A Boston Globe Columnist Pens a Lazy Take on Those Lazy Millennials

We're unemployed because our parents gave us such nice things, writes Jennifer Graham.

Boston Globe columnist Jennifer Graham, like many, many writers before her, has looked at America’s young adults, seen that her own generation has given them nice things, and grown afraid that this has made them lazy. Millenials, she writes, are “an amiable, tech-savvy, yet minimally employable crop of Americans who will ultimately need more subsidies than a dairy farmer.”

As with a few other columns in the grumpy adult genre that the Globe periodically features, Graham’s argument has perhaps found favor among the Globe’s suburban print readers, but it found little love among those blogging about it and tweeting it out today. Perhaps that’s because millennials know how to use Twitter. More likely, it is because people are a bit tired of reading columns bashing millennials. Graham is more writer than researcher, so her non-anecdotal evidence boils down to a recent study showing that 15 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds are out of work. After that, her hypothesis to explain this phenomenon is mostly guesswork.

There have been many rebuttals to the many attempts to describe this generation as lazy and narcissistic through the years. A classic one is to point out that the youth unemployment rate in July 2013 (16.3 percent) is exactly the same as the youth unemployment rate in July 1970, back when the Jennifer Grahams of the world were being called lazy by the Greatest Generation. Another is to point to the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession fueled by overzealous lenders, homebuyers, and financiers. (Those are fancier words for “the parents and grandparents of millennials.”)

Instead, Graham suggests that millennials are in this situation because we grew up in nice homes with cool technological devices. We simply don’t want to work hard to replicate our parents’ success. This is not entirely our fault. No, it is also the fault of our parents for birthing us into their well-appointed palaces:

“More so than previous generations, millennials incubated in beauty and comfort and spaciousness unknown to their parents at that age. There was no Rachael Ray or Martha Stewart then.”

It is always dangerous for culture writers to characterize an entire generation within a large, diverse country like America using anecdotes from their own limited perspective. It can sometimes lead to things like Boston Globe columnists writing about a group comprising  85 million people (including the veterans of two Boomer-inspired wars) as if every one of them grew up in a Wellesley McMansion. (In fact, 60 percent of them grew up in households making less than $50,000, adjusted for inflation, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson points out.) If Graham’s thesis were true—we’re unemployed because we have nice things—those millennials who grew up with less would be thriving now. Evidence suggests that this is not the case, and those of us whose parents paid our tuitions are weathering the recession better than those drowning in student loans.

After Time Magazine put a millennial-bashing story on their cover last year, The Atlantic Wire’s Elspeth Reeve collected archival evidence showing magazine covers from past generations griping about young people these days and their narcissism.  (Tom Wolfe once called the 1970s the “Me” decade. Forty years later, the full section of the New York Times website devoted to Baby Boomers and their problems seems to bear out this description of that decade’s young adults.) Reeve’s point was that as America has grown wealthier through the past century, each generation has found success only to turn around and wonder whether the children deserved it all. 

Part of the problem is that the grumps at America’s magazines and newspapers do not have the ability to wait and see. No, they must declare a generation of people currently aged 13 to 30 total failures today“Sure, there are isolated successes — for every 10,000 college dropouts, there’s one Mark Zuckerberg,” Graham writes. She might as well ask, “Johnny, why haven’t you founded a billion dollar company yet? You’re already in the 8th grade for Christ’s sake!” 

Give Johnny time! Even if he never founds the next Microsoft or runs the world economy into the ground, we’re sure that with age, he, too, will be able to look at his children, and wonder why they’re such lazy, entitled chumps. It’s an American tradition.