The Harshest Generation

It seems we’re delaying everything nowadays—including work.

According to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the “lockstep march from school to work and then on to retirement no longer applies for a growing share of Americans.”

The problem: The “education and labor market institutions that were the foundation of a 20th-century system are out of sync with the 21st-century knowledge economy.” In practical terms, this often means that Millennials—roughly defined as those between 18 and 34—are living with their parents, struggling to land full-time jobs and finding it hard to pay off college debt.

The report concludes that we must “reform the generational social compact to meet the new demands of a 21st century economy and society.” But, in the meantime, as one coffee shop employee told The Wall Street Journal, “for people living in this economy and in our age group, it’s a rough deal.”

Peter Drucker noticed decades ago that people in developed nations were getting started on work later in life and quitting later. In fact, he believed that the extension of our working years beyond a time when earlier generations would have retired had contributed greatly to a rise in years spent in school.

Image credit:  jussograph
Image credit: jussograph

He had two great concerns about this trend. The first, as he explained in his 1968 book, The Age of Discontinuity, was that education creates higher expectations without any guarantee of higher productive capacity. People want more pay; they want a career; and they want “knowledge work.” But there is no guarantee that the job market will continue to need or pay well for what they have to offer.

Were such a situation to unfold, Drucker warned, it would result in “an unemployed and unemployable intellectual proletariat the like of which the world has never seen.”

Drucker’s second worry was that keeping people in school or dependent on their parents for too long amounted to an extension of adolescence. And this could be dangerous. “A society in which a large part of the young, the physically healthy, the well educated and the promising live in the limbo of adolescence, neither grown up nor productive nor yet still children, is a society plagued” by a host of problems, Drucker wrote. “Adolescents are beset alike by fear of taking responsibility and by bitter frustration at being kept out of power and opportunity.”

But Drucker did not look down on these ever-older adolescents. On the contrary, he found them to be enterprising and inclined to hard work. It was just getting tougher and tougher to break in.

“I’m glad that I’m not 25 years old,” Drucker told in an interviewer in 1985. “It’s a very harsh world, a terribly harsh world for young people.”

Do you think that the world is harsher for young people today than it was for previous generations?