As a Gen Xer from a middle class upbringing, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to all of the people who employed me before age 23. Confession: I am a reformed entitled worker. Although I’ve always worked, it wasn’t until reality hit me in my 20s that I really grew into my work ethic. When I was 15, I had my first job at dry cleaner’s tagging clothes. It was so hot and boring that I just HAD to quit. At 16, I was a hostess at Chili’s. I was fired by my college dropout, khaki-short-wearing manager after I came back from a weekend getaway to Venice Beach with a shiny, new nose ring. Lets just say that my nose ring was more important than my paycheck. At 17, I started working at Mrs. Field’s Bakery and came under fire for giving away too many free mochas to my friends and inventing a game that I called “baguette baseball.” My 43-year old manger, Eli, did not find it so entertaining. For most of college at NYU, I worked at a popular New York night club, where I got free drinks (even though I was only 19), made out with bad boys, and complained about not being 21. At my first internship at a record label, I was more invested in playing office pranks on my co-workers than learning anything. I sincerely thought my job was to make them laugh. Hey—my boss’ head taped to a beach ball WAS funny. What was my problem? I had the underlying belief that none of the work I did was important because I would be doing something “better” or “more fun” in the future. Worse? I thought the perfect job would just fall into my lap. That all changed when the bills started rolling in (NYU is effing expensive) and there was no one to pay them. After a long, agonizing search and a lot of poverty, I got a job as a high-school drama teacher in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles, smack dab between Compton and East LA. It changed my life. Not only was I forced to put my personal needs and desires aside for the greater good of my students, I was motivated for the first time in my life to be a role model and mentor. How could I teach them to go out into the world and have a great work ethic if I didn’t have one myself? Everything about my job and my students made me realize how ridiculous I had been. Was I just expecting to go through my career without struggling, taking all of the many advantages and opportunities I’d had in life for granted? I felt idiotic. It was humbling to know that many of my students were already working to support their families and going to high school full-time. For many of them, they would be the first in their families to have the opportunity to even attend college. Never did they complain, expect, demand, or feel entitled as I had. Who the heck did I think I was? What I learned was important: your work—no matter what your job—is always a reflection of you. So whatever work you do, whether it’s being a doctor or serving pancakes, do it gratefully, humbly, and to the very best of your ability.
But enough about me—let’s talk about Susannah Jacob’s essay in the New York Times Magazine which got me on this subject to begin with. Susannah’s story, which chronicles her failures as middle-class teen struggling as a waitress at IHOP, sounded all too familiar to me. That’s why I’m irked that people are using this essay as more ammo for the recent attack on Generation Y. They’ve been called entitled underachievers among other unflattering things. But really—is Susannah and the rest of Gen Y entitled? Or just naïve and immature like I was? In other words, I don’t think this is permanent. AndI think we Gen Xers need to have compassion for Gen Yers who are entering college and the workforce in the worst economic times in recent history, who never knew life without computers or cell phones, and who never experienced the glory and innocence of the ’80s. It is our job to see the potential in them: the optimism, individualism, creativity, camaraderie, and awesome ability to multi-task. It is our job to mentor them, humble them, and give them the boost of confidence, shot of reality, and skills they need to make it in today’s work force. We need to teach them and, I believe if we do, they will be capable of great things.