A regular customer of mine came into the store where I work my dead-end-but-rent-paying job and said the most interesting thing: “You know, my generation is not used to doing without – if we want something, we buy it. But your generation is much, much more frugal than we are. Y'all have got to figure out how to make money once we've gone.”
A lesson in history, economics, and politics in three sentences, it was. It told me nothing that I didn't know, but it indicated to me that some realize that there is a problem ahead. My regular was an independent businessman, so he would probably be among the first of his Boomer generation to recognize such a fact. But what he observed goes far deeper and has far greater repercussions than what he alluded to.
My generation is referred to frequently as Millennials, but I prefer to call us The 9/11 Kids. I consider us to be those who were coming of awareness of the larger, global world and planning our future in it at the time 9/11 occurred and altered everything. Everything we have experienced, from roughly late middle school or high school through college and on to the present, has been a product of that 9/11 paradigm. I would include the Great Recession in that 9/11 paradigm, for it is also a product of twentieth century responses to a globalized reality. For terrorist acts we launch full-scale wars, and for the withering of a globalized post-industrial economy we conjure the ghost of Keynes.
And from my generation's point of view, the worn-out twentieth century paradigm marches on and we know there is nothing we can do about it. This irks us only somewhat in our lack of political power, for in many ways we still defer to the patrician attitude of the Boomers, left and right alike. But where it truly angers us is in the economics of it all. That is where it hits us the hardest, in the wallet.
My generation is not against stability, conventionality, or ladder-climbing. We will knuckle under and do it if we have to, just like any other generation – our difference is that we simply don't believe that such a life conveys any meaning in and of itself. But we also know that even if we wanted to resign ourselves to cookie cutter conformity and a chance at the prosperous life, we wouldn't be given the chance. For many of us, the time when we might have joined the ranks of corporate respectability has long gone. From the earliest days of the Great Recession, once the initial panic over the falling stock market abated, companies realized that they didn't actually need to bother hiring recent graduates -- these untrained 9/11 Kids with their heads still in the classroom -- and bringing them up to snuff. They could simply hire older workers recently laid off, with far more experience in requisite fields. Then they would run the ship lean and get the most out of the new hires.
Don't get me wrong, I understand the difficulty faced by companies and what they had to do to stay afloat. But even our best actions have consequences. One is that my generation has largely been passed over in terms of becoming a part of the network of prosperous, business America. We won't get in, ever.
The implications for this are two-fold. The first is that, without getting young people into a corporate pipeline, there is no way for them to learn the intricacies of any business over an extended period of time. Even if we were miraculously hired on in our forties during some incredible economic boom, we would have few to none of the skills and knowledge requisite for operating even a portion of a large business in a twenty-first century economy. Thus, in twenty years, when the Boomers and those just trailing them are dead or in nursing homes, who will run corporate America? This is something every human resource manager should be losing sleep over.
Of course politicians and CEOs will have the answer: bring in the talented immigrants! Brush the crisis of millions of hardly-employed citizens under the rug and let's get back to business as usual! But even if the issue of talent in running a corporation is solved, what will you do about the customers? Because if the 9/11 Kids are not making middle-class amounts of money, they will not be buying in middle-class quantities or at middle-class prices.
And even if the 9/11 Kids, by some stroke of luck, are making decent amounts of money in twenty years, they will have been habituated into cutting out what is not necessary. Don't need a TV, already am paying for Internet, I'll just have Netflix. Why put that new mountain bike on the credit card when there's a dude on Craigslist who has almost the bike what I want and is willing to trade for a set of golf clubs I inherited from my dad? We will not spend in large amounts or go into debt because we simply do not believe that things will get better. Much of my generation is preparing to be taxed heavily to pay for their parents, doing without, juggling two or three income streams at a time and a different one each year, our income changing precipitously, never rising predictably.
If I had any advice for corporate America, it would be to not think about how to survive the Obama administration or how to set yourself achievable growth targets for the next five years. I would ask them, what are you going to do in twenty years' time? The Boomers will be dead, their money all spent; their children will be broke and suspect your motives. How will you run a business? Because I can tell you now, the model that has existed for the past two hundred years won't cut it. Who will you make products for? Forget the Europeans, for they are in the same boat. East Asia is no answer, for their economic apex has been reached and they are already shedding jobs to other Asian and African nations with cheaper labor – they will never have what was once termed "an American standard of living.” The brief bump upward that was the prosperity of the industrial world was thanks to a mere intermediate stage of transportation, when goods could travel a certain distance quickly, but just not far enough – now, everything can be delivered everywhere, and the wealth will spread just as far and even more evenly.
Start thinking now. I say this because I am starting my own little business – this affects me too. I am looking to the long-term, because the short-term, to a 9/11 Kid, looks like unforgiving. I am looking to how my business will operate financially when there is less disposable wealth; how it will operate ecologically when we have ruined most of the natural bounty of this planet; how it will operate morally in a society driven by the alliance between political power and private profit. Start thinking now, because the old days are long gone.