July 18, 2010
The Times does it again
It’s funny the things you miss when you’re in tech and preview week for a new musical….like a Times article that scores spectacularly in not one but two of my big journalistic pet peeve departments: picking bad poster children, and grossly mischaracterizing the Millennial generation.
The article is “American Dream is Elusive for New Generation.” It profiles Scott Nicholson, who supposedly has been fruitlessly looking for work for two years out of college. The only problem?
He hasn’t been. He received an offer for, and turned down, a $40,000 per year job with an insurance company, because he thought it was a dead-end job. Still living with his parents (and thus not worrying about rent) and sending out a handful of resumes per week, he also started a small lawn-mowing and garden business to pay some of his living expenses. He’s had a good shot at at least two jobs in two years: the insurance job which he thought was beneath him, or expanding the lawn and garden freelancing (the article says he’s got half a dozen clients, which would seem to me to portend the potential for further success). He hasn’t struck out in the job market at all; he’s failed to find a job straight out of college that will provide him with the easy success and standard of living he’d come to take for granted.
I don’t want to pile on to Scott too much more; I think he’s an entitled brat, but over 1400 comments on the original article have now eloquently pointed that out to him, and the fact that his name will be forever linked to this article and the picture he painted of himself in Google’s search algorithms is probably going to prove more than sufficient reproof. I want to discuss some of the problems with his kind of lazy reporting and the responses it engenders, its effects on the rest of us, and how–in spite of itself–it points to what we really need to do.
The comments on the story were really fascinating, and I dare say more enlightening than the article itself, and they almost all fell into one of these categories:
1. Scott’s a spoiled brat who needs to learn that no work is beneath him in times like this.
2. This just proves what I always knew, that Millennials are entitled narcissistic losers who think everything in life should be tailored to be “fulfilling” to them.
3. Uh, I’m a Millennial, and no, Scott does not represent us or our difficulties or view of work.
4. Good for Scott for holding out for a decently paying job, and shame on everyone telling him to compromise! (This was a very small minority of responses.)
And one of the big problems with reporting like this is its ability to engender response #2; it feeds the confirmation bias of people who already want to believe this. It doesn’t shed any light on actual obstacles to getting living wage jobs for recent college graduates; it only provides fodder to those who would prefer to believe that we’re just unrealistic and spoiled and therefore to blame for all of our own problems. And if the paper of record succeeds in confirming this fact to enough of our elders? It’s scary. I really can’t tell at this point whether the Times is just being hapless in its selection of article subjects, or if it’s actually intent on promoting this kind of prejudice against young adults. Or if its writers and editors truly have no effing clue how hard it is out there for 20-somethings who aren’t incredibly privileged and so this was really what they thought was a good example. Really, in a city with over 200 Starbucks locations, they couldn’t send a reporter into one to find a college-educated 25-year-old working a $16,000/year job and ask why?
Also, there’s the potential for this to embolden lawmakers who claim that extensions of benefits like unemployment and food stamps aren’t necessary, or are actually prolonging joblessness, because they encourage dependency and a sense of entitlement to collect a paycheck for nothing. Who really believe (and there are those who do) that people on unemployment would rather just sit around collecting government money than take a non-perfect job.
But most people on unemployment are not sitting around happily turning down $40K jobs. They actually cannot find a job. Most people on unemployment do not have their parents paying their rent.
Then I’m also troubled by response #4, and its presumed polar opposition to response #1. Because in part of its basic observation, it’s correct: wages suck. Wages have been stagnant since the late 1970’s. Service sector wages particularly suck. And young adults are not wrong to make the case that we need to be paid more, as the cost of a college education has grown disproportionately large compared to expectable salary in return. (Particularly disturbing is the phenomenon of entry-level jobs masquerading as unpaid internships.) But the attitude that we should just hold out to be paid what we’re worth doesn’t get us anything: not credibility, not work experience, not independence, not the self-knowledge and resilience that comes from doing a job and doing it well in order to survive–not because it’s necessarily your dream job. It does zero good at this point to refuse to take basically decent jobs to protest that we aren’t being paid what we should be, because millions of older, more experienced, more desperate people are lined up and happy to take them. And we’ll still wind up looking like clueless brats.
And those comments, and the off-base posturing of the whole article, really go straight to the question of what the American Dream is. The Times would have us accept that the American Dream is to waltz into a corporate finance job straight out of college with no work experience, with a salary sufficient to support a consumptive upper-middle class lifestyle, and the fact that Scott can’t do it even with all his family’s connections on his side, shows that the American Dream is dead for 20-somethings.
I really hope that that’s not what the American Dream is. I don’t think it is. And I think that we need to be able to articulate what it is to us in order to counter the notions propagated by this article.