A Message to Millennials about Work

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

In part 2 we looked at the way, according to a recent Pew Study, Millennials relate to the visible, institutional church. The third major topic is work. As Bradford Wilcox summarizes the results of the study, he notes that 80 percent of those aged 24–29 are employed. Only 44 percent of those aged 18–29 are employed full-time. That latter number seems quite low. I’m not a social scientist, and I don’t play one on the web (as an undergrad I used social “science” when required, but I was more interested in arguments than statistics).

Millennials are lagging in income levels as compared to the previous generation.

The PBS article “Why Millennials Are Struggling Grannies Are Thriving, and What to Do About It” summarizes research claiming that Millennials are about four years behind the previous generation in reaching the same level of income. According to the research study, one reason is that, even though they are nominally educated (i.e., they’ve gone through late-modern educational process), young men particularly have failed to develop the necessary skills to flourish in the workplace. Researchers Anthony Carnevale, Andrew Hanson and Artem Gulish write,

Millennials aren’t employed at lower rates because they’re lazy or bad at math; they’re the most educated generation ever. But they’re also the first generation to face the new demands for education and skill—and a bad economy, a much higher cliff to climb than previous generations.

Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that might be an overly optimistic assessment. The educational system has largely failed the Millennials. They have gone through the process, but I doubt that they are as highly educated as the PBS article claims. Since the arrival of the modern industrial age, many generations have had to adapt to changing conditions and market demands.

Increasing student debt isn't helping Millennials.

Vince Ginn is probably correct that the job market is working against them. This is not the go-go 80s where young people can expect to find a good job easily upon graduation from college. They are competing for low-skill jobs once thought to be the domain of high school graduates or even high school dropouts. Millennials certainly face an uphill climb. Obamacare, rising college costs (and the resulting loan debt—many grads are now carrying the equivalent of a mortgage as they graduate from college), apparently failed policies such as the Affordable Care Act, and a generally unsettled economy (which makes companies reluctant to take risks, to invest, to expand or to recover some of the workforce they laid off after the crash of ’07–’08) seem poised to make the economic future of Millennials darker than previous generations.

Even with all that, the Great Recession was not the Great Depression. This was a post-Reagan recession. The malls remained relatively full. Yes, there were some empty shops, but I recall recessions under Nixon-Carter-Reagan (’80–81) where there were empty shelves, empty stores, and gas lines, and the deprivation and poverty of the Great Depression was markedly worse than anything we’ve experienced since.

The work ethic has changed.

One thing has changed, however, since the Great Depression: the work ethic. There are two great social changes afoot that will mark this generation. Homosexual marriage, which the Millennials generally support, partly because it makes them feel enlightened and morally superior to support what they see as a cause of liberation (allowing people to do what they want). It seems like a pain-free way to say: follow your bliss. They don’t, however, seem to grasp the significance of what it means to re-define marriage in purely affective terms, without reference to nature. They will.

The second great social change that marks this generation is the legalization of pot. As a GenXer (you’re not a Boomer if you didn’t see Howdy Doody or if you can’t remember where you were when JFK was assassinated) raised with some Dustbowl economic values, I worry about what the legalization of weed signifies. Perhaps it means nothing, but weed does nothing if not destroy one’s desire to work and accomplish. That’s not true for a glass of wine or even a beer—a six-pack maybe or a whole bottle of wine, but now we’re not comparing apples with apples.

Recently we’ve had national leaders extolling the virtues of unemployment. We’ve heard national political figures sounding very much like Marx regarding the virtues of leisure. It wasn’t that long ago that mainstream politicians of both parties sounded very different. That they can now speak like Marx makes one think that there has been a fundamental cultural shift relative to work, and it’s hard not to think that people (including Millennials) no longer view work as inherently good and valuable.

Humans were given work to do before the fall.

As I argued in another post, however, work is inherently good. God is a worker, a Creator. We were made in his image. We were given work to do in the garden even before the fall. Work is an important way in which we express our status as bearers of the divine image. Work continued after the fall, even if it became difficult and frustrating. When the apostle Paul learned that some believers were quitting their jobs because they thought that Jesus was coming immediately, he told them to get back to work and that if they didn’t work, they shouldn’t eat.

Then there is the ancient biblical and Christian idea of vocation. Where the medieval and Roman churches tended to locate vocation only in the sacred—in monasteries and in the call to ministry—the Protestants argued that every image bearer has a vocation, that secular work is not inherently defiled or defiling. It is just as honorable as sacred work. We’re called in Scripture to do our work to the glory of God and to the well-being of our neighbor.

Running a business, investing, and providing employment are good things.

All business people are not Gordon Gekko. Starting a business, selling a service or a product, or meeting a need in the marketplace at a fair market price is a good thing. Business is noble, not evil. Investing and getting a return on that investment is a good thing. Being successful and employing others is a good thing. One of the fastest growing segments of our economy is the non-profit segment. That’s all well and good, but who is going to fund all these non-profits? Business people. We can’t all work in non-profits, and I say this as an employee of a non-profit. I’m deeply grateful to those business people who make it possible for me to do what I do at work and here at the Heidelblog.

I fear that the reaction to excess (real or perceived) is grounded not in a Christian evaluation of work and leisure but in a sort of Gnostic, docetic denial of human reality. As a largely urban and suburban culture, Americans don’t seem to understand clearly any more, e.g., where food comes from. They think it appears magically in the grocery. It doesn’t. A farmer risked his capital (money) to buy/rent land, to buy equipment and animals, to buy seed and materials. That farmer got out of bed (sometimes in awful weather), grew it, sold it, and a company processed it and turned it into food. People risked themselves and capital (money and resources) in order to produce it. So, of course, they aren’t going to give it away. They can’t even if they wanted to, or they wouldn’t be able to continue growing food.

The same is true of something as apparently simple as a pencil.

All those people, through whom a pencil eventually comes into existence, are doing something valuable. That’s the way God made the world. Work is not greedy or money grubbing. It’s one of the reasons we exist, to fulfill our vocation, whatever it may be and to play our part, to the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbor.

To read part 1 of this series, "A Message to Millennials about Marriage," click here.

To read part 2 of this series, "A Message to Millennials about the Church," click here.

R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California) and the author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008).

This article by R. Scott Clark was first published at https://heidelblog.net/2014/03/messages-to-millennials-3-work/

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