Last week, Lunch sent me an op-ed. It was written by author and NYU Stern School of Business professor, Suzy Welch, and published by The Wall Street Journal in July of last year.
It’s called “‘Lazy Girl Jobs’ Won’t Make Gen Z Less Anxious,”— a manifesto against those Gen Zers just beginning to enter the workforce. Specifically (and interestingly), Welch chooses to target Gen Z women—a sobering thought, coming from a management professor at one of the country’s preeminent business schools, tasked with educating the next generation of thought leaders, both male and female. But I digress.
Welch begins by criticizing what she perceives to be a trend on social media—20-something women encouraging each other to settle for remote jobs in the mid-5-figures bracket to maximize personal, rather than fiscal, returns. Welch condemns these “Lazy Girl Jobs” as the collective arbiter of a sinister, generational truth: “[Gen Zers] worry a lot about anxiety. To be more specific, they worry a lot about feeling anxiety, and do everything they can not to.”
Throw in a contrived Sheryl Sandberg reference and some feigned attempts at white collar humility, and you more or less have the gist of Welch’s essay.
But Welch’s commentary on the generational divide between Gen Z and the Baby Boomers (to which she belongs), isn’t all that considered. While artfully spun from a seasoned and well-pedigreed academic such as Welch, the essay falls flat in that it fails to grab hold of the central fallacy of its genre—that each generation, by and by, is nothing more than the product of those that came before it. For all of Welch’s tugging and pulling, the Lazy Girl’s glass slipper doesn’t seem to fit quite right.
And it’s been tried on a few times by the WSJ—this patronizing of Gen Z as something of a 5-o’clock shadowed, couch-surfing youngest sibling who could really make something of himself, if only he tried … if only we hadn’t spoiled him so…
In fact, they tried it on last spring—the same spring I graduated Dartmouth College with my classmate, Eli Thrasher ‘23.
Thrasher and a few other college students were asked by the WSJ to weigh in on the prospective job market for young people, and the concept of “funemployment” for their Future View column—a clinical condition to which young people are subject to endure bouts of personal enrichment while navigating the job search. In dire cases, taking a Lazy Girl (or Boy) job until the next best thing comes down the pike.
Thrasher’s take: “They were trying to goad us into admitting that Gen Zers were lazy. That none of us want to work hard.”
By that point, Thrasher had already contributed a couple one-offs for the Journal. And he’d recently landed a gig at a prestigious private equity firm in New York.
“But all I could think about, at the time, was that it was our senior spring. A lot of people who were admittedly smarter than me or had studied harder than me didn’t have jobs. I did have a job, and so my attitude was ‘I want to write this for my friends,’” said Thrasher.
His response was not, perhaps, what the Journal was looking for:
“Our generation has been sold a lie,” he wrote. “We have grown up through war, financial crises, bubbles and scandals. We’ve seen and studied older generations’ mistakes, watched them create a more divided country, and felt the effects as the U.S. loses ground on the world stage… ‘Funemployment’ is not a concept conceived by recent graduates out of glee—it’s a copying mechanism necessary for graduates facing today’s job market.”
The funny thing is, Welch spends most of her own word count bemoaning Gen Z’s imprecise use of the word “anxiety” as a blanket term to cover any feelings of stress—those, which she points out, are part and parcel of adulthood. But call it what you want—anxiety, stress, coping mechanism, binge drinking—the fact is, semantics only distract from the root of the issue. Welch, for all her hyper-educated lip service, fails to acknowledge the causal factors that have reaped the differing effects of the Boomer Generation and Gen Z.
As Thrasher and I discussed this past week, Welch is an elitist of that most dangerous variety: the kind that believes her success is owed to none but herself and her own dogged ambition. And, if Welch is to pigeonhole my and Thrasher’s generation with a few convenient stereotypes, we are inclined to return the favor. We, after all, are elitists of another dangerous breed: the young and inexperienced kind. Take what we have to say with a grain of salt. All things being equal, that’s the point of an op-ed.
