As far as I’m concerned, Millennials get a bum rap. The criticisms Boomers and Gen Xers heap upon them have been well-chronicled: They don’t have the same work ethic “we” did; they expect to be pampered and given only “meaningful” work; they flit around from job to job and lack a real world sense of commitment or purpose, etc. As Senior Counsel of a global law firm who has worked with scores of young lawyers over the past four decades, I dissent. While some generalizations regarding Millennials’ conduct strike me as accurate, some are not, at least in my experience. More importantly, had I grown up in the Millennials’ world and joined the law firm where I’m still practicing, I would have behaved just as Millennials are criticized for doing. But right from the start, our respective worlds—and the opportunities and risks they presented—could hardly have been more distant.
Our World–Easy and Safe
With relatively little assigned homework at Dobbs Ferry High School, I had time to play on three sports teams and in our excuse for an orchestra–with ample time left over to have fun. I took a superficial SAT prep course, got pretty good (but not great) scores, and managed to get into Tufts University. After spending much of my first two years in college chasing girls and playing foosball, pinball, poker, ping pong, and music with friends, I finally picked a major and applied myself in my junior year. In law school, I worked hard, at least in the first of my three years.
After the Vietnam draft wound down in the early 70’s, our world seemed safe and the future promising. I didn’t stress about whether I’d be able to find a job and support myself. My friends and I had little use for older generations’ advice or criticisms of our long hair, music, lifestyles, and our more radical–since-renamed “progressive”–political beliefs.
I joined my law firm in 1977, intending to stay for only a year or two. I wanted to be a public interest lawyer and had no intention of either working long-term for a big corporate law firm or remaining in New York City. I was paid $28,000, which seemed like a huge sum, enough to afford the $400 monthly rent for a 1½ bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village and plenty of entertainment, with money left over to put away some savings as well. Abandoning my “plan,” I stayed at the firm because I was getting good experience doing meaningful work on interesting cases and had fun working with my colleagues. In the meantime, our salaries increased every year and I was able to buy a modest vacation house in the Maine woods (for $62,000) within five years.
The partnership track at most law firms in those days was 7½ years. At many big firms, including ours, it was generally understood that if you did excellent work and got on well with clients and colleagues you’d have a good chance of becoming partner, which I did in 1985. A law firm partnership in those days was a secure, lifetime prize—albeit one that required long hours and personal sacrifice. I remained at the firm as a partner, leading teams handling complex commercial litigations until 2017, when I became Senior Counsel, currently working at the firm part-time, along with and overseeing associates on various pro bono litigations for people who can’t afford lawyers.
Over the past four decades I’ve worked with many waves of young lawyers. While it’s always dangerous to generalize, and I can’t claim to have worked with a statistically significant sample of Millennials, I’ve worked with a good number of them and observed many others. Here’s my take:
— The Millennials I’ve worked with are every bit as industrious as earlier generations of young lawyers. If anything, on the whole the quality of their work, including their writing, is better. While they do crave meaningful work, many of those I’ve worked with have been able to handle more responsibility than earlier generations of young lawyers–including when it comes to interacting with demanding clients. At the same time, they’ve proven willing and able to master the arguably “meaningless” details that such responsibility entails. And, even as they’ve been inundated with work for paying clients, the Millennials I’ve worked with have sought and diligently worked on pro bono cases on behalf of refugees, victims of gender violence, and other clients who could not afford to hire lawyers.
–Millennials do make preserving their work-life balance a higher priority than most of us did when we were younger; but then again, people of all ages aspire to do likewise these days. Millennials also seem to change jobs more often than we did, and many opt not to pursue law firm partnerships and other badges of status and wealth for which prior generations sacrificed so much of their personal lives.
The Millennials’ World—Pressurized and Foreboding
Shortly before the Coronavirus reared its head, I expressed my concern that Millennials “get a bad rap” at an actual meeting (remember those?) of the team I was working with on a pro bono case for a human trafficking victim. Alyson, an outstanding young lawyer in our New York office, immediately jumped in: “Absolutely!” she proclaimed. After the meeting I asked if we could have lunch so I could hear more of her thoughts about Millennials and the criticisms aimed at them. Alyson agreed and, when we got together, she didn’t hold back.
