adulthood, in part because lucrative job opportunities do not beckon. The new crowd of youngsters is sometimes call ‘Generation Limbo.’ They end up living at home for longer, they take freelance and part-time service work — such as in bars of bookstores — of they write part-time for websites. It is less likely that their first or even second jobs will count as potential “careers.” I do not presume the limbo generation consists entirely or event mostly of unhappy individuals. … Still, the longer-run job prospects for many of this crop of twentysomethings may not turn to be so great. When we consider how the current generation will do in coming decades, it seems the American economy is not replenishing its ‘seed capital.’

      These are just anecdotes, but as I’ve discussed in the first chapter, the general trend is in the data: Real earnings for graduates (college degree only) are down since 2000.

      Today, many of these young earners are threshold earners, meaning earners who are content just to get by and who do not push ambitiously for a higher wage or stronger credentials at every step. … In a wealthy society, sometimes it’s just enough to get by and have a good time. It may not sound adventurous or even very American, but we’re going to be seeing more of that in the years to come.

      Overall, these job market trends are bringing higher pay for bosses, more focus on morale in the workplace, greater demands for conscientious and obedient workers, greater inequality at the top, big gains for the cognitive elite, a lot of freelancing in the services sector, and some tough scrambles for workers without a lot of skills. Those are essential characteristics of the coming American labor markets, the new world of work.

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