[Career Thoughts for 16-24 Year Olds] Is BusinessWeek’s “Lost Generation” Really Lost?

The current edition of BusinessWeek trumpets a “Lost Generation” of 16-24 year olds – and notes, “The continuing job crisis is hitting young people especially hard—damaging both their future and the economy.” The article talks about the drag on future earnings, as well as the experience of a similarly aged generation of Japanese youth from the 1990’s.

No doubt that the impact of the recession is hard on this group – but is the prognosis true?

Is the generation “lost?”

Not Likely – here’s why, and how it’s important.

Every demographic work generation has some experience different than others, a phenomenon well chronicled by sociologist Dr. Morris Massey. Massey’s best known work, What You Are Is Where You Were When, as well as his follow-up work, details how early life experience guides our adult behavior.

Just as the generation that grew up in the 1930’s had a life-long value component of thrift and saving (informed by the Great Recession: you never know when what you own will be wiped out), you can almost see the trajectory of the cohort of 16-24 year olds land down the road.

Here’s an educated hunch on some values – based on the experience of high joblessness that this cohort is experiencing in the Great Recession – and the behaviors that will accompany them;

  • There is no guarantee of a “job” even though you’re well trained: self-reliance will become of paramount importance, and there will be an uptick in this generation of entrepreneurship and self-employment rather than work in larger firms. This change simply accelerates a trend already well in motion.
  • The expectation of “study hard and you’ll be rewarded” will be dashed: people will turn to self-reliance and informal networks and community with peers to a much greater degree than trusting traditional system and processes such as the college recruiting process, official application systems, etc.
  • Dreams postponed are not always dreams forgotten: this “lost” generation may reengage later and wiser in life, meaning that employers will need to rethink what “entry level” means for a group that is more mature than anticipated. Not unlike the influx of military vets into the workforce after World War II, jobs that open up after this steep downturn will have a different set of job fillers than typically seen.

BusinessWeek highlight’s Lisa Kahn of Yale’s research that graduating from college in a bad economy has a long-lasting negative effect on wages for that balance of their lifetimes.

What we don’t know, though, is that path that people in this cohort will follow.

One take – including mine (Why Your Next Job is (Also) a Temporary Job) – is that most “corporate” jobs will increasingly be a series of basically temporary jobs – positions held for a period of time until the next reorganization, merger, closure, or acquisition.

The Japanese corollary, while interesting, may not be relevant: the work systems in Japan historically guided kids into lifelong employment with corporations. And as the Bing Blog notes, the Japanese salarymen is alive if not well. No such system now exists in the United States.

The path in the United States is different, and continues to evolve. Wise man and career / work expert Charles Handy predicts that more people will hold independent jobs rather than long service corporate spots, and will be characterized by shorter but more different type of careers.

[Updated 10/12/2009: After I wrote this initial post I thought of Max Levchin, CEO of Slide here in San Francisco, and this description from Gawker: “Before PayPal and Slide founder Max Levchin moved from Illinois to Palo Alto in 1998, he’d started three companies and sold the last for $100,000 — not a tiny amount of money, especially for a young entrepreneur.” Levchin, given his success and wealth, is clearly not every man, nor is he clearly a salaryman. But his drive and spirt is typical of many young people. I don’t know this for a fact, but hunch is that Max didn’t wait for some company to hire him: he went out and made things happen for himself.]

Five years ago the prevailing wisdom was the employers would be suffering a severe talent deficit due to a tsunami of retirements amongst the baby boomer generation.

One steep and hard recession later, the wisdom has been flipped, and the press today talks about that same boomer segment working later – and deferring retirement – due to erosion of retirement account in the crash of the stock markets.

We’ll all experience and see how this “lost” generation fares. My hunch is that the will be far more resilient, entrepreneurial and creative than imagined: those qualities are uniquely American, and have been a common thread of behavior as far back in history as the eye can see.