New financial data highlights generational rifts

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A group of think tanks, lead by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that for the first time, men in their 30s are earning less than their parents. For the first time ever, this generation will not be more well-off financially than their parents. What should we make of this new finding? Does this mean the American Dream is no longer attainable?

Probably not. Because this statistic is just a magnified section of a much larger picture — of the great generational shift taking place in America since Generation X became adults.

The shift is in the definition of the American Dream. Our dream is about time, not money. No generation wants to live with financial instability. And we are no exception. But finances alone do not define someone’s American Dream. Especially when our dream is about how we spend our time.

Those who are magnifying a different part of the picture of this generational shift will tell you that what defines it is the inability of corporate American to keep generation Y from quitting their jobs.

The best of Generation X and Y are slow to move into the work force and quick to leave it. According to the department of labor, people in their 20s change jobs, on average, every two years. And Generation X is shifting in and out of the workplace in order to spend more time with kids. It’s costing companies a lot of money, and they’re paying millions of dollars a year in consulting fees to figure out how to decrease turnover.

There are many reasons for high turnover, but the most fundamental one is that baby boomers have set up a work place that uses financial bribes to get people to give up their time: Work sixty hours a week and we’ll pay you six figures. Generation Y will not have this. To hold out money as a carrot is insulting to a generation raised to think personal development is the holy grail of time spent well.

Baby boomers are also baffled by women who grow large careers in their 20s and then dump them in order to spend time with kids. Newsflash: Generation X values their family more than their money. Our American Dream is not about buying a big house, our dream is about keeping a family together. You can tell a lot about values by the terms that are coined. When baby boomers were raising kids they invented the term latchkey kid and yuppie we invented the terms shared care and stay-at-home-dad. The divorce rate for baby boomers was higher than any other generation. We can afford to have less money because most of us don’t need to fund two separate households.

The positive psychology movement has taken a large hold among those in generation X and Y. We are convinced that money does not buy happiness, and this conviction is rooted in hard science. More than 150 universities offer courses in positive psychology. It’s the most popular class among Harvard undergrads.

Our dreams are tied to time. So it’s no surprise that many of the most popular blogs offer tips for time management. And topics like productivity are favorites among hipsters who know that “getting things done” (GTD in blog-speak) is the key to having a fulfilling life. And believe me, GTD doesn’t take money, it takes massive respect for one’s time.

The new American dream is that we will have fulfilling work that leaves plenty of time for the other things in life we love. In this respect, Generation X is doing better than our parents: We are spending more time with our kids, and we are keeping our marriages together more than twice as effectively as our parents did. And Generation Y is doing better than their parents, too: They refuse to waste their time on meaningless entry level work because they value their time and their ability to grow more than that.

The new American dream is about time. It’s not a race to earn the most to buy the biggest. It’s a dream of personal growth and quality relationships. And, despite the declarations coming from Pew about unreachable dreams, our dream is not about accumulating money to do what we love at the end. We are hell-bent on doing what we love the whole way. That’s our dream, and we’re doing it better than the baby boomers ever did.

59 replies
  1. Tim
    Tim says:

    First off, I’m a big fan of your blog! That said, I would have to disagree with your interpretation of the data on this. Most telling, to me, is:

    “Between 1974 and 2000, productivity rose 56% while income rose 29%. Between 2000 and 2005, productivity rose 16% while median income fell 2%, challenging “the notion that a rising tide will lift all boats,” the report says.”

    I would look at the income gap between lower management and the executive management for this missing income reimbursement. That gap has grown much wider in the past 30 years. In a sense, we are becoming more productive while working less, but the executives are reaping those benefits.

    * * * * *

    Hi, Tim. Thanks for the comment. I’m not arguing with the statistics. I’m saying that I don’t think it matters that (aside from people in poverty) I don’t think it matters all that much to our individual lives that we’re earning less money. I’m not sure that anyone has really defined the negative impact from us being more productive for lower wages.


  2. Greg
    Greg says:


    I always defined the American Dream as providing our kids with opportunities and choices beyond what we had.

  3. Sissy
    Sissy says:

    I liked lots of your points in this post — except all the boomer/gen x stereotypes. (Hey! Maybe I’m a Gen Xer in disquise! I fit your description of them much more than your description of the boomers. Always was more of a Yippie than a Yuppie.) IME, stereotypes aren’t very helpful, no matter where you stick them. You know that whole trend about moms having kids later? That’s ’cause lots of us boomers delayed having kids so we could do other things — like travel and do art and even build careers. I know some boomer stay-at-home dads (you might recall the movie “Mr. Mom”). On the other hand, at the company where I work, there are plenty of 20 and 30-somethings looking for the fast track and putting the kids in day care. The mom with three toddlers and a nanny two cubes over is jockeying for my manager’s job. I’m not interested because I need time to spend with my teenager — they’re more time intensive than you can imagine! It’s all good.

