(Newer readers may need to brush up on one of my favorite posts from back in the day, one that produced a wide range of responses)
Dear people between the ages of 20 and 40,
I hear things aren't going so well for you these days. The last time we talked – remember, when you asked if you could borrow $250 to get the alternator on your 1996 Nissan Pulsar fixed? – it was already clear that you are going through a rough patch. It looks like that "patch" might last for a long time, something like ten years. Five if we're lucky. Look, I know that some of this is our fault. Maybe a lot of it. That's why I gave you the $250 for your car, and why I keep offering to take you on vacation with me and Dad, and paid for you to get those two teeth fixed by Dr. Morimoto when you were in town over Christmas. I know it embarrasses you when I do things like that. Maybe "humiliates" is a better word. But here's the thing: we love you, and we know that you'd be financially independent now if the opportunities were available.
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They aren't, and it's sad to see. OK, maybe we have a little case of the guilts too.
All of that said, there are a few things we want to say. We're not trying to start a fight. Honest. Just hear your folks out for a minute or two.
Yes, we took advantage of a number of things that aren't available to you anymore. Strong economic growth. High wages. Taken-for-granted health benefits. Cheap higher education with cheap student loans (which in turn were almost wiped out by inflation over time).
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Pensions. Paid vacations. Cheap housing with subsidized mortgages. You get the point. We get the point too – we had it, you don't, and you're somewhat envious. That makes sense. Here's the thing, though: it wasn't all sunshine and roses. There were trade-offs.
Maybe it's something that happened in the schools or maybe it's TV or maybe it's my fault, but at some point your generation got the impression that work is supposed to be fun and rewarding. It isn't. It's just fucking work, if I may. You're jealous of the level of job security and benefits we had coming out of high school or college in the 60s, right? Your Uncle Joe retired at 60 with a nice pension.
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Do you know how he got it? He stood at a kick press for 8 hours per day, every day, for 40 years. Honey, if you had that job your head would explode from boredom and lack of stimulation in about a week. We'd never hear the end of how you feel unfulfilled and you'd probably quit to go "find yourself" or something before the pension vested.
Your Dad has one of those civil servant jobs that are disappearing these days. Twenty years at the Clerk's office and another 20 behind a desk at Streets and Sanitation. How long would you be happy if you switched places with him? My point, kids, is not that you're bad people or that you have no work ethic. My point is that we weren't just handed good money and a pension. In most cases we had to spend the great majority of our lives doing incredibly mundane, repetitive, mindless, soul-crushing crap to get it. We did it because that's where the money was. You know that silly show about the Office that you're always watching on Netflix? Picture yourself as Stanley or one of the old people who sells paper over the phone. Imagine yourself on a phone all day, every day asking people to buy paper. For years. Decades. Those jobs don't exist anymore. If they did, would you and your two Anthropology degrees do them?
Right now you'll say "Yes, I'd do any job" because you don't have one. That's understandable. I don't think you mean it, though. Maybe you should work on saying it until you believe it. I can imagine how annoying it is to be lectured on hard times by people who didn't have to live through a lot of them, at least in the economic sense. Think of it this way, though: we're right there with you for the most part. Yes, we're doing better now because we've been working for longer and we managed to get on the boat before it started sinking. But now? Now we spend most days trying not to get fired for being over 50, and most nights wondering how we're going to work until we're 70 or whenever the hell people are allowed to retire. You know those pension plans don't really guarantee anything, right?
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Ask my sister Nancy who worked for the airlines.
We know this is harder for you than for us – we're getting disillusioned and shafted at the tail end of our working lives while your working lives aren't even getting started. By the time the economy recovers in a decade or whatever you're going to be so old that…well, never mind. Let's not even talk about it.