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opinion | jennifer graham

A generation of idle trophy kids

Word that 6 million young people are not working or studying comes as no surprise to anyone with a millennial in the basement.

While their parents weren’t looking, Generation X gave way to Generation Vex, an amiable, tech-savvy, yet minimally employable crop of Americans who will ultimately need more subsidies than a dairy farmer. Staying on the family health insurance until age 26 is just the beginning.

“They just need a chance,” soothes Mark Edwards, executive director of the Boston-based Opportunity Nation. That’s the advocacy group that recently released the study showing that 15 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds are the new American idle.

This does mean that 85 percent of this age group is in school or working — albeit many in low-wage jobs. Six million, however, is not an insignificant number. And researchers say people who begin their adult lives without jobs are more likely to be unemployed in the future. Bodies at rest remain at rest, even when a portion of one’s idle time is dispatched at the neighborhood gym. Even more unnerving, this generation has contrived a new level of inertia, which the Japanese call “hikikomori.” It’s young people who don’t leave the house at all, not because they’re scared like agoraphobics, but because their needs are met and they’re content.

Thirteen years ago, Neil Howe and the late William Strauss called millennials — children born between 1982 and 2000 — “the next great generation” in their book “Millennials Rising.” Sure, there are isolated successes — for every 10,000 college dropouts, there’s one Mark Zuckerberg. But Howe and Strauss, it seems, were indulging in happythink.


Recent economic woes are partly to blame, as middle-aged workers cling to jobs once held by 20-somethings. But as the recession recedes, it’s getting harder to believe we’ve given millennials the skills and, more important, the motivation to provide for themselves. In MTV’s 2012 study on these “No Collar Workers,” half said they’d rather have no job at all than a job they hate.


In colonial times, nine out of 10 people worked on food production, hence John Smith’s famous edict at Jamestown: “He who works not, eats not.” (There was no enabling 99-cent value menu then.) The millennials, alas, are trophy kids, a generation spawned not for their usefulness at harvest but because they look so precious in those matching pajamas from Hanna Andersson. Not that we all had children as accessories; we also have all these extra bedrooms. The housing boom, a multi-generational villain, shares responsibility when the nest refuses to empty.

In pregnancy, “nesting” is a mammal’s proclivity to burrow into a home, surrounded with comfortable things like twigs and leaves. Once our national nesting habits expanded to include pillow-top mattresses and media rooms with big screens and theater seating, we might as well have hung a sign over our kids’ doors, saying, “Abandon all ambition, ye who enter here.”

More so than previous generations, millennials incubated in beauty and comfort and spaciousness unknown to their parents at that age. There was no Rachael Ray or Martha Stewart then. There were no four-car garages, master suites, and cathedral ceilings unless your name was Kennedy or Bush. There was lime-green shag carpeting in ’50s-style ranches with bedrooms the size of today’s walk-in closets. In quarters that close, kids couldn’t wait to move out at 18, even to the shabbiest of apartments.

Today’s kids simply can’t imagine downsizing to quarters like that. They’re victims of their parents’ success and frustrated that they see no way to replicate it. And why should they, if they’re already livin’ the dream?


A story circulates about the old fisherman who encounters a Harvard MBA who asks why he doesn’t work hard to expand his business. Then, the businessman promises, after 20 or 30 years of hard labor, he can go public, reap millions and then sleep late, fish a little, take a nap, enjoy his family.

The fisherman smiles and says — ba da boom — “Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?”

So, too, our millennials. In his new book, “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams credits his millennial assistant, adding, “If any of you are worried about the next generation, don’t be. They make us look like chimps.” Chumps, too, if parents keep gathering their bananas when we’d rather be swinging from the trees.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.