  4. Mark
    Mark says:

    In the “search for fulfillment”, you advocate moving back in with Mom and Dad. Glad to see the enemy (with the greedy nature and loads of money) has some utility in the new Gen X/Y led world. Have fun when the genetic ATM is no longer around – fulfillment doesn’t pay the bills. More drivel from an entitlement-based generation. Grow up and get a grip on reality.

  5. Mary
    Mary says:

    The Pew study is very interesting. I suggest readers go beyond looking at the Wall Street Journal article and read the source document itself. (It’s an easy read with lots of colorful graphs and “pretty” pictures.)

    It would be great to see a study of white collar people in their 30s overall happiness and fulfillment today compared with their parents when they were in their 30s. Otherwise, its hard to know if what you are positing is actually the case.

    Greg–you’ll find the section on Relative Mobility of interest. The study finds that the US is one of the least mobile nations in the Industrial World. Meaning that one of the biggest predictors of a American child’s future economic success is the economic success of his or her parents. Meaning poor kids will stay poor, middle class stays middle class, and rich get richer. (The top 1% saw income rise by 176% in the last 30 years.)To the lower and low middle classes, that is a huge negative, as they will not be able to escape the downward spiral. As it says on the last page of the report, “Equal opportunity is a mirage.” A pretty grim statement in relation to how America has always “marketed” itself.

    I think the problem is that even if people are “happy” to be earning lower wages (and clearly from the amount paid to CEOs etc there is no reason why middle management wages should be flat–the money is there even if they are working flex time.) The disparity between the classes will grow — leaving middle income people unable to attain situations (colleges etc) that would help level the playing field. And why is this important? Because it is those with more income and influence who make the freakin’ laws and public policy in this country. Meaning if you want to create a society that truly values family, policies that support family leave, caregiving allowances, flex time work, universal health care etc need to have serious support behind them. Instead of people stretching to piece a satisfactory life together, policies can be in place to support the middle class. (And hopefully the lower class–)

  6. Mary
    Mary says:

    Sissy’s comment made me think, and yeah–wasn’t it boomers who launched the whole concept of self-fulfillment and searching for yourself as an adult? It certainly wasn’t the button-down corporate generation of the 1950s. This attitude that does value personal fulfillment has been as prevalent in some sections of the baby boom generation as 60 hour work weeks has been to others.

    * * * *  *

    What is revolutionary today is not the idea of fulfillment in adult life. It’s the idea that you should have it from day one. Baby boomers bought into a deal where they work really really hard at their job and climb a ladder and then have a bunch of money at the end to enable themselves to search for fulfillment.

    Today, no one is waiting. We want it now. Baby boomers waited. They paid dues and climbed laddersr.


  7. Ryan Stewart
    Ryan Stewart says:

    Clap. Clap. Clap.

    In the next 12 months, my wife and I are taking a leap of faith that we’ve (read, “I’ve”) put off for 10 years because I was scared of the financial ramifications. I’m going to medical school.

    It turns out that, in the end, I don’t really care about how much money I have or make. I just want to see people live their lives doing what gives them joy. So…bring on the student loans!

  8. Greg
    Greg says:


    According to the study, "about half of the advantages of having a parent with a high income are passed on to the next generation." This indicates that the other factors carry equal weight; the factors beyond a parent's income carry equal weight.

    Dr. Sawhill and Mr. Morton also state: "To be sure, analyzing the relationship between parents' and children's incomes is but one way of defining relative mobility from one generation to the next. The full story may be more complicated, and the Economic Mobility Project intends to further investigate relative mobility using additional measurement and analysis."

    My understanding of Penelope's post is that she has found other ways besides "analyzing the relationship between parents' and children's incomes" as the "way of defining relative mobility from one generation to the next." In fact, "the full story may be more complicated," requiring "additional measurement and analysis."

    I readily agree that the parents have the greatest impact on children. If I choose to be a lying, cheating, promiscuous, pothead drunk, my boys will grow up with a tremendous disadvantage. I want them to go to college, stay out of debt, and not have trouble with the law. Not to be rich and upwardly mobile, but to be able to choose what they want to do, whether it is cutting lawns or Wall Street investment banking.

  9. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    As a millenial myself, I feel that to me flexibility and my time are more imporant than a 3% raise or what-have-you. Don’t get me wrong — I have my spending vices and life a rather comfortable life. But I remember discussing career plans with my mom not too long ago in high school. She wanted me to be an engineer … they make a lot of money. I told her that it wasn’t what I loved. I was good at math, I would have made a fine engineer – but that wasn’t the lifestyle that I was looking for. Instead, I decided to pursue a journalism degree (still haven’t decided what I actually want to do when I ‘grow up’ but I figured writing well was the best place to start) at a school with a great co-op program. It has helped me determine what benefits are most important to me when it comes time to start the big after-college job search.

    (PS – Great blog! I came across it from I also ordered your book yesterday from Amazon.)

