A few years ago, before the recession took hold, I was speaking to a group of high school students and wound up being given a pop quiz. I assured my audience that by setting high goals, working hard, making sacrifices and never giving up, they could be successful. One student asked for my definition of success. I told him it went beyond material wealth to doing something you love and find fulfilling, but still gives you enough economic sustenance to prevent you from abandoning ship and moving on to something else. The student smiled and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
I think about that encounter whenever I interview an academic who has studied the work habits and job preferences of so-called Millennials, ages 18 to 29. Or when I read about surveys of young people who put job satisfaction before salary or security. I wonder if my answer did more harm than good.
In the context of the immigration debate, I've written a lot about Millennials not having much of a work ethic -- especially for the hard jobs their parents and grandparents did a generation or two ago. And it's not just the worst jobs that some young people are avoiding. It's almost any job.
The unemployment rate for young Americans hovers at about 14 percent. Another 23 percent of young people are not even looking for a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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But there's another side to this coin. For those young people who do want to work, and those who went to college and perhaps even graduate school with the expectation that acquiring more education would automatically lead to a good job, many don't believe in the concept of paying their dues. They tell reporters and survey-takers that they want to be assured they won't spin their wheels in a dead-end job.
Life offers no such assurances. And besides, dues-paying worked pretty well for earlier generations. You took a job even if it wasn't your ideal job with the hopes that other opportunities would open up. For the young worker of the 20th century, any kind of job was considered valuable, if nothing else because it provided a way of becoming self-sufficient and moving out of your parents' home.
Today, with many Millennials holding out for their dream job, even if it means turning down what earlier generations would have considered good offers, it's no wonder that more and more 20-somethings are still living with mom and dad. The Pew Research Center found that in 2008, when the recession began, the percentage of the population that lived in households where at least two generations were present inched upward to 16 percent. In good times, that figure might be as low as 12 percent.
The stay-at-home youths include 24-year-old Scott Nicholson, who was the subject of a recent article in The New York Times. The unemployed college graduate lives with his parents in Grafton, Mass., while searching Web sites for corporate job openings and sending out résumés for those he finds acceptable. After a host of interviews, he was offered a job as an associate claims adjuster for an insurance company. The position paid $40,000 a year, more than enough to get him out on his own. Nicholson turned the job down, preferring to hold out for the corporate position he really wanted -- one that would give him an opportunity for career advancement.
It's difficult to feel sorry for someone who, just out of college, turns down a starting job that pays $40,000 a year. And I wonder how many other young Americans are making similar choices.
Now that the Congress has approved a bill to extend unemployment benefits, the mainstream media are churning out stories intended to make unemployed Americans look helpless and sympathetic. Some of them are both. But some are neither.
Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.