Friday, May 12, 2017

Two Old and One New: Stagnant Living Standards, Underpaidness, and Another Generation

Last month, three articles appeared on worthwhile job-related topics.  Two were on subjects we’ve seen before, and the third was one of the first on something sure to be discussed for at least the next half-century.

Robert J. Samuelson’s “Are living standards truly stagnant?” (The Washington Post, April 11) addressed and partially debunked a “widespread belief” that broad-based American prosperity is not improving.  Although mean inflation-adjusted pay is where it was 42 years ago, Samuelson cited a Dartmouth College study giving authority to something I have repeatedly commented on over the years, that many of our lifestyle improvements don’t show up that way.  One area mentioned here is electronics, specifically cable TV, cellphones, and Internet access.  The research also found that the poorest quarter of households averaged 1.4 cars in 2015, up from 0.75 in 1970, that mean living spaces for those in the bottom half had increased from 1,200 square feet to 1,300 from 1993 to 2007, and that outdoor plumbing, which 12% of the bottom 25% had in 1970, was almost nonexistent two years ago.  These are meaningful things, and serve as a reminder that money, which may become rarer as the jobs crisis worsens, is not the only measure of how well off as a country we are.

In Alternet on April 24th, Paul Buchheit’s “A future of shrinking jobs:  Most workers today are underpaid, and it gets worse” turned out to be better than its title, which could have been written any time since 1973.  That is because it provided the shocking statistic that 94% of positions created since 2007 were “temporary or contract-based.”  Although hardly all of those were low-paying, and that high a share must mostly mean that employee-employer relations are changing, it is consistent with that in general, and answers the question of why fewer people are relocating for work. 

The third piece, by Christine Comaford on April 22nd in Forbes, is “What Generation Z Wants From The Workplace – Are You Ready?”  As I get older, it strikes me how easy it is to mentally run the younger generations together, as if they were one solid group.  I saw that blind spot into the 1980s, when otherwise astute observers missed the difference between the establishment-questioning 1960s and the superficially self-centered 1970s, which I knew, from growing up in them, were totally different times.  We run the risk of doing that again.  Those who haven’t really comprehended the difference between Generation X, which followed the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials after them, are now confronted with another cohort. 

There is disagreement on the exact or even approximate birth years defining each, but using the U.S. Census Bureau definition the last Millennials were born in 2000.  That means that the oldest members of “Generation Z,” a name which may not stick, are now 16 and reaching the workforce.  They are no more Millennials as Boomers such as myself fit with the preceding Silent Generation. 
So how do those in Generation Z differ from those just older?  Comaford referred to a conversation between two researchers, one from that cohort, on the Society for Human Resource Management website, “Move Over, Millennials; Generation Z Is Here” (David Stillman and Jonah Stillman, April 11).  Among its many fascinating points are:  those from Z were largely raised by “tough-love, skeptical Gen Xers” instead of “self-esteem-building, optimistic Boomers,” making them more pragmatic and independent; they want more to “showcase (their) own individual talents” instead of collaborate; they are more competitive and entrepreneurial; they are “true digital natives,” but still prefer to talk face to face; they want to be independent, and “35% would rather share socks than an office space”; they feel lucky to have good jobs, with 76% saying they are willing to start at the bottom and work their way up and 61% willing to put in a decade or more with one employer; and, in one word, they can be described as “realistic.” 

As this generation has barely if at all reached even nominal adulthood, and, depending again on varying definitions, may still be being born, it is too early to know conclusively what it will be like.  However, Comaford, Stillman pere, and Stillman fils have given us a fine start.  Even if we only take away that generations are different and that those in Generation Z are not the same as Millennials, that will help us understand them.  Let us strive to do that, as, before we know it, there will be yet another group to deal with. 

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