Friday, April 17, 2009

Economics: Generation Y and Unemployment

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Earlier this week, the propensity of Generation Y to use electronic devices and some of the potential social consequences were explored. There's another potential consequence of the constant activity and engagement of Generation Y--and that's on their attitude about employment.

Traditionally in the United States, at least as I was taught and observed in my childhood, unemployment was viewed as a one of the worst possible states in life. People who were unemployed not only felt shame about their condition, but were fundamentally bored. They needed to find a new job in order to have something to do.

Of course, at some level, this view was absurd even then. Only two generations ago, one spouse in a couple generally did not work, instead staying home as a homemaker and primary caregiver to children. I can't recall ever seeing a bored homemaker. Sometime after the women's equality movement, there seemed to be some shame in the choice of being a homemaker, but many people (women and men) never bought into that viewpoint.

Into the contemporary environment, enter Generation Y. Presumably, they have been raised with the same biases against unemployment that I had as a child. However, they also come to the work world completely wired and never bored. It doesn't seem possible that they will actually be bored when unemployed, and in this recession, many of them will be discovering this first-hand. If the societal wisdom about unemployment being boring proves untrue, will they also continue to view unemployment as shameful? Or will they decide that maybe it isn't such a bad state, as long as it is not permanent?

The Christian Science Monitor article cited yesterday on the "10 Ways the New Economy Will Look Different mentioned as item 6 that the economy will be fundamentally more volatile, with employers more willing to use preemptive layoffs even before a recession, and employees generally having less security. There seems a potential synergy here--if Generation Y doesn't feel shamed or bored when unemployed, they may find the less secure employment environment more tolerable than their elders.

The key, of course, is that the period of unemployment can't go on forever. The biggest challenge may be finding ways to help people find new jobs and new careers in these periods of transition. That may be the biggest challenge of a new economy. Generation Y may be pre-disposed to handle the rest of it.

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