Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Gen X makes a stand on wobbly knees

The name Karen Mracek might not mean anything to you now, but in the future, when all your friends have XIOA bookmarked on their browsers and you're bragging that you were there right at the beginning, you'll thank her. Because it was her recent column in The Des Moines Register about "Generation X" in the workplace that prompted us to set up shop.

(Disclosure: I worked at The Register once and bear it no more ill will than I do any other media outlet. This ain't Cityview, which constantly berates the local daily for being owned by an out-of-town concern, yet gives the local TV stations a free pass on their absentee ownership.)

Mracek is one of two writers of The Register's "Workbytes" column, which, according to the press kit, aims to address workplace issues of interest to young workers. (The other writer, Larry Ballard, frequently uses the space to audition for a coveted spot at The Onion.) In Monday's column, Mracek takes it upon herself to introduce Generation X to the baby boomers who may come across these odd creatures in the workplaces and unemployment offices of Iowa. Upon reading it, I naturally assumed that it was still 1992 and that my 15 years in the workplace, my wedding, my old cat, my bitchin 1996 Dodge pickup and the birth of my son were just events from a very long dream. But no, the newspaper page said July 23, 2007.

So let's take a look at what she has to say, hmm? Excerpts from the column are in italics:

We came up with some things you need to know about Generation X workers:

To which my wife would respond: "Well, one of them hogs the covers, that's for sure." Meanwhile, everybody in every workplace everywhere in Iowa is saying: "Thanks, but I've already learned enough from the Gen-Xers who have worked here the past 20 years."

1. We don't plan on being at this job for the next 30 years. It just ain't going to happen. If we don't win the Powerball and say "see ya" to this cube farm, then we'll probably find something else that strikes our fancy (a.k.a. when Heineken comes looking for a beer taster.)

I sure as shit hope we won't be in this job for the next 30 years. Demographers generally peg Gen-X as people born from 1961 to 1981. Those in the middle are in their late 30s to early 40s. Besides, when did the majority of people ever stay in a job 30 years? Hint: Never. This is a lie we'll revisit later.

Beyond that nit, however, are a few horrifying assertions. One is that everyone works in a "cube farm." Look, just because your workplace is a miserable shithole doesn't mean everybody else's is. Second is that we all hate our jobs and can't wait to quit. I've had jobs I hated. I've had jobs I loved. Sometimes on alternating days. You tell me how that makes Gen-X any different from every other generation. Third is that members of Generation X move from one job to the next not because it's what's best for us and our families but because something "strikes our fancy." Fuck you, lady. Some people have mortgages and kids. They'd love to go sell vibrators at the State Fair or something, but those hungry little mouths don't feed themselves. Lastly, she infantilizes an entire generation by offering as an example of our dream job "Heineken beer taster." Not only do we prize beer above all else; it isn't even good beer. Come to think of it, that's pretty much Juice's editorial philosophy, isn't it? Oh, and just because I'm in a mood, that "a.k.a." should be an "e.g."

Seriously, this probably won't be our last job. The average employee in his or her late twenties, for example, has already switched jobs five or six times. Disclaimer: I have had four since I graduated from college. (But I really like this one.)

How do you reconcile "it just ain't gonna happen" with "this probably won't be our last job"? You can't. Because it's not a message for the reader. It's a message for her own boss, one that earns bonus points with parenthetical ass-kissing. Also, that's not a disclaimer. It's a disclosure. But now I'm just being a dick.

Xers just don't see job-jumping as a bad thing. It doesn't mean that we aren't contributing while we're there. And many of us are happy living on the cheap. (I can't speak for the whole generation on that one. After all, I am a journalist.) We do pick up skills along the way and want to make a difference at the company we are working for, whether we work for three years or three decades. It doesn't mean we aren't loyal, but it does mean that we value different things. We prefer job satisfaction over job titles, work/life balance over tenure, and happy hour over making sure our boss sees us at our desk at 5 p.m., even if we are just watching the latest JibJab.

Guess what? Nobody really sees job-jumping as a bad thing anymore. The boomers' entire work experience taught them -- and us -- that loyalty is only as good as the checks it's printed on. No one believes in the company-loyalty model anymore -- except the companies that would benefit from it, and workers are wise to them. Really, It's disappointing that a workplace columnist is so out of touch with what's actually going on in the workforce. But cut her some slack: She's a member of Generation X, and they only just started working!

The business about being happy "working on the cheap" because she's a journalist is just depressing. One of the many scandals in America's J-schools is the way the faculty have convinced students that they will be making less money because they're involved in some sort of noble pursuit. I was told many times, "There isn't any money in journalism," which is a stone cold lie. There's tons of money in journalism -- even now. It's just that the money in most places isn't shared with the newsroom hoi polloi, who have been conditioned to think that ... there's no money in journalism.