  10. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    Danielle, one of the biggest lies I’ve ever heard is the silly idea that you have to decide (when you are 20 years old, no less!) what you want to do “with the rest of your life.” You *NEVER* have to decide that. Decide what you want to do now, and as long as you stay happy doing it, keep doing it. If you reach a point where you don’t like it anymore, feel free to do something else. You never have to do the same thing for the rest of your life.

  11. dawn
    dawn says:

    Great great post. I’m struggling to find role models who define “successful” in the same way I do, especially since I’ve focused so long on “family” success that I need help knowing what “career” success looks like for me. I just know what it *doesn’t* look like for me!

  12. Mary
    Mary says:

    Thanks Greg for a thought-provoking response!

    My interpretation of the Pew report’s relative mobility section was that relationship between parent/child incomes was not about the personal character of the parents (whether they were lying and a drunk–no offense to any CEOs out there), rather it was about the significant influence of the resources that the parent were able to “pass on” to the child i.e. getting them into the top schools, getting them into the right power networks to make good business connections, etc. Obviously, people in poverty do not have access to these connections and can not pass them on to the child, even if their child gets a scholarship to a decent school.

    Also, 50% of advantages passed on is quite a lot, especially if a parent has virtually no advantages to pass on to their children.

    Again, to me the importance of being able to reap the benefits of “advantages” is not about being rich. Far from it, as my own work life has attested to. It’s more about being in circles of influence in order to change public policy that hampers/damages families through laws, policy etc that favors corporations at the expense of their workers quality of life. Which, I am sorry to say, I’ve had little opportunity to do.

    As I wrote before, even the Pew Foundation says “Equal opportunity is a myth.”

  13. Greg
    Greg says:


    Thank you for the compliment!

    I brought up parental character because the authors wrote (under "Relative Mobility) "one of the biggest predictors of an American child's future economic success – the identity and characteristics of his or her parents – " They also specified the measured Relative Mobility only on the basis of children to parent's income.

    While I absolutely agree we are not born with equal opportunity, I have found there is plenty of opportunity for those who want it and will work for it. If you really want to influence policy, move to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Get a job as a staffer on the Hill, or a Gofer at a law office or lobby firm. It really works that way more than people realize. Email me off line if you would like to discuss this aspect more.

  14. Philip
    Philip says:

    OK, I’m a boomer (a tail-ender born in 1960, but a boomer nonetheless) and I guess I really screwed things up. I work at a social change non-profit and work long hours for little pay. But I love what I do.

    Anyway, I bought the nifty little notebook and the Sharpies so maybe I’ll get a little more organized and free up some time!

  15. Terry
    Terry says:

    Right on. We want our time, freedom and control. I spend 60 SECONDS a day on my Internet business. never mind 8 freaking hours.
    I get up in the morning…

    Check how many subcribers from around the world have paid me.

    How much Google has paid me

    And maybe transfer the cash into my business account.

    Maybe I check my Google Analytics (um 30 seconds) It is a thing of beauty. One day I will outsource the tedious 60 seconds a day to India and check my business for 60 seconds a week on a beach.

    Technology has replaced huge sections of old and antiquated business tools. Bye!

  16. Dave
    Dave says:

    I’m curious as to how you see the tech company culture fitting in to this. Perhaps a lot has changed from when I worked in Silicon Valley 5 years ago, but what I saw was that:

    1) people in their late 30s and 40s, with families, want to work regular hours and have a life outside work.

    2) people in their 20s and 30s loved the idea of working for Yahoo and Google, where they could spend 20 hours a day at work, going to company movie nights, company keg parties, and playing basketball at lunch.

    I’m 40 with 2 kids under 3 and I agree with your overall theme here…and it is something I’ve come to after having kids. But when I was childless, the whole work hard, play hard model was what I perceived as the normal, desirable work ethos for young people in the technology/internet world.

    Do you think it is changing? Or was that mindset always limited to the tech/startup companies?

    I take issue with the generational stereotypes because, in my experience, it was the younger people who were pushing the “your job is your life” ethic, and the boomers who wanted to spend time with their families–were the ones who were laid off because they didn’t (in the eyes of 20-something senior management) have enough commitment to their jobs.

  17. John C
    John C says:

    As a Gen Xer working in the financial services industry I have always tried to find my happiness by working for the largest paycheck. However, I can honestly tell you I have still not found my career nirvana — I have never been more unhappy with my career than I am today, even though I am making more money now than ever before in my professional life.

    It is somewhat depressing to be 35 years old and still not know what I want to be when I grow up. But I can definitely say that whatever direction my career takes me, money will no longer be the driving force behind my decisions. As I look back over the past 10 years of my professional life, it is clear that spending time with my family and friends and learning new exciting things outside of work is what has brought me the most happiness.

