We’ve Created a Monster: Entrepreneurs of Self

8 Dec

When I first started researching generations and work, I set up Google Alerts for two sets of keywords: ‘Generation gap’ and ‘Young workers’. At first, most of the media alerts for the generation gap came from the Sports pages – apparently this is a phrase that people who talk about baseball use with regularity. Most of the ‘young workers’ alerts, on the other hand, came from English-language Chinese newspapers, and for a while there was a very interesting narrative developing there around young workers’ rights, unions and the manufacturing sector in China. That’s for another blog post.

Lately, likely because Occupy has thrust generations and youth right into the gears of the news production machine, both alerts have been dominated by stories from the US and Britain. Moreover, most of the stories I receive now come from the business section of online newspapers. Today, I got one such alert about a story on Huffington Post entitled “Survey Says: Young Workers Like Their Jobs, But Not Enough To Stay.”

In the opening paragraphs, the story reports that “nearly half (46 percent) of employees aged 16 to 24, and 40 percent of those aged 25 to 34, are ‘seriously considering’ leaving their employers”, even though the vast majority are happy, like their employer and would recommend their employer to others.

The HR firm that produced these findings explains this apparent paradox by noting:

“younger workers have grown up in a shifting world where employees no longer stay with the same company all their lives, so they perceive there is a lot of opportunities for them, despite today’s economic challenges. Globalization is also a factor, with younger workers more open to the idea of moving to other countries to work.”

I’d like to point out three reasons why this explanation misses the mark.

First, the finding that almost half of the 16-24-year-olds intend to leave their employer should be obvious. When I was 16 and working at a building supplies store (what’s up, Kent?!), I certainly didn’t plan to stay there. Even though it paid me reasonably well, rewarded me with gizmos when the company met its targets, provided whatever retail training I was interested in, threw a pretty rad Christmas party and offered me the chance to date mysterious older teenagers when I had failed to do so at my high school, I knew I was there for pocket money while I was in high school and that was it. Although many of my coworkers made it their life-long career and took pride in it, from the moment I put on those ill-fitting uniform khakis, I was “seriously considering” leaving. Even when I was 24 (and stilllll in university) I was working a job I knew I would leave.

Winnipeg Business District in 1939 - Canada. Dept. of Mines and Resources / Library and Archives Canada / PA-021196

Second, based on my research and experience speaking to other 20-somethings, I can assure the study’s authors that people my age are not under the impression that we live in a world of boundless opportunities. We’re aware that the job market is crowded and that it takes a lot of strategic maneuvering and stick-to-it-iveness to stand out. Many of the older people I’ve interviewed, on the other hand, do believe that all of us can be anything we want and are therefore puzzled when we flounder.

Third, while we may possess a certain collective psychological tendency to see and eventually approach our careers as fields of experimentation, constant mobility and impermanence, we didn’t just dream this up on our own. In the time it took us to go through formal schooling and get out into the “real world”, the real world changed. The proportion of jobs that are part-time, contract, self-employed or temporary has increased dramatically, and young people are the most likely to work them.

Moreover, at the same time, we’re increasingly exhorted from every angle to behave as what Michel Foucault called “entrepreneurs of self.” Managers and governments think and speak about us – all of us, not just young people – as “human capital”, not “labour”; accordingly, they also speak of “investing in” us, and we’ve grown up being told to “invest in ourselves” as well. Figuratively anyway, as “entrepreneurs of self”, our career becomes whatever we do for a living, and we are the central thread – not the company or the field or the profession. I’m not saying we all do this, or that people my age don’t sometimes get into a job and stick to it forever, but to do so goes against the grain, not only of what “our generation” supposedly “wants”, but also what nearly every dominant institution is telling and training us to do.

Business district of Toronto, 1919 - Canadian Post Card Co. / Library and Archives Canada / PA-

Want to retain young employees? The conventional wisdom is worth something – respect us, give us room to be creative, make our work task-based, not hours-based – but there are three more things that elevate the challenge above managers and individual employers but might actually be crucial:

  1. Make it so that not everyone feels the need to go to university – that is, recognize that so-called “unskilled” jobs take a lot of skill (and are often undesirable to the people who look down on them anyway) and pay them, accordingly, enough to live a good life on;
  2. Work with government to give young employees pensions, benefits and other incentives to stick around (i.e., the things previous generations had);
  3. Recognize that many of us have been brought up to anticipate dual-earner relationships, and will make them a priority – which means there needs to be flexibility and generosity from employers, helped by governments, around schedules and work locations, so that couples can flourish and raise future generations without necessarily having one person stay at home full-time.
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