Toward the end of the passage, she makes some good points about what Gen-Xers value, then pisses all over it, twice -- first with another boozy reference, and then with a caricature of Gen-X as slackers. (We're watching JibJab, though, so at least it's not 1992 anymore; it's 2005!)

2. We can listen to music and carry on a conversation at the same time. It's not that hard, really. We grew up with Walkmans and MTV and have spent the last 20-plus years only listening to what we think is relevant to us. ... What's that I hear? Lattes?!? Wait for me. OK, I'm back. More important, music usually helps us focus. It also makes us able to multitask. So as long as we aren't humming along to K-Fed, who cares?

Look, I don't know how to break this to her, but if you need music ("usually") to help you focus, maybe you should try Ritalin. I have absolutely no idea why so many people my age have chosen this particular hill as the one they want to die on. If your boss lets you wear headphones, then great. But if she doesn't, that's your problem, not hers. Maybe she doesn't want to have to shout to get your attention. Or maybe, because she's paying you for your time, she wants you to be listening to what's relevant to her, not "what we think is relevant to us," whatever that means. Nice K-Fed reference, though. Only eight months too late.

3. 9 to 5 is not part of our vocabulary.

This is the lead-in to a pretty reasonable discussion of flex-time, so good for Mracek. That still doesn't excuse this stupid opening line, though. Is she aware that tens of millions of people work in service positions that require them to be "on the job" even when there's no work to do? Not everyone works in an office. Even dirt-poor journalists can be elitists, it seems.

4. We're not all the same. Just like all generations, we can't be characterized as a homogeneous group.

Uh, OK. Maybe she should have made that No. 1, and stopped there. Because what she's been doing for far, far too many words now is trying to paint an entire group of people with a broad brush. You can't have it both ways. You can't say "Gen X does this" and "Gen X likes that," then turn around and tsk-tsk the world for trying to stuff us into a box. And as it turns out, saying "No one speaks for my generation" does not actually make you a spokesman for your generation.

The term "Generation X" was the title of a popular book written in 1991 by Douglas Coupland. It is a fictional work about three strangers who decide to distance themselves from society to get a better sense of who they are. He describes the characters as "underemployed, overeducated, intensely private and unpredictable." And those characteristics can describe 48 million people in United States? I don't think so.

Generation X was also the name of a late-1970s/early-1980s punk rock band that was fronted by Billy Idol and, more important, was the precursor to Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Idol's first hit, Dancing With Myself, was actually a Generation X song. I'd describe the music as "pop-inspired yet trending toward a harder edge." And those characteristics can describe 48 million people in the United States? I don't think so.

It's not clear what she's trying to accomplish with this. Yes, the Coupland book was where the media -- and, most influentially, marketers -- got the term. No one ever said the characters in the book stood in for an entire generation.

5. We do care. Having more than one job in a lifetime may be seen by older generations as disloyal, but I would beg to differ. We are loyal, it's just not a blind loyalty to a company. In a study released by Catalyst, a nonprofit corporate membership research and advisory organization, 47 percent of Generation X professionals say they would be happy spending the rest of their careers with their current organization; 85 percent care a great deal about the future of their organization, and 83 percent say they are willing to go beyond what is normally expected to ensure the success of that organization.

Why, that's a mighty big straw man you have there, dear. Again, I call bullshit on these hypothetical "older generations" sitting in their rockers somewhere wagging their gray heads at the disloyal ingrates of Generation X. Old people got fucked by their employers, too. A lot of them lived through the Depression, where they got fucked by the system as a whole. A lot of them continue to get fucked by having the pension and health care benefits they were promised yanked out from under them. They know exactly why we're free agents: Because we saw what happened to them.

The statistics she cites are interesting. Frankly, she should have led with them. But how interesting would it have been to lead her column with, "People of Generation X are pretty much just like everybody else"?

For me, if a company treats me well, I will do the same by it.

In case the boss missed it the first time around: I'm not talking about me! I'll eat your shit and smile, too!

Ultimately what's so disappointing about the column is that it's bleeding with the very solipsism that Generation X is so frequently accused of. Mracek enters a workforce that Gen-X has been demonstrating its abilities in for close to 20 years, and she takes it on herself to introduce the boomers to "her generation." She figures that because she hops from one job to the next, everybody does it -- and does it for the same reasons she does. She figures that because she makes shit wages, everybody does -- and is happy about it. She figures that because she needs music to help her think, everybody does -- and no one has a right to tell her otherwise. And she figures that because getting off in time for "happy hour" is more important to her than being taken seriously at work, everybody else has those same priorities.

Actually, I suspect she doesn't believe that last one, but that doesn't mean she isn't going to attribute it to everyone else in Generation X.

This column was hackneyed a dozen years ago. Where's Larry Ballard and his fart jokes?

Aw, man, thisisgonnabefun.

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