Lest we forget, Welch and her fellow Boomers were born into an era of unparalleled prosperity in the United States. That much is anecdotally true, and it’s also the basis for Bruce Gibney’s work A Generation of Sociopaths: How Baby Boomers Betrayed America.
As Gibney points out in his book, the Boomers were fortunate to be unburdened by the trauma of wartime, or the deprivation of the Depression—things faced and endured by their parents. They also, however, did not experience the social solidarity that comes out of those shared traumas. So by the time they were old enough to consolidate political and fiscal power, they “fritter[ed] away an enormous inheritance” in the name of self-interest. And the nation’s infrastructure—once lauded as the finest in the world—decayed, maybe irreparably, in the hands of those countrymen that did not care to see it kept.
According to Gibney, theirs will be an era remembered as ignoble for its “generational plunder”—the financing of war after war with deficit spending, a gross negligence toward the environment, and the pillaging of American assets and industry.
“What happened to the future?” asks Gibney. “The Boomers did,” he answers. “They sold it off piece by piece.”
It seems as though the only instance in which Boomers care to think about the future is when it comes to entrusting the people who will inhabit it with all those proverbial cans kicked, year after year, further down the road.
Thrasher and I discussed the fate of Social Security (one of those cans) at length. It’s tipping toward insolvency. And the irony, devised by Satan himself, that we will be tasked with supporting that booming generation which has forgotten that any after it should exist.
“That was supposed to be the whole point of it, right? A means for people to not be anxious about the future?” asked a rhetorical Thrasher. “That you pay into this system, and in the end, you know you’re gonna be taken care of a little bit. You’re not gonna starve. But the truth is, Social Security isn’t gonna be around for us. Not in its current form.”
So, sure. Nothing to be anxious about.
And to top it all off, Welch tries to offer what is, at best, a deluded mea culpa, and at worst, a total cop out:
“As parents, we did everything to prevent our kids from feeling hardship or discomfort,” she says. “[We are] the reason Gen Z is terrified of anxiety: They have no experience with it.”
(I will say, Thrasher and I got a good laugh out of Welch’s subtle Harvard name-drop line, in which she attested to the fact that her parents had noooo idea she applied to the Ivy League university—her point being, to contrast the parents of yesteryear with the helicopter types, like herself, that raised Gen Z. Though, it’s hard to buy into the image of any Phillips Exeter student—Boomer, or Gen Z—alone in the deep waters of burgeoning adulthood, totally without a life vest.)
But anyway, back to the point. If shielding children from discomfort means weaving a social fabric around mindless consumerism and instant gratification at the expense of mortgaging those same kids’ future then, sure. But to me, the crux of Welch’s argument reads like a schmuck sitting down to a job interview and attesting that his greatest weakness is perfectionism.
In reality, those kids (us) have grown up to the tune of insurmountable student loan debt, and in a landscape where they (we) may no longer be able to afford a house.
Over-coddling, contrary to Welch’s point, is the least of our problems.
Rest assured, I am not making the case for apathy or stress-avoidance, at all costs, in young people. The early stage of one’s career has no place for it, and I will grant Welch as much. But what I would ask of Welch and the like-minded members of her generation is to reflect on their very real and very permanent choices that have so engendered the current state of the world. Now, the rules are changing. The roads are being repaved. Boomers: A member of that Silent Generation which preceded you advised stepping off them if you can’t lend a hand.
Generation Z is young. And whether we’re funemployed, “lazy girls,” PE analysts, or menial local reporters, we’re working hard to figure it out; to buy into and remedy, as best we can, a system we did not create. The most nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing part of it all is that we’re just starting out. And the best thing our nation has going for it, right now, is that we’re just starting out.
“The last thing I’ll say, about anxiety,” said Thrasher, as we wrapped up our conversation, “is that it comes from a fear of not being in control. Of being at the whims of others. That’s how our generation feels. At least, for now.”
We hung up the phone. It was getting late on either coast. And we had to, both of us, get back to work.