    I know the Pew Charitable Trust research indicates that Gen X & Y will most likely end up less financially well off than our parents. But it is clear to me that focusing only on financial matters in life will never lead to long-term happiness. Short term happiness – €“ maybe, but when the "buzz" from whatever financial event you successfully achieve (i.e. a 3% raise; buying a new car; taking an exotic vacation) wares off, it will definitely not provide you with long term happiness. I want true happiness now. I am no longer willing to trade my time (working 60 hours +/week for a nice paycheck in a job I despise) for the hope of finding happiness at the end of my career. I want to make a difference today and I want happiness today. Life is too short to wait for it. It's just not worth it.

    Thanks for the great post! I am a big fan of your Blog.

    * * * * * *

    Hi, John. I love my blog, too. Because I get to hear from people like you. I really appreicate how honest your comment is. It’s so hard to admit that we went after the wrong things in our life. But if we can each be honest about what’s going right and what’s not going right then we can all help each other so much more.




  18. Working Girl
    Working Girl says:

    I’m wondering how much the numbers are influenced by the cost of health care now versus then. Companies are paying much more for benefits than they used to. Are they making up part of the difference by cutting back on salaries?

    Also, 30 years ago was a time of very high inflation. People got big raises, seemed to be making “a lot,” but it was at the time just to keep up with inflation. This may have had an overall effect of lifting salaries long term.

    Just thoughts. I’m not an economist.

    I like the idea of a generation caring more about love than money, and valuing family above career. So, bravo!

  19. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    I’d like to posit to all the Boomers who took personal offense at this post that perhaps you are not indicative of your generation. There are exceptions to every case.

    * * * * *

    Well, yes, but, I find that every single baby boomer I’ve ever met thinks they are an exception to their generation, especially when it comes to parenting during the 70s.


  20. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    John C, I don’t think you should beat yourself up. Your story sounds a lot like mine. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that you’ve spent the last ten years chasing money. You’ve now attained a level of financial independence that enables you not to have to do that anymore, so you can focus on something else now. It’s not a bad thing to get yourself into a financially strong position early in life. Now you can pursue something you enjoy, even if it pays less, and still be able to eat food and live indoors. Ten years from now, you may switch tracks again and do something else entirely. You’ve learned from your past experiences, so now you can take what you know and step forward.

  21. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    Thanks, Penelope for yet another thought provoking entry. Mary and Greg added some food for thought with their comments. I’d like to think that I sought out fulfillment first when deciding on a major in college and have used to make decisions about the jobs I accept.

    However, finances cannot be ignored. I have taken jobs that I did not find emotionally rewarding in order to pay my bills. I do not have the comforts of financially stable parents (I am an example of “mobile America”), so my money earned is money spent (and saved). My biggest regret is not taking my “dream job” because the pay was so low that I could not cover my finances.

    Still, there is something to be said about putting happiness first before benefits like raises. I hope to find a balance where I can work at a job that I enjoy and find rewarding WHILE being able to live comfortably.

    Just the other day my fellow 20-something coworker admitted that she would love if our boss gave us flexible hours. Not a raise, not a bigger office. Just the opportunity to come and go and work hours that are convenient for her. Simple enough, right?

  22. G. Rush
    G. Rush says:

    I hope you don’t mind that I posted a link to this article on a “Baby Boomers” BBS. I did so because it revealed more than a couple things that Boomers really need to be told directly, because for certain we have not been guessing them for ourselves. I think this lack of perception about it is indeed a large part of any problems that have arisen between generations.

    I don’t think you’ll get many Boomers admitting this, but the fact is that we too can become “old and stuck in our ways” just like our predecessors. I think this lack of perception is one of the first major issues arising from, well from us getting to be “that age”.

    Try to imagine how few Boomers are even greatly concerned what the next generations want out of life, after they’re out of our houses? Like our parents before us, and in spite of any enlightenment we might claim, we’ve just been assuming they want what we wanted. Why shouldn’t they? What could be wrong with wanting to “get ahead”?

    To think any different is to challenge the very core of beliefs that the industrial age imposed upon us way-back-when, and to many it tries to indicate that us and our ancestors were all “wrong” somehow, or at least that what many Boomers would think.

    But I read this article and it make me think; “What have we all got now, from all this grindstone nosing effort.?” and “Just how brave do you have to be to not only believe that much differently, but to act upon it, to daily exercise those values and never compromise?”

    Ask many Boomers just how many times we had thought that, but compromised, and I believe you will find many people responding, “Every single time I was challenged, I went for the money. Money is everything, isn’t it?

    With this in mind, I would like to see if you can take this: “I'm not sure that anyone has really defined the negative impact from us being more productive for lower wages.” and expand upon it. I’d be interested in reading just what we’ve lost while trying to “gain”…

  23. Carter
    Carter says:

    I’m not sure if anyone else mentioned this, but lower incomes don’t necessarily lower standard of living, if the things we consume are getting cheaper. My dad may have made more than me at my age, but he couldn’t have a computer or an iPod for example. My car is safer and my medical care is more likely to keep me alive and healthy.