Alyson began by volunteering that there’s some validity to a few of the common impressions earlier generations have of Millennials, particularly their lack of attachment to traditional institutions or career paths. We then talked about the world in which Millennials came of age and entered the work force:
–Millennials, often defined to include those born in the years from 1981-1996, grew up, and many began their careers, under the pall of 9/11 and in the midst of the subsequent financial crisis. Many are saddled with crushing student debt (collectively, Millennials’ debt has been estimated at over $500 Billion), while housing costs have soared in New York and other major cities. Alyson said she can’t envision being able to buy a home anytime soon. Looking ahead, she and her peers are frightened, with good reason, by the specter of global warming—which our generation has done little to control—while democracies seem to be crumbling all over the world, including here. In short, even before the global Coronavirus pandemic that has scared the hell out of everyone, the Millennials’ world has been an insecure, ominous place. And to make matters worse, an article in yesterday’s New York Times suggested that the pandemic will hit Millennials even harder than earlier generations.
–Unlike my years at Dobbs Ferry High, Alyson explained that Millennials grew up in an intensely competitive pressure cooker. It began in middle school, when they got hours of homework, and escalated as they killed themselves to get stellar SAT scores and build resumes glowing with extracurricular activities undertaken to increase their chances of getting into top colleges. The pressure continued nonstop in college as Millennials competed to get into law, medical and other professional schools, and then in the next round as they sought to land good jobs—many in the midst of the cutbacks that came in the wake of the financial crisis. All this hard work could explain why Millennials’ skills are so strong and, as many Boomers have been known to say: “Had I grown up now, I never would have gotten into my college or law school, and there’s no way I would have landed this job.” That’s certainly true in my case. As Alyson explained, however, by the time Millennials got to the starting line for their careers some were already “burned out”.
When Millennials look up the career ladder, they often don’t like what they see. That’s understandable. In the context of law firms, which I know best, their opportunities are nothing like ours were upon entering the workforce. In the world of big New York firms, the path to partnership is longer, much more competitive, and less predictable than when I travelled it. An excellent young lawyer can work for seven or more years only to be told that there’s no “business case” for her firm (or her practice group) to make a new partner. Boomers and Gen Xers stand in their way. Nor does partnership, even if “bestowed,” provide the same promise of a secure lifetime career it did when I climbed the ladder. Moreover, as Alyson pointed out, running the gauntlet is particularly hard for women who want to have children. They see few role models who’ve been able to both beat the long odds of becoming a partner and play a significant role in raising their kids. Is it any wonder that many Millennials don’t want to sacrifice their personal lives trudging the traditional paths we set out for them now that we’ve changed the rules of the game and the prize seems unattainable–and not as shiny in any event? And this is an example of how the world looks to some of the most fortunate and, by many standards, most successful Millennials in the business world.
By chance, I happened to have lunch in Boston a few weeks later with another talented Millennial, this one a budding opera singer. Like me, Jesse was staying at my sister-in-law’s house on Beacon Hill. He had an audition for the lead role in Carmen that morning and, after he’d succeeded in winning the part, I invited Jesse to join us for a celebratory lunch. I then took advantage of the opportunity to ask him about his experience as a Millennial.
Like Alyson, Jesse had strong opinions: “It’s a different world than you had in the 60s and 70s.” Jesse explained that it’s a lot harder for this generation of artists to succeed because “there’s much less money in the arts to go around,” as “programs have been eliminated or cut back and philanthropy is down.” Compounding the problem, the field is much more competitive given the number of foreign students vying for the limited opportunities in the United States. And looking out at the future, Jesse lamented: “I’m in despair over climate change.”
Jesse’s and Alyson’s professional worlds couldn’t be further apart, but their views were remarkably consistent. I had previously wondered whether my two sons and their friends–growing up tethered by cell phones and email to overprotective parents–would be prepared to handle the rough and tumble of the real world. After talking with Alyson and Jesse about the gauntlet they’ve had to run, I was somewhat less concerned.
