Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Everyone Can Be Super!

Helen: “I can’t believe you don’t want to go to your own son’s graduation.”
Bob: “It’s not a graduation. He is moving from the 4th grade to the 5th grade.”
Helen: “It’s a ceremony!”
Bob: “It’s psychotic!! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional...”

The Incredibles

Of all the stupid shit the Baby Boomers ever foisted upon an unwilling and unappreciative world—and mind you there has been a hell of a lot of it—I have to say that siring and raising the so-called “Millennials” (or Echo Boomers or Generation Y) to ersatz maturity is turning out to be one of their biggest doozies.

While these erstwhile Deciders-in-Chief sail happily off to Boca to enjoy their swollen retirement packages, golden parachutes, and depreciated vacation homes, the rest of us are expected to clean up the messes they have left behind: an economy spiraling into deep recession, a financial system shorn of all credibility and held together with paper clips and baling wire, and a country that no-one else in the world even fears anymore, much less respects.

Now we learn that on top of everything else, employers and business owners in the US are going to have to wipe the noses and change the diapers of the Boomers’ darling progeny, the twenty-something Millennials who have already begun to infiltrate the workforce.

If there is one overriding perception of the millennial generation, it’s that these young people have great—and sometimes outlandish—expectations. Employers realize the millennials are their future work force, but they are concerned about this generation’s desire to shape their jobs to fit their lives rather than adapt their lives to the workplace.

Although members of other generations were considered somewhat spoiled in their youth, millennials feel an unusually strong sense of entitlement. Older adults criticize the high-maintenance rookies for demanding too much too soon. “They want to be CEO tomorrow,” is a common refrain from corporate recruiters.

More than 85% of hiring managers and human-resource executives said they feel that millennials have a stronger sense of entitlement than older workers, according to a survey by CareerBuilder.com. The generation’s greatest expectations: higher pay (74% of respondents); flexible work schedules (61%); a promotion within a year (56%); and more vacation or personal time (50%).

“They really do seem to want everything, and I can’t decide if it’s an inability or an unwillingness to make trade-offs,” says Derrick Bolton, assistant dean and M.B.A. admissions director at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. “They want to be CEO, for example, but they say they don’t want to give up time with their families.”

In the parlance of our time: What the fuck?

* * *

Let me be clear. I am not faulting these youngsters for being ambitious. Ambition to become a CEO, or whatever, is an admirable—and usually a pretty good—thing. Ambition, energy, and starry-eyed self-confidence, after all, are the defining traits of youth. We should not complain when a passel of youngsters exhibit the few characteristic advantages that young-uns are prone to possess, especially when we consider that beyond those traits they pretty much know and can do fuck-all until they have been properly trained.

Furthermore, we older geezers owe a great deal to the ambition, energy, and cheerful naïveté of our juniors. Without the young to use as cannon fodder, none of the great and not-so-great companies and civilizations in history could have been built or maintained. I shudder to think what would happen to New York City, for instance, if the tens of thousands of youth streaming here to make their mark suddenly developed a realistic perspective of what their actual chances for success were. (Inner city Detroit would look like a boom town by comparison.) The gleaming monuments of every society are built high upon the bones and broken dreams of millions and millions of nobodies who hoped for something better.

No, what gets my goat is that these whippersnappers apparently believe they can reach the top of the greasy pole without breaking a sweat, and, in fact, that their employers owe it to them. Why is that? Well, apparently these chuckleheads have been told all their lives that they deserve it.

It’s as if the Boomers’ beloved Lake Wobegon effect, where “all children are above average,” has horribly mutated in their children’s minds into a belief that each and every one of them actually ranks in the 99.9th percentile. (For those of you shy of math skills, this is impossible. Take my word for it.) This is a bizarre psychological outcome of the Boomers’ famously hypercompetitive “helicopter” parenting, which emphasized nurturing, coddling, and esteem boosting for their kids while simultaneously scratching and clawing to get every socioeconomic and educational advantage available for Little Billy and Suzy.

Didn’t any of these kids notice how many classmates they had at Collegiate, Harvard, and Wharton? I guess not, based upon the types of responses the Millennials give on self-assessment polls:

Some research studies indicate that the millennial generation’s great expectations stem from feelings of superiority. Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute and MonsterTrak, an online careers site, conducted a research study of 18- to 28-year-olds and found that nearly half had moderate to high superiority beliefs about themselves. The superiority factor was measured by responses to such statements as “I deserve favors from others” and “I know that I have more natural talents than most.”