    So really, even with less income, I would consider myself much wealthier, before the issue of free time or flexibility even enters the picture.

  24. Carol Quovadis
    Carol Quovadis says:

    Great post and a very interesting trend appearing in America. In the land of the consumer people choosing less money to spend more time with families.

    Some of the comments seem to assume an all or nothing scenario. High paying/low paying, long hours/short hours, climb the corporate ladder versus career enjoyment.

    I started off in long hours, great pay, invested wisely and then was able to go freelance. Many people thought I was mad leaving a very secure high flying job. The freelance business took off and earned great money with shorter hours. Found I was n’t enjoying it any more so have now changed again. (Even more people though I was mad) Initally I’ll be earning a lot less and maybe will never recover previous income levels but will have more career enjoyment.

    The key thing is not to be handcuffed to money. Career enjoyment should be a more major factor in any job decision, than money, once you’re off the breadline.

    A quote from J. Brotherton
    “My riches consist not in the extent of my possessions but in the fewness of my wants”

  25. Liz
    Liz says:

    It may still not be too late for you to change your major. As a good writer with some journalistic skills with a degree in engineering, you could probably easily find work as a journalist about scientific subjects. There are a lot of good writers out there. But as an engineer who writes well, you can stand out even more. If you decided later to focus more on journalism, as an engineer you could probably do a part time grad degree, or get funded to do a journalism degree. By not majoring in engineering, or something scientific, you are probably closing that door behind you. Do you like creativity in your work? Using your brain? Solving logical problems? I bet many more engineers get to spend their time fully engaged than aspiring journalists.
    I only write this because I wish someone had talked to me about closing doors when I dropped my math major. Money is not totally irrelevant to most people’s lives.

  26. Goose
    Goose says:


    First off, thanks for another great post. I can totally relate being a 20-something ex-graduate school with a master’s degree and not much to show for it other than tens of thousands of dollars of debt (and an education I suppose).

    Have you by chance read Strapped: Why America’s 20 and 30 somethings can’t get ahead by Tamara Draut?

    It seems like that book and your comments in this post are sort of pointing to a similar problem – just wondering if you feel a similar solution is possible?

    I actually interviewed Tamara Draut, and I quote her in a few of the posts I link to in this post. I also interviewed Anya Kamenetz, who wrote a very similar book to Draut’s at almost the same time. Both are great resources.

    — Penelope

  27. chayadina
    chayadina says:

    I am definitely a boomer by age but not by thought. From my very first job out of grad school, it was never really about the $ but about life and balance.
    I was outside of my mainstream. I remember one job I had 15 years ago where I wished I could trade 5-10% of my salary (and I was making a middle income salary) just for the time! Kudos to all of you who understand this, demand this and live it!

  28. Ken Wolman
    Ken Wolman says:

    After severing all contact with “Penelope” last fall (there were some fairly nasty private exchanges, and let’s leave it at that), I find I’m drawn back to her writing. Probably we agree on nothing because our experiences have nothing in common. Yet there is goad-value here, especially since these dialogues are occurring in the presence of people who are no older than my 26 and 29 year old sons. If you’re not careful, I am your future.

    See, I am 63. When I was in Monmouth County Correctional Institution in April for back alimony gone to warrant, the inmates called me “Pops.” I guess that’s better than “fresh meat.” Every mistake I could have made over years before I made. I tried to be “true to myself” at the expense of making money. I could not and would not keep my mouth shut (sometimes I still can’t) and it cost me. Oh, when I was good I was sleek and corporate and just what they wanted–but the strain of such jiving cost me. Now I understand I wasn’t willing to learn to do it well enough.

    So after a year (2006) of five lost jobs, a failed effort at retraining, one suicide attempt, a scorched earth relationship, and finally incarceration, at my age I’m back on the market with only one value in mind. Hint: it’s not “self-fulfillment.” It’s all about doing work I know how to do (and did for 24 years), and it’s all about the money that falls out of it, even if it doesn’t meet your requirements for an annual INCA vacation. It is about repackaging myself (yes, Ms. Trunk, a resume is a direct mail sales tool) to make myself attractive. Translation: that means stretching truths to make them less inconvenient for me. It means lying where you have to as long as you know you’re lying and why.

    If a career “counselor” tells you your resume and cover letter have to be 100% honest all the time, get rid of him or her because your prime directive is to get hired, not win a merit badge for helping old CEOs across the street.

    Yes, you may be happy on $40K a year. I know I probably would be, since right now I’m working at the only job I could get, $7.50 an hour serving food in a supermarket. So forty grand is pretty cool stuff and everything falls into perspective.