The Millennials’ World From An Economist’s Perspective
Jesse suggested that I speak with his brother Michael Darden, an economist doing empirical research and teaching as an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University. Born in 1982, Michael straddled the Millennial and Gen X generations, and identifies as both (he didn’t have a cell phone until college). Wearing both hats, as well as his professorial robe, he was able to put some flesh on the bones of my own impressions of Millennials and what I’d heard from Jesse and Alyson. Michael began by noting that “Millennials, many of whom hit the job market at the time of the financial crisis, were dealt a really tough hand in terms of the overall economy—with the enormous loss of jobs and the dramatic increase in housing and healthcare costs. Certainly relative to expansionist times of prior generations, their timing was really bad.”
He talked about the “churn” that older people criticize as they see Millennials go in and out of jobs and graduate programs. “The economy is certainly more mobile. Some of the churn comes from the fact that a lot of them were in bad jobs or going to grad school because there were so few good jobs.” He explained that “real wages haven’t been growing over the past several decades. It has especially hurt Millennials because they’re starting in careers without a lot of growth—so they’re not seeing real wealth by 35. In your 20s and 30s, that’s when you should be accumulating wealth, including to make down payments on houses.” Michael noted that at the same time as “median wage growth has been stagnant, health care costs have exploded, plus Millennials have a load of student debt”–much of which they accumulated to pay for graduate programs because “merely having a college degree is not enough in today’s economy.” In sum, he said: “The fact that they’ve had little growth, soaring health care costs, and debt leads to a lot of renters.” While these trends have affected all generations, if, like many Boomers, “you already had a house, and no debt, you’re in much better shape.”
Some internet research immediately revealed a bevy of articles and studies confirming Michael’s observations and Alyson’s and Jesse’s experience. Just a few examples: In 2018, Business Insider reported on a study showing that Millennials will pay 39% more, in real dollars, to buy a home than Boomers did in the 1980’s. Rents have increased 46% since the 1980’s, with the median national rent at $1,600 (according to Zillow)—four times the $400 I paid for spacious apartments in Manhattan from 1978-86. In the meantime, a recent Wall Street Journal article reported that the cost of college has increased by 1,375% since 1978, and put the average student debt at $34,000 per person. Although there’s some variance in the numbers, the data-based message is consistent: Millennials have gotten clobbered upon entering the job market—after killing themselves to get there. A data-filled Huff Post article put it bluntly: “Millennials are facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression.” And again, that was before the Coronavirus tsunami rocked them, perhaps even more than the rest of us.
Finally, when I asked Michael whether anything else came to mind as he thinks of Millennials, he raised a concern about mental health: “Mental health is becoming such a big issue. It may be mentally more taxing to be a young person than it was 50 years ago with all the economic stresses we’ve talked about, plus climate change. Mental health is hard to measure. It may be that Millennials are leading the way in the overall decline in happiness that’s underway.” I hope not.
I listened to Alyson talk about the decisions she’ll need to make in the coming years as a young lawyer currently getting excellent performance reviews, but who will want to have children and raise a family: whether to remain at the law firm and pursue the long-shot quest for partnership? whether to opt for a potentially more satisfying, but far less lucrative, career as a public interest lawyer–or leave the law behind and pursue an entirely different career helping people? I empathized, and tried to give her my best advice, wearing the executive coach’s hat I’ve donned in recent years. But I didn’t have any magical solutions and, as we talked, I wondered: where will things end up for the Millennials when the music stops—after we leave the stage, perhaps belatedly, and the world has changed in ways we can’t yet envision? My Millennial friends said they don’t yet know the answer. That’s what they’re searching for: balanced lives in the midst of the foreboding world not of their making.
I have respect, admiration, for Millennials’ willingness to depart from traditional career paths and risk the unknown. Many are adventuresome and idealistic; in some ways resembling us at their stage of life. In the meantime, Alyson said she takes advice from the parents she loves and other Boomers “with a grain of salt.” It was only the day after our lunch that I realized that included my “words of wisdom.”
Alyson isn’t alone. As evidenced by the OK Boomer phenomenon, Millennials not only bristle—but now loudly balk—at the aspersions cast at them by Boomers who had it easier and are now running–and reaping the fruits of–the inequitable morass Millennials are struggling to navigate. Back in 1964, Bob Dylan, the prophet of our generation, summed up how many Millennials view us today:
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times, they are a-changin’
To read the latest entry in my Subway Diary series, click here.