I can just imagine some of the other survey statements these wunderkinder might have agreed to:

“Mommy and Daddy say I can walk on water.”

“I am the smartest, most accomplished, and best-looking individual in my [pick a cohort].”

“I have been reliably told my shit doesn’t stink.”

“I am qualified to be CEO of General Motors because I ran a lemonade stand when I was four.”

(Okay, maybe I’ll give ’em that last one.)

Overall, this leads me to characterize the Millennials not with an “E” for entitled, but rather with a “D.” For delusional.

* * *

Of course, most of this is not the Millennials’ fault. It’s the fault of their dastardly parents, many of whom saddled these kids with this baggage largely in pursuit of their own social status and entitlement. But the kids are the ones who will have to adjust, and learn to deal with what will soon seem a much colder and less friendly world than Sesame Street and Barney led them to believe it would be.

Interestingly enough, investment banking has traditionally been an industry which has been particularly good at taking in lots of talented but jejune youngsters and hammering them into more or less useful corporate citizens. Up until the recent dislocations, investment banking could dangle the three carrots of supersized pay, undeserved social prestige, and premature involvement in the headline-making events of our time, so it tended to attract ambitious, intelligent, and driven college and business school grads who burned to become the next Lloyd Blankfein before the age of 30.

Once they entered the door, however, they found that glamour, prestige, and responsibility were not just lying on the floor waiting to be picked up. They had to be earned with grinding, unrelenting, and mostly unpleasant hard work. No-one coddled the junior investment banker or cocooned him or her in a warm, fuzzy blanket of uncritical esteem and praise. Instead, they beat the shit out of you, and they were nasty about it, too.

Many wannabe Masters of the Universe found they could not carry the freight. Eighty- to 100-hour work weeks, all-night and all-weekend fire drills, and senior bankers who would as soon spit on you as thank you for a job well done convinced many that they did not have either the aptitude or the desire for a life in investment banking. But for those who survived and even thrived under these conditions, the winnowing took the form of—dare I say it in these inhospitable times?—a defining test of character. They went through the crucible, and they were changed.

Now I will not claim that all those who passed this test and became full-fledged investment bankers were or became good or even pleasant people. Far from it. (How many Green Berets or Navy Seals would you welcome to your cocktail party or nominate for your local PTA? None, I posit.) Instead, they became competent and self-reliant, which at least in ages past signified a level of social maturity devoutly to be wished for.

This, as I see it, is exactly the sort of trial by fire that so many of today’s Millennials desperately need, if only to help them cut the parental apron strings and learn to achieve something admirable which is wholly their own. Unfortunately, investment banking is no longer the sort of industry with the draw and demand to deliver this to more than a select few of them.

* * *

So I guess we can expect a lot of twenty-somethings to slosh over into the entrepreneurial bucket, while they’re waiting for the economy to turn and Goldman Sachs to come begging at their doorstep again. We’ll see how well that works out for them. I, for one, am less than sanguine that 70 million of them can earn a living from marketing Web 2.0 freeware, but what do I know? Maybe there is an Incrediboy in the bunch who can invent a way to make everyone rank in the 99th percentile. Let’s just hope he doesn’t have to cut us all off at the knees to make us giants.

My guess is that most of these Millennials will have to sponge off Mom and Dad for several years until the recession ends and they can find a real job. This will have the simultaneously salutary effect of reminding Junior that Mom and Dad do not have all the answers and forcing Mom and Dad to burn through more of their ill-gotten wealth transfer gains to support their indigent progeny. One can hang a tenuous hope that there is justice in this world on much flimsier nails.

In the meantime, let me offer a piece of advice to any Millennials who might be looking to interview at Dealmaker LLC. If you “want to be treated like colleagues rather than subordinates and expect ready access to senior executives,” take a job at the local Starbucks. We do command and control here, buddy, and you’re at the bottom of the food chain.

Here’s the straight dope: you ain’t that great, and you sure as hell ain’t that unique. Get in line with the other millions in your age group and suck it up.

© 2008, 2012 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.