Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Behold, the Re-generation

NYTimes columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman delivered the keynote address at my sister's University of Delaware graduation this past weekend. As we sat in the sunshine staring down upon 3,100 beaming, proud graduates stepping from their happy, beer-soaked dorm rooms into the doom and gloom of a global recession, I thought, dude, I do not envy him this task. How do you tell these kids to go forth, work hard, fear nothing, reach for the stars, be productive, yada yada yada, when everyone else in the world is wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth?

Friedman spoke well, as I'd expect, delivering grounded advice with wit and intelligence. He brought us all down a bit, of course, by indicting our parents' generation as Grasshoppers who simply consumed, consumed, consumed and destroyed the earth while destroying the economy. (I watched the Baby Boomers all around me squirm and fidget through this segment of the speech.) He then termed the graduates as the Re-generation: Those who will go forth and replenish, rebuild, and refocus the world. It was inspiring, I'll admit, to hear him advise them to use imagination and creativity and define success in their own ways.

But as I looked around, I couldn't help but wonder, is this really true? Is it really this era of graduates who will regenerate? Of course in some regards, yes. But don't you think that in the immediate future, it will be my generation -- Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980 -- who will be doing the real work?

As I see it, this global recession means that the Grasshoppers, all the while lamenting their lost retirement savings, have left (or are leaving) the workforce. But companies are not re-hiring a newer, fresher, just-out-of-college workers. Nope. Hiring freezes worldwide mean that the Re-generation may be spending more time in the Grasshoppers' basements then they'd originally intended. They may be volunteering their time and using their intellect and creativity to save the world's wretched (who last year were probably the world's upper middle class...oh, irony), but they will have a hard time moving into the existing spaces to make immediate change within the workforce.

So who do we have left? That's right, America -- the 30-somethings you poo-pooed 10 to 15 years ago when we graduated from college. I remember well the Time, Newsweek, and NYTimes articles that looked down their noses at those of us who came of age listening to Nirvana, playing Super Mario Bros., and watching Must See TV. Aren't we the ones who started the recycling movement? Didn't we yell at our peers in the dorm bathroom to turn off the water while they brushed their teeth? Didn't we marvel at the technology behind listservs in our lit classes, harness the power of the internet in our jobs, and teach our parents how to use e-mail and MS Word? And aren't we the ones doing the heavy lifting now?

I look at my own workplace as a prime example: In the last six months, as the shit really hit the fan, many of the Boomers went quietly into early retirement -- whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Many of these were our upper management folks, too. Because they mishandled the money and ran the joint into the ground, we can't hire new people to fill the gaps.

Yet at the same time, everyone's scrambling for new ideas, asking for revising and re-visioning of the old ideas, looking to those of us in the middle to take on new challenges to compensate for the decrease in workforce. We're all working our asses off to keep the place alive, yet getting no raises for at least another year, maybe two, maybe three. But we look around and think, yeah, I'll keep working hard because I know I'm fortunate to even have a job and I believe in the work that we do. Furthermore, I can't afford to not work my ass off because I have a house and family, so there's no alternative. This is a mindset similar to the Great Generation, no? Put your head down, work hard, remember your priorities.

I've always been annoyed by the moniker Generation X. As if we have no place, no defining qualities, no endearing characteristics. Well. That will change.


Marcia said...

YAY!!!! Thank you! I completely agree. We are the generation that has quietly changed the face of the world! 5 years ago there wasn't a "real" workforce based out of their homes, now almost every organization has some type of telecommuting- which BTW helps to cut down on environmental impact!

THANK YOU!!! We will put the country and the world our backs and save it! Just like our grandparents- there is no free love or free anything for us! We have had to just work . . .

Love you for this!

paddyandhenrysmom said...

Well said! As the economy ebbs and flows the "re-generation" will ultimately find its place in the world, but for now I agree that people currently in their 30s and 40s are bearing a heavy load and are bringing new ideas to the workplace that will help spin the wheel of doom back in a positive direction.

I'm proud to be part of Generation X, to be teaching my kids to recycle (probably 75% of what we leave at the curb is in our recycle bins, and you just wait till I get that compost bin started), squirreling away the $ we'll need for retirement w/o taking Social Security into account, not kvetching because I have to work hard and don't get paid millions or get constant pats on the back to do it, the list goes on.

I think we have a lot to learn from our grandparents about prioritizing thrift and family, and I think our communities will be better off for following their lead. It's finally become cool to admit you use coupons and shop consignment sales. But many of my contemporaries have been doing it quietly for ages and can't imagine engaging in the wastefulness of not doing these things.

wandermom said...

Very well said indeed!

Rebecca said...

Here! Here! Also an interesting thing to think about is there will be less of us doing the heavy lifting, 1992 High School graduating class had less graduates than any other since before WW2. But it will be done and we won't whine.

Gosh, so cool to hear Tommy F was visting U of D (my alma mater:-).