The Harshest Generation

Posted on Oct 4, 2013 | 7 Comments

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?


  1. Francisco G Nobrega
    October 4, 2013

    A growing number of scholars have shown the modern decoupling between productivity and employment. Modern machine learning and artificial intelligence are fast eliminating jobs. Societies will have to create a new paradigm: income unlinked to pay. A minimum income has to be granted to everyone, unconditional and permanent. To be poor has to be a fundamental human right, unlinked to work. And the poor should help themselves using community arrangements or stay home with parents. This could be initiated by using the bureucracy that deals with social conditional support to handle the right to the most in need. This citizen income is been actively debated still in a small circle but spreading fast as the solution to the modern “precariat”. I guess Drucker and Friedman would now concur with the Basic Income Earth Network leaders about this. Recent books by Malcolm Torry and Allan Sheahen review the case for this simple solution in the UK and USA. This or despair of the masses and social unrest.

    • Katherine Gordy Levine
      October 7, 2013

      So agree with both the articles and the comments. Adding to the misery of not finding a job is the tendency of far too many to off “Don’t worry, just be happy” and “You can do any thing you want to do, if you just try hard enough.” The article serves as a good reality check for those who believe it is all up to the individual.

  2. Danny Weihs
    October 4, 2013

    The only problem with prolonged adolescence is that the age of menopause has not changed. The “intellectual proletariat” therefore will have less children.
    This would be a solution to the overpopulation problem, if not for the “other masses” continuing to proliferate, many on religious grounds.
    This will increase the ratio of consumers to producers, and therefore the strains on society far beyond those caused by the lack of knowledge work.

  3. Richard Straub
    October 5, 2013

    The ultimate failure of our economy and of management is the inability to provide opportunities for the young to find a purpose, to engage and to take responsibility. All parameters seem to move in the opposite direction – technology tends in eliminate jobs, companies give back money to investors or hoard it on the balance sheets instead of taking the risks of investing in more innovation and states are doing everything to protect the assets of the Baby Boomers instead of stimulating the economy and risk some inflation (see Germany’s impact on Europe and the dire growth prospects for the coming years). Without significant growth there will not be sufficient job creation. Clay Christensen has shown that you need significant disruptive innovation to drive real growth. We have the generational conflict on the table, even though nobody calls it this way. However, it will not take long until it will explode – with an ageing populations in Europe the cost for health care an pension plans will sky-rocket within the coming 15-20 years and the “lost generation” will be asked to bear the brunt. How should this ever work if we don’t act now….

  4. Mike Grayson
    October 5, 2013

    I think things are easier now than ever. I was raised by a single mother who worked in a doughnut shop to make ends meet. I began working at age 10 delivering newspapers just to buy clothes for school – and haven’t stopped since.

    There were times when money was very scarce and tough decisions had to be made. We were never on food stamps or welfare. I never had the opportunity to get a college loan back in the 60′s. The only way for me to go to college was by the G.I. bill – so I joined the military at age 17 and served with distinction.

    Today, there are more social programs and opportunities for education than ever before. But there is also an attitude where people think that just because they have a degree, that entitles them to something. It doesn’t.

    There are good times and bad times. History shows that economies go through cycles. We can expect lean times, the trick is to be prepared for them by not squandering assets – as we’ve seen done at the personal and government levels, with huge amounts of debt. Accumulating large debt is bad at any level and is at the heart of our economic problems. Productivity, innovation and the elimination of debt are the keys to success for both today’s young people and the government. Young people and government officials need to learn this lesson.

  5. George L. Williams
    October 5, 2013

    Twenty-eight years ago, when I discussed this with Peter in class, I was paying tuitions for one child in private school in L.A., another at Cal Tech, and a third at U.C. Santa Cruz. I complained about the ever-rising tuition costs. Peter told me why he thought tuitions were rising; and would continue to rise. He also thought that the “knowledge-workers” would be able to “control” wealth, because it was the output of their brains that produced the wealth, and that wealth could be held in “401-K” funds that they “owned”. He also warned that thee 401-k funds were not adequately protected — and someone would find a way to “exploit that. He didn’t live to see 2008!

    It’s not just the “knowledge-workers”, or other Millenials who are being “screwed” today by Big-Money. Peter also warned of the declining need for workers. He predicted that no company of any size would require more than 200 workers in the 21st Century. Those companies, given the necessary requirements, could operate anywhere!

  6. Maverick 18
    October 6, 2013

    A lot of fellows nowadays have a B.A., M.D., or Ph.D. Unfortunately, they don’t have a J.O.B.
    – Fats Domino

    Until we stop exporting technology and jobs, the situation is not likely to get much better. Plus, we fail to recognize and plan for the increasing average age of our work force and citizenry. As for income unlinked to pay, aka negative income tax or minimum subsistence welfare, there is no way that will work unless a workforce constituting a small percentage of the population can generate enormous surpluses to be shared with all. I believe Karl Marx had an idea something like that well over a hundred years ago. It has never worked out.

    Young people today have never had more options and more tools available to them. There are lots of jobs, but the competition for them is fierce. Nevertheless, one can hardly characterize the environment as “harsher” in America while Americans remain the most overfed and overweight people in the world.


Leave a Reply