For Young People in the Middle

BusinessWeek

August 21, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

I was brought up in Valley Station, Ky. On a recent trip back home, I had lunch with my friend Joanie. She talked about how the lives of her father, Bob, and her son, Jared, were indicative of the changing world of work in the U.S. (BusinessWeek.com, 8/20/07). “My dad didn’t like to work,” Joanie said, laughing. “He always put in the minimum number of hours, called in sick whenever possible, and did just enough to get by. He worked at a factory and, like all of the hourly employees, was a member of the union. He had no special training or education. Once he was hired, he assumed that he had a job for life. He was right.

“In hindsight, Dad had a pretty good life,” she continued. “You remember our house. We lived in a small, yet nice, home in a safe, comfortable suburb. We had a yard. Mom didn’t need to have a job outside the home. Dad was able to retire while he was still in his 50s and had a pension and health-care plan that took care of him for almost 30 years. Mom is still collecting benefits.” She pointed out that her parents had a great retirement, traveling around the country and going to Florida every winter.

Joanie then talked about her son. “Jared tries real hard,” she sighed. “He has three years of college and works overtime whenever he can. Although he is 26, he is still living at home. As you can imagine, this creates a strain sometimes. But at least he doesn’t have to pay rent. I am doing whatever I can to help him save some money. The same house that I was brought up in costs about 20 times as much as it did when Dad bought it – and it is no better now than it was then – only older. The odds on my son having the same home, security, and benefits that my dad took for granted are pretty slim, even if he gets married and both he and his wife work.”

Life Is Good for the Top 1%

My talk with Joanie really made me think. Something doesn’t make sense. When I read the official statistics about inflation, unemployment, and the economy, it seems like everything is getting better and better. When I look at the world through the eyes of Joanie and Jared, it doesn’t appear quite as rosy.

In the U.S. today, it is easier than ever for a small number of people to become rich, but very hard for a large number of people to make it to the middle. The top 1% of wage earners is doing just fine. The young people who graduate with honors from top schools, become investment bankers, and work real hard are kicking butt.

It is tough in the middle. Jared is not stupid and not lazy. He is just a regular guy. He would love to have a house like his grandfather’s, be able to work 40 hours per week, get four weeks of vacation, and have lifetime health-care and pension benefits. He would love to have three kids, especially when he’s young enough to watch them grow up. But he and his mother aren’t very optimistic that this is going to happen.

Questioning the Assumptions

There are millions of young men and women like Jared out there. I wish that I had some clever career advice that would ensure that they could easily have what their grandparents took for granted. I don’t.

My only suggestion is that we as parents, grandparents, teachers, and citizens do a better job of educating our young people about the reality of work in America today. Assumptions that employees made in the past are not going to be valid in the future. Most of them aren’t valid now. The jobs like Jared’s grandpa had are rapidly disappearing, and those jobs are not coming back (BusinessWeek.com, 8/20/07).

Young people need to know it is going to be tough in the middle. And they need to accept it. Theoretical arguments about whether the changing world of work in the U.S. is fair or unfair, better or worse, right or wrong won’t do much to help anyone have a great life.

Don’t Count on Social Security

If you are a young person in the middle and want to have what used to be a middle-class life, you are going to have to work real hard. Get as much quality education and training as you can. Face the fact that you are probably going to be educating yourself for the rest of your life. Go into a field where you have a reasonable chance of getting a job. Start saving money as soon as you can. Forget about the fancy, flat-screen TV. Buy a used car. Avoid all credit-card debt.

If your parents are able to pay thousands of dollars for a wedding, ask them if you can just have a simple ceremony and use the money they would have spent to save for a home. Start planning for your retirement now. That deduction in your check for Social Security? Don’t count on getting the money back.

Jared’s grandfather didn’t spend much time worrying about his career or his retirement. He didn’t have to. But the “Grandpa Bob” days are over. Unless your parents have money – and feel like giving it to you – nobody is going to take care of you but you. Don’t count on your union. Don’t count on your company. Don’t count on your government. If you try to coast like Grandpa Bob, you will not end up with a life that even comes close to his. The happy-talk statistics about how great everything is don’t apply to you.

If you are a young person in the middle, take your career and your future very seriously. Start now. If you don’t start today, you will regret it later.