    I envy my kids. My older one is working as a learning center administrator while writing a screenplay–he’s already been through a career as an on-air newsman in upstate New York. The younger worked 77 hour weeks as a security guard to put himself through a school to learn sound and video engineering, and that’s after college. He is doing what he set out to do. Like I said, Dr. Ph.D. slinging hash for a buck envies his kids no end because they are young enough to do what their hearts dictate.

    If you can’t necessarily follow your heart, go where the money is. It can help repair some of the breaks.

  29. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:

    Wow, Ken, you sound really bitter. Are you blaming Penelope for your bitterness?

    Loved the post, Penelope.

    “Always remember you’re unique, just like everyone else.”

  30. Leonard Klaatu
    Leonard Klaatu says:

    Penelope, I’ve enjoyed your writing for awhile now.

    For the sake of full disclosure, I turned 50 this year. I bought your book when it came out – I’m a hardcore student/reader. I also bought the iTunes audiobook to download onto my son’s iPod. He’s 26 and embarking on his first real career move. He had no college loans because we (his parents) provided that. Just a few observations from middle age…

    a. I’m glad to see the shift of focus of today’s younger generation. My generation fought hard to climb the ladder, gain bigger paychecks and bought into the American Dream price tag. I did early on, but quickly realized time, independence and freedom meant more to me than money. Of course, I wanted the money, too – and refused to accept “no” as an answer. I’m lucky. Very lucky.

    b. There is a reason that every bookstore has shelves full of old and new releases devoted to decluttering and simplifying life. It seems my generations has discovered what today’s generation already knows. Happiness doesn’t hinge on things. My generation is busy figuring out how to get rid of things we’ve already cluttered our lives with. We’re seeking the same things as our children – except they never bogged themselves down with all this stuff. We’ve already got it and we’re trying to figure out how to get rid of it, and how to stop beating ourselves up for having wasted money on it in the first place.

    c. Daily experiences, especially those centered around the people we love and care about – makes life what it is. People my age – unless they’re greedy or morally corrupt – learn that. Time spent with family and friends is priceless.

    d. My biggest frustration with some younger people – twentysomethings – is the lack of pro-activity I often see. You talk in your book about cold calling being brilliant in today’s world. The implications throughout your book are that more good is done by bellying up to the bar, as opposed to sitting back and waiting for the game to come to you. I heartily agree. Unfortunately for me, my experience with many of this generation (including some college coaching I’ve done) is a lack of direction that causes paralysis. Because they’re not sure of what they want – too many of them do nothing. Sitting around watching Comedy Central doesn’t count. Nor does logging countless hours on MySpace. If it did, I know many twentysomethings who would be Nobel prize nominees.

    I wouldn’t turn back time for anything. I’m quite content to be a 50 year old in today’s world – however – it would be awfully nice to know what I know with the opportunity to embark on a fresh start as a twentysomething today. But, thankfully – 50 is today’s 30, or so I’m told. So, I’ve got pretty thrilling plans for my life still.


    * * * * *

    Hi Leonard,
    Thank you for the comment. I particularly like the insight about the get-rid-of-clutter industry. I never saw it that way, but I think you’re right.

    — Penelope

  31. Jane
    Jane says:

    Your observations about the shifting values are valid. You’re missing a data point though. Things are bad out here. Real bad. We’re drowning. Work weeks are getting longer and longer. Vacations are getting shorter and shorter, or nonexistent. WE’RE STRESSED OUT.

    My sense is that things haven’t always been this bad. And what we’re seeing now, in terms of the shift in values, represents a backlash.

    Problem is that the decision makers – senior management – paid their dues. And they’re the ones perpetuating the cycle. They put out to line some one else’s pockets, and now they want the world to put out to line theirs. Query: when does it end?

    * * * * *

    Research published in the Harvard Business Review last April shows that workweeks are longer and longer for the baby boomers. Gen X and Y won’t put up with them. People have a choice about if they buy into the longer work week. In general, younger people are saying forget it. I wrote about the research here:

    — Penelope

  32. Jane
    Jane says:

    Thanks for the link. Bold conclusions regarding the affect on children. I agree with your conclusions incidentally, and it is a problem that no one talks about this – too politically incorrect I assume. But if we can’t talk about it, how are we going to change it?

    I follow your point that Gen X and Gen Y are walking away from these extreme jobs. But is the market demand (i.e. the prospective job applicants) changing the supply (extreme hours)? I’m not seeing it. And that’s my point. Extreme hours are part of our fabric now. Those Gen Xers and Yers are going to breed one of these days. *gasp!* And family obligations will force them to conform to the system, unless the system changes. My two cents.

  33. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:

    Jane: I’m inclined to disagree that the demand won’t change the supply. It does mean that employers who adapt more quickly will have a better supply of workers to choose from, and can leverage that quality workforce into an advantage in the marketplace.

    It doesn’t mean that the change is going to be easy or painless. Of course, in a time of change, the ones best adapted to the change are the ones who are least invested in the status quo — i.e., Gen Y.

