Machine Design

Sorry kids, none of us ever were guaranteed lifetime employment

October 23,1997

The editorial in our consisted of a commencement address cast in a whimsical framework. I claimed to have written the address so I would have one handy in case a college asked me to speak at a graduation ceremony. The premise was a blatant literary device allowing me to make fun of the vapid pronouncements and esteem-building laudations that graduating seniors hear every June.

All was not levity, however. In the address I talked about an interesting phenomenon, namely, the increasingly negative comments about new graduates heard from college administrators and corporate recruiters. Every generation thinks the next one is going to hell in a handbasket, but today there is a new twist.

The griping comes mainly from people having first-hand contact with youth, both in terms of teaching and hiring them. Some readers thought the editorial was my personal opinion, but every point was drawn from the published remarks of an educator, recruiter, or competent commentator on societal mores.

The response to the editorial possibly exceeded that of any other column I've written. By far, most readers agreed with the tenor of the piece, but some took strong exception. The points they made covered a broad spectrum, but the essentials can be boiled down to a few succinct complaints.

  1. Young people are justifiably cynical about corporations which, after their frenzy of downsizing, expect newly hired employees to work long hours to make up for what is now chronic understaffing.
  2. Having seen firsthand how older relatives were mercilessly cut down in corporate bloodbaths, young people see no point in committing themselves to companies that use up employees and then throw them away. Jobs used to be a lifetime proposition, but that is gone now. So there is no point making sacrifices for a career.
  3. Young people who appear unmotivated are simply looking at the cost-benefit ratio of a job and deciding whether or not it is compatible with their goals and values. Often, they decide the job doesn't mesh with the lifestyle they want.

That being said, I have a few observations of my own. First, long hours are nothing new. There is an old saying that you earn your salary during the day and earn your raise in the evening, and like it or not, this credo is often the key to success. If you don't want to buy into it, don't, but you'll end up working for someone who has.

Second, I can't recall any era when anyone in business had lifetime tenure. The idea that employees once had this guarantee seems to have been manufactured by television and newspaper reporters trying to add pathos to their stories about downsizing. Through my entire life, I've always known college graduates at all age levels who were out of work and desperately looking for a job.

Third, it never occurred to me that I should think about my lifestyle or whether my job has the right cost-benefit ratio. I suppose my mind has always been preoccupied with putting food on the table, paying the mortgage, and trying to remain gainfully employed.

- Ronald Khol,

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