Why «Generation Why Bother» Doesn’t Care

I’ve been stewing all week about a logically sloppy op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times. Every Sunday morning, I leap out of bed and skipper down the stairs to snatch the paper off the stoop, but last week it betrayed me. Todd and Victoria Buchholz’s «The Go-Nowhere Generation» takes a disparate set of data-points and tries to make the case with them that young Americans aren’t «occupying» anything but their parents’ couches and are bringing economic ruination on themselves by being risk-averse Debbie Downers.

For instance, in one particularly odd leap of logic, they cite a decline in drivers’ licenses as a cause of concern, and then link that decline to increased Internet use. «That may mean safer roads,» they quip, «But it also means a bumpier, less vibrant economy.» Really? Would the economy be more vibrant if Mark Zuckerberg spent his time in college driving around delivering pizza instead of sitting in his room inventing Facebook? And do we really want to lament that a younger generation is finding fewer reasons to fire up the ol’ internal combustion engine, fewer excuses to pump more carbon into the atmosphere?

Now, it is true that Americans are known to produce especially spoiled children. And there are a lot of discouraging data points about younger Americans out there. But the Buchholzes are maddeningly glib about the economic realities behind them. At one point they suggest that young Nevadans should escape their state’s high unemployment rate by hopping on a bus headed for low-unemployment North Dakota. But, as fellow HBR editor Justin Fox pointed out when we chatted about it, North Dakota is the third-least-populated state in the Union. There are 175,000 people currently seeking jobs and not finding them in Nevada. Next door in California, there are 2 million. The total workforce in North Dakota is just 390,000.

The youngsters the Buchholzes disapprovingly describe are not wrong to be less-than-enthused about the opportunities the economy presents. They have grown up in an era that has seen Americans working harder and harder; making less money for that work


by Sarah Green | http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr

I’ve been stewing all week about a logically sloppy op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times. Every Sunday morning, I leap out of bed and skipper down the stairs to snatch the paper off the stoop, but last week it betrayed me. Todd and Victoria Buchholz’s «The Go-Nowhere Generation» takes a disparate set of data-points and tries to make the case with them that young Americans aren’t «occupying» anything but their parents’ couches and are bringing economic ruination on themselves by being risk-averse Debbie Downers.

For instance, in one particularly odd leap of logic, they cite a decline in drivers’ licenses as a cause of concern, and then link that decline to increased Internet use. «That may mean safer roads,» they quip, «But it also means a bumpier, less vibrant economy.» Really? Would the economy be more vibrant if Mark Zuckerberg spent his time in college driving around delivering pizza instead of sitting in his room inventing Facebook? And do we really want to lament that a younger generation is finding fewer reasons to fire up the ol’ internal combustion engine, fewer excuses to pump more carbon into the atmosphere?

Now, it is true that Americans are known to produce especially spoiled children. And there are a lot of discouraging data points about younger Americans out there. But the Buchholzes are maddeningly glib about the economic realities behind them. At one point they suggest that young Nevadans should escape their state’s high unemployment rate by hopping on a bus headed for low-unemployment North Dakota. But, as fellow HBR editor Justin Fox pointed out when we chatted about it, North Dakota is the third-least-populated state in the Union. There are 175,000 people currently seeking jobs and not finding them in Nevada. Next door in California, there are 2 million. The total workforce in North Dakota is just 390,000.

The youngsters the Buchholzes disapprovingly describe are not wrong to be less-than-enthused about the opportunities the economy presents. They have grown up in an era that has seen Americans working harder and harder; making less money for that work; and consequently enjoying their work less and less, as these charts show:

wages-satisfaction.jpg

Perhaps young people seem so unexcited is because there’s very little about our economy to get excited about.

Another concern raised by the piece: the Buchholzes are especially worried that young Americans have become complacent because think success in our economy is based on luck. But they don’t invest any column inches in investigating whether that is, in fact, true. If it is, then young people may have it more right than their elders. And one already-fortunate group of people do benefit enormously from luck: CEOs. It’s not just young people whose incentives have been distorted. As Mihir Desai argued in a recent HBR article, market-based executive compensation has created some very big winners whose success is largely random:

ceo-pay-bubble.jpg

But berhaps I myself am seeing the issue through the self-same risk-averse, luck-tinted glasses the Buchholzes describe. After all, I am youngish enough that my working years have been framed by not one, but two bubbles bursting, and the feeble recoveries that followed them. And to me, it does seem that our economy has come to resemble a lottery rather more than is healthy: lots of people paying into the game, only a lucky few getting the payouts.

The choice young people face isn’t whether to be jobless in Nevada or employed in North Dakota. It’s whether they’re going to drag themselves unwillingly into an unfair game or decide to invent a new one.

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