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Bad News Could Be the Best Thing for Millennials

Viewpoint: Jonathan Lewis Hopes Economic Hardship Knocks a Little Sense Into His Generation

By Published on . 36

Jonathan Lewis
Jonathan Lewis

I hope you enjoyed it while it lasted, because the excess that fueled Generation Y and the current economic meltdown is fading fast -- along with, I hope, the most negative characteristics of our generation. Whether you've just graduated into the worst job market in decades, were recently laid off or shudder every time your manager calls an impromptu meeting, one thing is true: Like it or not, you and I are going to face some very difficult personal and professional decisions.

Do you remember when, not long ago, volumes of articles, books and even conferences were springing up attempting to teach the "old-school" business community how to best manage this upcoming and unique generation entering the work force? Authors used terms such as "entitled" and "narcissistic" to describe what they called the most digitally connected and self-focused generation to walk the earth. Ample advice was given on how to best manage our fragile self-esteem, fickle career decisions and, as freelance writer Carol Forsloff put it, resistance "to anything that doesn't involve praise and rewards." The only positive thing said about us was our intimate knowledge of technology, and even that is being eroded by the boomers' rush to embrace it (my mother-in-law just friended me on Facebook).

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I don't know about you, but having to write the above paragraph about myself and my generation has me more than a little embarrassed. That's why I hope the current economy and accompanying hardships will do more than scare us. I hope they will knock a little sense into us too.

We're not the first generation to face tough times. If we can heed some of the following age-old advice and learn a thing or two from folks who have gone through this before, not only will we have a better chance to thrive through this hardship, we might just disprove a few stereotypes along the way.

1. Get over yourself
The only thing self-esteem gave us was a dangerous dose of entitlement. If we're going to come out of this downturn alive, we're going to have to remember one thing: No one owes us anything. We earn what we get, and that "earn" part involves time and effort. Our employers and interviewers don't care if their demands interfere with our lunch appointment or 8 a.m. workout. And frankly, we can't afford to have the world revolve around us anymore. We must take a bite of humble pie, prove our value and get over our collective selves.

2. Remember what your mama told you
There's a reason Robert Fulghum wrote "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." He understood the value of mastering the basics. And chances are your mom did too. She sure didn't teach you to stroll in to work at 9:30 a.m. or take that extra-long lunch. And you can just imagine what she would say if she saw the apparel you deemed appropriate for work this morning. No matter what happens in the world around us, the fundamentals never change. Be professional. Work hard. Honor your word. Do unto others ... I mean, seriously, I know our generation doesn't emerge from adolescence until we're 25, but c'mon. Grow up.

3. Get off your butt and innovate
It wasn't buckets of cash or bailouts that pulled our grandparents out of the Great Depression. It was the hard work of a generation, a bloody world war and some of the most groundbreaking innovation the world has ever seen. Economies don't recover when generations sit on their hands hoping someone else will fix their problems.

According to author and speaker Alexandra Levit, Holly Hoffman took this to heart when she saw layoffs looming at the national newspaper corporation she worked for in Texas. Instead of lying low in team meetings, she decided to take things into her own hands. Hoffman explained, "As the bottom person, I knew that I would be eliminated unless I could directly tie my position to profits. So instead of just using the sales program I was given, I interviewed our field reps to see how we could improve it." Levit reported that "Ms. Hoffman's revamped sales program was expanded to three additional newspapers, earning her a promotion even as many of her friends were being laid off."

If we are going to do more than just survive in this environment, we must step up to the plate, put our green pencils to recycled paper and innovate our way to success.

4. Things will never be the same
Our nation's rush to borrow its way out of debt has more than a few economists worried. And you can bet your Euros it's our generation that will pay for this mess. The era of "Bad credit? No problem" is over, and the luxuries we've taken for granted are slipping away. We're inheriting incomprehensible debt, unsustainable social programs and leaders who think the way to fix the problem is to keep doing more of the same thing. You and I have to come to terms with the knowledge that more trouble is heading our way, and hiding from it won't make it disappear. Like any major challenge, you can't deal with the problem until you admit that you have one.

5. Berlin or bust
Our grandparents faced a similar situation during their generation's greatest challenge. The Great Depression and WWII fostered hardships we can't even imagine -- yet. It was the excesses of their parents' generation, embodied by the Roaring Twenties, that fueled their hardships. Their response: Stand firm, work hard and help a neighbor.

And now we're faced with a similar choice. Our grandparents could have thrown in the towel and resigned themselves to their poor lot in life, but they didn't. They rose to the challenge and earned their place in history as the Greatest Generation. So what will our response be? Will we wait for someone to swoop in and fix our problems, or will we build off our strengths, harness the incredible tools at our disposal and pull ourselves up by our Nike shoestrings? With a little old-school work ethic and innovation, we can take our new-school technology and show our critics, and the world, what our generation is really made of.

It's yet to be seen if this worst-case scenario will end up being the best thing to happen to our generation. But one thing is certain: The choice is ours.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Lewis is an account executive at McKee Wallwork Cleveland. At 25, he is squarely in what has been dubbed the millennial generation.
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