    I agree with Penelope — I think the system is eventually going to conform to the workforce.

  34. Suze
    Suze says:

    Sorry, Penelope, love your blog, hate the post. Way too divisive between arbitrary generational definitions.

    * * * * * 

    Hi, Suze. I really appreciate that you could take the time to write this comment even though you hate the post. One of the strongest parts of the Brazen Careerist community, I think, is that it’s full of people who disagree with me. Makes us all smarter, I think.

    — Penelope

  35. Jane
    Jane says:

    uhhhh…aren’t you kind of ignoring…CAPITALISM? Companies are in the business of making money. Yes turnover costs companies money, and some industries need to compete for their talent pool. But, on the other hand, those extreme hours increase productivity, which increases profit. I’m not convinced that HR costs outweighs productivity gains.

    I’m suggesting a system which is designed to perpetuate slave hours ad infinitum, unless the govt intervenes. I’d love to be wrong.

  36. Suze
    Suze says:

    Awww, Penelope, I’ll always read you. You have a lot of useful insights. I don’t always agree, but I learn a lot, too!

    I’ll come back and read this one again. Maybe I’ll like it more or hate it less!!!!

  37. Martha
    Martha says:

    I have to say I find this a pretty divisive post, too. I’m on the fringe of the Boomer generation, but I am also a writer who has chosen flexibility over a regular job for much of my life. So maybe I’m another one of those Boomers who thinks she’s exceptional, but actually proves the rule. I am also a non-breeder, by choice, who actually knew early on that having the kind of life I wanted would be very, very hard on a kid.

    Nevertheless, when I hear things like “Gen X and Gen Y won’t stand for it,” as if the big bad Boomers invented long hours, I have to ask: where exactly are the organizations, physical or virtual (cough, perhaps *unions*) that will help you make your resistance to grueling hours a legal reality? Or do you really believe that this resistance can simply work individual by individual? And do you believe this is actually a global phenomenon, as jobs are outsourced to places where they really, really don’t want to hear about your personal fulfillment?

    * * * * *

    Hi, Martha.
    The organizations are not helping people to create the jobs we want. We create them by refusing to take other kinds of jobs. Already Gen x and y have enough demographic power to change how human resource departments approach hiring practices because of this.

    Also, see the braided career post – It describes how to get a flexible career by way of constant change and planning as opposed to depending on corporate America to change itself.

    — Penelope

  38. Stephen
    Stephen says:


    What bothered me the most about being (in the older) part of Generation X was trying to scratch my way past the Boomers sitting there rusting in the Middle-management positions, sucking up all of the promotions, and lording their seniority over us.

    Growing up in a Midwestern town with a shrinking job-base didn’t help either.

  39. John C
    John C says:


    What you describe above has been explained to me as being the “gray ceiling.” It implies that the Boomers are fearful of giving up their power and positions of employment to the next generation (Gen X & Y). Thus they have created the gray ceiling.

    I have been experiencing this “protect my turf” attitude my whole career. The problem is that I am beginning to feel disenfranchised by the whole process.

    Has anyone else in the Gen X workforce experienced the gray ceiling? If so, how are you handling it? What strategies can a Gen X’er use to beat the gray ceiling phenomena?

    Penelope, have you heard of the gray ceiling? If so, have you done any research on the issue? I'd love to hear about it if you have.

    * * * * *

    Great topic to bring up. Thanks.

    The fact that Newsweek continues to run ten-page “what are baby boomers doing now” sections reveals that there is no way baby boomers are going to give up their power or stop focusing on themselves.

    But the Newsweek problem also reveals to use what we can do: Work around the problem. The reason young people don’t buy Newsweek is not because young people don’t read print — in fact, college newspapers are very, very popular. Young people don’t buy Newsweek because the baby boomers won’t stop writing about themselves.

    In your work you can do the same thing. Stop trying to get the baby boomers to give up power, and instead, get your power from somewhere else. The baby boomers, for example, will not stand in your way when it comes to starting an Internet business. They won’t stand in your way when it comes to consulting about new ideas. These are places we should focus, until the baby boomers leave.

    Why spend the rest of your career waiting for baby boomers to retire? They can’t afford to. Do something else instead.


  40. Martha
    Martha says:


    You said:

    Already Gen x and y have enough demographic power to change how human resource departments approach hiring practices because of this.

    I would love to see the data on this. I have no doubt that a changing work force makes changes in the workplace. I’ve yet to be convinced that they can make them permanently, regardless of shifts in the economy, without organized action which translates into new law.

    I absolutely believe that we have to be the change we wish to see in the world.

    I also know that much of the social change that we now take for granted in this country became possible because of organized action, lawsuits, and legislation. Yeah, very uncool and not always fun, but…it actually worked sometimes. In the 1960s, the Sears Roebuck in my town didn’t change their hiring practices until they got picketed over an entire winter, suffered a boycott, and went to the bargaining table. And they didn’t change because they thought it was a good thing. They changed because a very long, very public demonstration proved that what they were doing did was bad for their business.

