how talking about Millennials obscures injustice

(Washington, DC) Generational analysis often conceals power and inequality and justifies the status quo. A great example is The New York Times‘ article yesterday about, entitled, “What Happens When Millennials Run the Workplace?” Mic’s staff of 106 employees is described as “trim 20-somethings, with beards on the men and cute outfits on the women, who end every sentence with an exclamation point and use the word ‘literally’ a lot.” These folks like to “ride hoverboards into the kitchen for the free snacks. ” The challenges for the managers (who are also under 30) include handling “a sense of entitlement, a tendency to overshare on social media, and frankness verging on insubordination.”

All of this is presented as if it were typical of “millennials.” But the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 10,000 Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 (and another 28,000 between 25 and 34) are employed as “news analysts, reporters and correspondents.” Very few of those work for hip web startups. Meanwhile, 529,000 Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 work in “healthcare support occupations,” such as nurse’s aides, dental assistants, and vet techs. The fastest growing occupation of all in the US today is personal care aides, who help elderly and disabled clients with bodily (as well as social) needs. These aides earn about $20,000/year and need no preparation other than “short-term on-the-job training.” I guarantee that they never ride hoverboards into the kitchen or talk back to their employers, or else their highly contin[g]ent positions will cease within the hour.

Nearly two million people between 20 and 24 work in food service, of whom just 2.3% are chefs or head cooks. If you’re one of the 101,000 fast food counter-service workers in that age range, you are scrutinized closely to make sure that you are always perfectly deferential to customers, regardless of the situation. Talking back to anyone on the other side of the counter can get you immediately terminated.

So what does the workplace represent? I would say: nothing distinctive about Millennials. I bet the Village Voice newsroom had a similar vibe in 1975. These are situations in which the workers have very high market value and lots of options, the management is not very distant from them in terms of market value, social status, or financial stake, and the culture of the occupation is informal.

If you own a piece of a startup whose value lies entirely in its skilled workforce, you’d better to be nice to those workers. If you sit in the headquarters of a multinational fast food empire, your only concern about your line workers is how to weed out the least efficient and deferential 50 percent of them and control labor costs. Since for each employee of Mic, there are about 20,000 food service workers of the same age, this is not an article about Millennials. It’s a timeless tale of how people act when they are worth a whole lot in a labor market.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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