Ignore the Pessimists, the Millennials Will Be the Richest Generation Yet
As we enter graduation season, it’s a safe bet that we’ll soon be hearing a great deal more about the quality of graduates being released into the economy. If the past is any kind of useful guide, much of the commentary will have a downcast slant to it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that readers and employers alike should cast a skeptical eye on the expressions of pessimism. We’ve heard them all before.
If anyone doubts this, they need only take a few minutes to read A Message to Garcia. A short essay that achieved mass appeal in the 20th century, it may force a rethink of what passes for accepted wisdom about America’s youth.
Written by accomplished businessman and writer Elbert Hubbard, Hubbard said his inspiration to write A Message came from a conversation about the Spanish-American War with his son Bert. Bert proclaimed 1st Lt. Albert Rowan a hero for bringing a crucial missive written by President William McKinley to Cuban General Calixto Garcia. Rowan transported McKinley’s message to the leader of the insurgents at great risk to himself, and as Hubbard put it at the time, did his dangerous job without asking endless questions.
Hubbard concluded that the insufficiently focused young men entering the working world needed “a stiffening of the vertebrae” which would among other things cause them “to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies,” and in a metaphorical sense, lead to them acting more like Rowan. Rather than dawdling, they would promptly carry the proverbial message to Garcia when told to do something.
So while the historical accuracy of Hubbard’s account of Lt. Rowan has since been called into question, that’s really not the point. Hubbard’s essay struck a nerve with many top industrialists (including Henry Ford) for what it said about the quality of men showing up for work at the time. Apparently they didn’t measure up.
Quite unlike Rowan, the generation of men that followed him were annoyingly prone to posing all sorts of superfluous questions when given an order. Worse than their questions was how they would respond to commands that didn’t exactly fit their vision of the job they were hired for. Hubbard dejectedly wrote that these spoiled young men were likely to say “I wasn’t hired for that" when told to do something not explicitly part of the job description.
The businessman in Hubbard was troubled by “the imbecility of the average man – the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it.” Having witnessed the modern American male up close, Hubbard lamented that “[s]lipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule.”
So absolute was Hubbard’s pessimism that it even caused him to confidently predict socialism’s eventual failure in the U.S. He asked, “If men will not act for themselves, what will they do when the benefit of their effort is for all?” If Hubbard was to be believed, and his high readership suggests that many believed him, America was doomed.
Important about all this is when A Message to Garcia was written. While it went "viral" in the 20th century, Hubbard first published what remains a much-circulated essay in 1899. Notable about the timing of his piece is that Hubbard was writing about the “foolish” young men who would ultimately father a generation referred to by some as America’s “Greatest.”
Readers can likely guess the lesson of this most gloomy account of young America. It’s a reminder that no matter how much things change, the perception among elders about youth rarely does. Hubbard’s near 120-year old conclusion about the supposed rarity of the employee “who does his work when the ‘boss’ is away” is evidence of the previous truth. Indeed, it’s a fair bet that regardless of which generation they hail from, readers well remember commentary similar to Hubbard’s about the one they were part of.
A member of Generation X, it was assumed mine would be reduced to lives of menial, unfulfilling labor that wouldn’t reward our unappreciated smarts. Movies like Reality Bites chronicled the supposedly bleak future for early ‘90s college graduates who allegedly lacked the numerical skills necessary to succeed as fast food cashiers, and who faced lives deadened by rising expertise in the art of shirt-folding at the Gap. As a Rolling Stone review somewhat approvingly noted at the time, the characters in the movie “take comfort in ducking reality through talking, toking, watching ‘70s reruns and grooving to such oldie hits as Squeeze’s ‘Tempted’ and the Knack’s ‘My Sharona.’”
Members of Generation X brought modern meaning to Hubbard’s belief about the “imbecility” of youth, but just as Hubbard’s description ultimately revealed itself as wanting, so did the picture of Generation X drawn by filmmakers in the early ‘90s. Simply put, the economy took off. Better yet, Generation X played a major role in the internet boom that transformed the U.S. economy. The so-called “slacker” generation became rich, and rapidly moved out of the share houses and parents’ houses that we frequently correlate with the transition phase in between youth and adulthood.
Generation X is the latest to find itself graduated to mortgages, parenthood, and other trappings of responsibility, and now it’s seemingly the turn of the previously stereotyped to transfer the former perceptions about “dowdy indifference” to the younger set. If history doesn’t repeat, it surely rhymes.
All of this is worth remembering in light of the all-too-familiar laments about Millennials, Generation Zero, and other youthful aggregations that are described in blanket fashion by their elders as entitled, lazy, and unproductive. It’s always been this way. Thanks to mostly unbroken stretches of economic growth over the decades, living standards for young and old alike have relentlessly risen. With prosperity more of an accepted fact of life than in times of the past, it’s not surprising that the young might at least give the impression of nonchalance about work and responsibility.
In short, the presumed indolence and indifference that we detect in the young isn’t something to lament. We should instead cheer it on. It’s called progress.