Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Oh, You Crazy Boomerang Kids

Lately, I've been fascinated by generational differences...probably because I'm starting to notice them in the generation that follows mine. Courtesy of Wikipedia, here's a breakout of the names and time spans of the latest and greatest generations:

1961–1981: Generation X
1975–1985: MTV Generation
1981–1986: Boomerang Generation
1977–2003: Generation Y
1986–1999: Internet Generation
2001–????: New Silent Generation

Born in 1975, I fall squarely into Generation X. Click on the links above to check out the traits and characteristics are for each generation; it makes for pretty fun reading.

Anyway, I just kind of figured that generational differences are all about the cultural context in which we self-actualize (i.e., grow up). Since the only constant in life is change, then the cultural context, one of the chief intangibles that molds our identity, also changes. Ipso facto, people growing up in different cultural contexts will be different. Congratulating myself on a pretty tight, if inconsequential, axiom, I didn't think about it much beyond that.

Then I became a campus bureaucrat, and I started working with students who fell into that venn diagram of Boomerang Generation/Generation Y. And the functional differences became more obvious. Some students assumed that there were no uncharted waters with regard to activities they wanted to conduct, so they wanted to talk it over ad nauseum. Others would spend hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket to fund these activities, and then not understand why I couldn't pay them back out of petty cash. Still others thought that the practicalities of planning an event thoroughly didn't matter, provided the purpose of the event was a good one. There was nothing negative in my perception of this -- I just figured they were learning the ropes of operating within an organizational structure.

But then I visited a website that I frequent, and saw this conversation thread on a message board. The gist of the article is that the kiddos that fall into the Boomerang Generation end up living at home through their mid-20's, oftentimes after living away from home for a couple of years, primarily because they came of age in a pretty crappy era. They started graduating from high school in 1999 (hello, dot-com bubble burst), and, if they went to college, started graduating in 2003 (hello, 9/11, war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, global nosedive of sentiments toward Americans, faltering economy, etc.).

So, yep, I'll grant that it's hard out there for Boomeranger. BUT, I noted in the thread that there were some accountabilities that are not being owned. So I present to you, in all of my cranky Generation X apathy, my wildly speculative and generalized open letter on what this generation is not admitting to itself:

1) Your parents made you the central focus of family life -- multiple after-school, weekend, and summer activities, and countless hours spent in minivans schlepping kids around. So its only natural that you think that you are, in fact, the center of the universe. Understand that world events are not conspiring to keep you from achieving the modern American dream of gainful employment, no credit card debt, and home ownership.

2) Jumping off from #1, your mediocre accomplishments were lauded as metoric accomplishments. If a kid does well on a test, well, sure, pat him on the back and slap that 'A' paper on the refrigerator. But that kid shouldn't get a bike as a reward for doing that which he should do. This probably led you to believe that as long as you do what's asked of you and don't mess it up too badly, then you deserve praise and rewards.

3) And while we're bashing parents, lets go for another one: parents of the Boomerangs can probably be accused of doing too much for their children. This all comes out of love, and wanting your children to have a cozy life at home, because the world will deal them some harsh realities soon enough. I get that. But if you give your kids whatever clothes and gadgets they want, and you don't teach them how to balance a checkbook, or how to save and earn interest, what does that teach them? That luxuries are de rigeur, and that money is something that you don't have to worry about.

All of these things lead into my thoughts on the Boomerangers expectations about education...

4) You expect that a college degree will net you an awesome job (awesome = way more moolah than the US median income). Get real. A college degree is the new high school diploma. Sure, the crest on that diploma can make a slight difference in how highly your application is rated, but not much. Wanna know what the real important thing is? Experience accrued while getting a degree. If you have a graphic arts degree coupled with an internship, paid or unpaid, working for a local newspaper, well, that's a helluva lot more compelling than a kid who churned out a fake menu for a school project and had weeks to complete it.

This is especially true for anyone who earns a liberal arts degree. Nobody, including employers, know exactly what a liberal arts degree prepares a student to do. Well, that's because it doesn't prepare you for anything practical. A liberal arts degree ideally teaches you a little about a lot, and teaches you how to think critically, and how to write passably. But it does not tell an employer, "Hire Mary. She'd be really great a technical writing since she was an English major." Nope. You need to draw that connection for them by having invested some labor into that field through internships.

I respect those that seek a degree in a field that is renowned for low-paying or high-risk jobs. It's not that some low-paying jobs shouldn't have gobs more money thrown at them (hello, educators!). But how can you be bitter when your History degree from Prestigious University doesn't get you a $50K per year starting salary? Didn't you know that this was going to happen?

Along these's kind of understandable how the Boomerangs might think that a college degree is the end-all/be-all since the operations higher education morphed from a non-profit model into a business model. Translation? Colleges will provide you with the opportunity to get pretty much any kind of degree, so long as you can fork over tuition. Check out this table of degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions. A Bachelor's in Turf Grass Management? A Master's in Interior Design? A Doctorate in Dance? These are fields (no pun intended with respect to that turf degree) are ones that you learn through DOING, not through books. Seek out apprenticeships, or internships. If these things don't exist in your field of choice, it's a FANTASTIC indicator of how easily you will find a decent-paying job in the field, even if you have an advanced degree.

5) Be aware that you will not have the same lifestyle as your parents when you graduate from college. Ask them what their lifestyle was like when they were in their early twenties. They probably got the occasional utility shut-off notice, had to live in a dive apartment with four other people, ate cereal for dinner a couple of nights a week, and only went to the movies when they cashed in the change jar coins. It took them years of work, of savings, of paying down debt, to get to a place where they live comfortably. Why should your experience be any different? By the way, the longer you allow your parents to subsidize your lifestyle, the longer you need to abide by their codes of ethics, their opinions on how you live your life, and how you spend whatever money you do have. You can't take money or shelter (or both) from people and ask them to hold the side dish of commentary -- it just doesn't work that way.

Now, I know that the laundry list above does not apply to every Boomeranger and his parents. And I know that there are reasons that, even though some of them do apply, you can't help needing to live in your parents' basement. I lived at home for a year after I graduated college, because I was getting married and saving money to pay for the wedding, so I get that there are definitely some circumstances beyond your control.

Just don't ride the gravy train forever, is all I'm sayin'. Figure out which of your choices got you to where you are. You don't need to feel remorseful about 'em, especially if you were following your passions. Just, if you want to improve things for yourself, make a plan to do it and don't harbor bitterness that the world doesn't work a little differently. Figure out what you've got to do to make it work for you, or make your peace with the fact that it doesn't.

This is Crotchety GenX Fogey, signing off.

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