    I’m extremely dubious that any Generation–Boomer, X, Y, or Z–will win a permanent reduction in work hours without a law in place, because as powerful as a demographic wave can be, a corporation can be, and often is, ruthlessly interested in one thing: making as much money as possible with as few hindrances.

    But what is given by individual companies can be taken away just as quickly. In times of feast, as you know, a company will delight you with goodies such as a flexible work schedule because it needs your talent. But what happens when the feast ends, and the goodies you thought of as “rights” vanish?

    If having a reasonable work schedule is a civil right, then I think it needs to be fought for like a civil right.

  41. G. Rush
    G. Rush says:

    Re; the “gray ceiling”.

    The place to look for this is the good old “military industrial complex”, and also NASA and other companies involved in highly technical systems meant for use in outer space.

    These companies have kept people around well into their seventies simply because their accumulated knowledge is considered a most critical asset. The problem is, that they have been far too tardy in working to develop new people from the “ground up”.

    For decades it’s been recognized that these two industries have been somewhat of an “old boys club”; a tightly knit and mostly impenetrable “closed shop”. They have also known for the saem length of time what the unfortunate result would someday be of their hesitance to open up new positions for people who will need to be trained. They just preferred not to do anything about it until the lack of new blood showed a visible effect.

    Well, it has been showing for the last five years at least, but their response to the sudden wave of retirements has been to throw anything and everything at the exiting employees to get them to stay, while continuing to put up barriers to the hiring of lower level younger employees. It’s true that many companies have developed pretty good internship programs for engineering students, and do a goo djob of trolling the campuses when graduation time comes around.

    The people they have preferred to ignore though, are the folks who do “everything but” rocket science and aerospace engineering. The folks who assemble what the “best & brightest” have designed, and who do all the other technical and administrative tasks involved in the development and manufacturing of aerospace systems.

    There is considerable critical technical knowledge that these people carry as well as the engineers, and because of their own imposition of the “gray ceiling”, these industries are backing themselves slowly into a financial corner. As happens in other industries, we have foreign competitors who don’t maintain the same belief in depending so much on mature experience over young inspiration…

  42. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    @ John C: “The Gray Ceiling” YES. That is the perfect term. And the day is looming when the Boomers will be preparing to retire and vote enormous benefits for themselves that we have to pay for. With any luck a Gen X movement to level things out will coalesce. Otherwise Gen Z is going to get creamed. Or revolt.

  43. Andrey
    Andrey says:


    I’m not a specialist in statistics and happiness, but let me put my two cents about it.

    The statistics of the X and Y generations doing better in ‘keeping families together more than twice effectively as our parents did’ cannot be applied properly right now. Let’s wait for a couple of tens of years to let the statistics get even, to let all the new generations live as long as ‘our parents’.

    Here should also be applied another kinds of statistics: of health condition; ecology; threat of nuclear war for ‘our parents’ generation or other global disasters that can impact your divorce statistics; number of born children; suicides; alcoholic and drug edicts; number of criminals, pedophiles and other culprits; and depression of representatives of different generations – to make a conclusion of happiness.

    I’m almost sure that the value ‘to take time’ will not the help much the new generation fulfilling.

    Let’s for instance have a look at other nations.
    Korean’s: start work hard since they are 4! They are strictly taught to be disciplined since that age. But they are the one of the happiest nations in the world.

    They worked so much that when they were 20-30-something, that now they sell all over the world their cars at prices equal to German!
    They travel with their families all over the world and happy seeing many places!
    They have got families with many happy children (not just a child as usual for X or Y)!
    They know what they want, and this is not just ‘taking time’, and the world respects them!
    Thus, they are happy, successful and with their large strong families!

    In my opinion, what we can see proves that happiness or fulfillment is not in just taking time. It’s somewhere beyond.

    * * * * *

    The statistic about divorce rates is generation X, not generation Y. Generation X is in their 40s. We have enough data to know. Gen x divorce rates are less than half those of baby boomers.

    The research about what makes people happy — across borders and cultures — has to do almost 100% with personal relationships and level of optimism. I write about this research constantly on this blog. Divorce rate is integral to the personal relationships part of the equation. This is why gen X has had such a strong focus on keeping marriages together.



  44. Karla
    Karla says:

    Perhaps what people should really be searching for is ‘balance’. I know some post WWII parents who literally worked themselves to death (i.e. heart attack). But now I look at France and see that they must import workers to support an upper class of ‘drones’. A healthy mixture of both may be best. And one more thing… “it isn’t work if you like doing it”… get a job you enjoy.

  45. Brady
    Brady says:

    Perhaps there’s a way to achieve both financial success and time for other things you love? If your hourly rate exceeds the cost of delegating things like housekeeping to a maid, then those economics work.

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