From Illusion to Disillusion

What a difference five years makes.

When social scientists began assessing Generation Y (The Millennials born between 1984-2002), their prospects were bright. We began reading about them a decade ago, when authors Howe and Strauss touted their confident attitudes, self-esteem and optimism. Jobs were readily available as commerce was still booming for the most part.

Today—not so much. Our nation is in year two of a recession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 16.8% of Americans are unemployed or underemployed. These statistics are much worse for Generation Y. The unemployment rate for young Americans is 52.2%, a post-World War 2 high. For recent college grads with jobs, half are in positions not requiring degrees. Banks hesitate to offer loans and real estate has not yet been resuscitated. No rebound as yet. So, how does this affect the youngest employee population in our country? More than you may realize.

The income of young adults has fallen off a cliff since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Given the hunger for work among America’s unemployed, a 20-something now competes with a baby boomer with much more experience. Male workers under 35 have taken the hardest hit. While inflation has pushed income up for older workers, it has dropped between 10-12 percent for workers ages 15-34.

Earlier this month, a recent college graduate, Trina Thompson, filed a lawsuit against her college. She wants the $70,000 back that she paid for tuition. Why? The Monroe College grad said she hasn’t found gainful employment since earning her bachelor’s degree just a few months ago. She says, “They have not tried hard enough to help me.” Trina is simply part of a huge population who’s feeling the crunch. Sadly, we’ve conditioned these kids to look for someone else to blame.

This issue didn’t surface overnight. Some have seen it coming for six years. A book hit the market in 2003 called, Quarter-life Crisis. You read that right. It’s not about mid-life crisis, but quarter-life crisis. It introduces the growing population who experience clinical depression at about 25 years old because they haven’t made their first million or found their perfect position in life. They make up a rising population who are seeing therapists to talk about unmet expectations.

Herein lies my greatest concern. These young people who are now adults (or at least should be), are experiencing deep disillusionment. These once confident kids are getting dose of reality. What scares me is that parents and teachers should have been preparing them for this reality. Instead of preparing them for the challenging road of life, we’ve been busy trying to smooth that road for them. What were we thinking? Perhaps we weren’t thinking at all. We gave them trophies and told them they were awesome. The smart ones became savvy that mom might not share the same opinion as the other adults they meet on their job. But most got hit hard and now battle with disillusionment.

A long time mentor shed some light on this for me recently. I wrote about him last week. He reminded me that a person can’t become disillusioned until they are first “illusioned.” By this he meant, when we have illusions about reality—that’s when we are vulnerable to cynicism. Reality eventually raises its ugly head. Whether it’s an illusion about a perfect marriage, or about church people being nice or about the marketplace always providing good incomes for college graduates, we need someone to tell us the truth. What is that truth? Often life is hard and there is no one person to blame. I am concerned that we have not raised this generation well. They have been the focus of their parents, the government, schools and marketers. And they’ve proven to be a good generation of kids. But, we created a bubble for them to live inside; we’ve wrapped them in cotton. My question is: are we setting them up for disillusionment because of the illusions we fed them?

So what can we do? May I suggest a few actions to take if you employ young people?

1. Be a gardener. Just as gardeners see their primary job as cultivating the plants in their soil, we must grow these young employees and potential employees. Why not offer apprenticeships where you offer a limited salary and a great mentoring relationship. They hunger for this kind of investment.

2. Be a velvet-covered brick. Velvet on the outside—warm and relational. Brick on the inside, firm on your principles. Tell them the truth. Prevent disillusionment by leveling with them. Give them realistic expectations. They may not get a trophy or ribbon today. Prepare them to work out of character.

3. Be a chess player not a checkers player. Unlike checkers, in chess, you must know what each piece can do in order to win. You must discover strengths. This is how we must lead the next generation. Find out who they are and where they fit. Don’t play checkers—where you treat them all alike.

This recession will likely impact all of our thinking. Two years ago, young people changed jobs every 18 months, and started looking for new jobs three days after they got one. Today—it may be they’ll be more apt to settle down and learn in one place. We may have our chance to prepare them for the future. With the economy in the shape it’s in, these young employees will be the best investment we can make.

What are you doing to prepare the next generation for the future?


From Illusion to Disillusion