The Witnesses

I read with interest this LA Times story about the Gen X and Y crowd.

People everywhere are coping with rising credit card balances, falling home values and layoffs. But such worries are particularly jarring for a younger slice of the workforce that has known little but long-term financial prosperity and optimism.

After all, a large share of today’s 20- and 30-somethings — a nearly 80-million strong cohort — were in college or high school (and some in grade school) the last time the country experienced a severe financial jolt. Some can barely remember the mild recession of 2001, which was followed by an extraordinary boom that coincided with their entry into the workforce.

Raised amid a long stretch of financial bounty and weaned on video games, cellphones, iPods and weekends at the mall, many Generation X and Y members have barely seen a time when they couldn’t spend freely on the latest styles and gadgets.

The Boomer generation (1946-1964) mostly enjoyed a social contract which included joining the work force and expecting things like job security and pensions. I was born in 1965 and entered the workforce in 1987. Technically I’m Gen X but never really felt like I fit in with the Xers. I always loved old people, even as a young adult.

Around the time I entered the workforce, things had already begun to change. Many people who had worked at the big companies of the day (ATT, GE, Data General) were offered great deals to retire. Some people had been with the same company for about 30 years and looked forward to retiring in financial security. They would not have to worry about health insurance. Their houses were paid for. They could go off and golf or whatever. But within a matter of a few years, the pressure to leave increased and the packages got less generous. I believe we called it corporate downsizing at the time. Companies forced out the people who didn’t leave voluntarily. By the mid-nineties all the old-timers were gone and those good old days were over. Suddenly we worked under a new social contract: we all shared the burden of health insurance with our employers and none of us expected job security anymore.

As a young person new to the work force, I saw it all happen. I saw the doors closing, and it happened quickly. I knew people who had come up through the old way and then retired, and I knew that their experience would not be my experience. Even though my blue-collar parents had raised me with the expectation that I would earn and enjoy the perks of a good corporate job, and even though I had prepared myself to do just that, it was all a mirage in the desert. No oasis existed for people who worked hard and played by the rules. It evaporated just as I arrived.

Of course I worked, but I didn’t make much progress. There was so much downward pressure and so many people who wanted up. I couldn’t figure out how to move upward, but I saw others my age or younger figuring it out. What was it? What did they have that I didn’t have? They seemed so much freer, so much less constrained. And I think that was exactly why they were selected to succeed. Corporations no longer wanted to promote people like me. I was too old-school. They promoted the ones who wouldn’t mind overlooking a few things, who wouldn’t be offended by a little indiscretion here or there. They promoted the people who had an edge, a cut-throat edge. The combination of being smart and honest, rather than being an asset, was in fact a liability.

So I had been raised with an ethic from my immigrant mother and blue collar father (born 1930s), an old school ethic that was literally being dismantled as I entered the workforce. The oldest Boomers’ (born 1946) children came into the workforce around the same time and just after I did, but they were new school. We have different ethics, and their ethics aligned with their Boomer parents who were now in charge of corporate America. Therefore, they succeeded while people like me didn’t. Why? Because people like me are basically too dangerous for corporations. Starting in the late 80s, they didn’t let ethical people deep inside corporate America because they could turn into whistle-blowers and ruin the fun.

Anyway, there aren’t that many of us in this no-man’s land between the Boomers and the Xers, but I think we’re going to have the last laugh. I hereby name us the Witnesses, because we’re the ones who saw the whole thing turn to shit thanks to the Boomers, their rotten kids and their greedy ethics.

Go ahead. Put us on the stand.

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