retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

There were a couple of Eye-Opening articles this weekend about economic trends and how people are coping with them.

The Los Angeles Times had a story about what it calls “Generation Vexed — young Americans who are downsizing expectations in the face of an economic future that is anything but certain. Career plans are being altered, marriages put off and dreams shelved.

According to the story, “Fewer than half of Americans believe that the current generation will have a better life than the last, according to a Gallup poll this spring. It was the most pessimistic showing for that barometer in nearly three decades.

“Another poll, of Americans ages 18 to 29, found that three-quarters of them expect to delay a major life change or purchase because of economic factors.”

The simple truth, LAT reported, is that “the economy has been in sorry shape for so long that it has covered a significant portion of young people's lives. The recession officially ran from December 2007 to June 2009, but with slow growth and high joblessness since then, it doesn't feel much like it ended.” Joblessness is likely to continue to be a problem for them, in part because of economic contraction and in part because older workers won’t want to give up their jobs because of their own economic concerns.

At the same time, the New York Times had a story about how “in recent years, a wave of white-collar professionals has seized on a moribund job market, a swelling enthusiasm for all things artisanal and the growing sense that work should have meaning to cut ties with the corporate grind and chase second careers as chocolatiers, bed-and-breakfast proprietors and organic farmers.

“Indeed, since the dawn of the Great Recession, more Americans have started businesses (565,000 of them a month in 2010) than at any period in the last decade and a half, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which tracks statistics on entrepreneurship in the United States.

“The lures are obvious: freedom, fulfillment. The highs can be high. But career switchers have found that going solo comes with its own pitfalls: a steep learning curve, no security, physical exhaustion and emotional meltdowns. The dream job is a ‘job’ as much as it is a ‘dream’.”

I have to admit to having a personal reaction to both stories.

We have a son who has just moved home after graduating from college. He’s got a full-time job working for a wine retailer, and we’re encouraging him to save as much money as he can right now so that he’ll be able to take risks later. But we’re also telling him not to take employment for granted ... that in the end, he has to be responsible for himself, and can’t trust anyone else to look out for him. (Other than his parents, of course.)

I’m not sure this is a positive thing. At least not completely. It may be that the breakdown of trust may be the hardest thing for the business community to grapple with, because it will be hard to get employees to feel a sense of ownership if they feel they are seen as costs rather than assets, that in the end, they are on their own. On the other hand, it may create a more self-reliant and independent workforce.

And I’ll tell you this.

I’ve been on my own for most of the last 16 years. There’s nothing like it, in part, I suppose, because (as Mrs. Content Guy) says, I don’t always play well with others. But I also think it is because for the most part, I never worked for anyone who really knew how to take advantage of my skills and passion ... who understood that as a matter of personality, I always took ownership of the places where I worked. That passion was largely seen as a nuisance, not a positive trait that could contribute to a business’s ultimate success. Sad to say, I never really had a mentor in anyplace I worked, and I feel that gap even - or maybe especially - as I get older.

The workforce is changing, in ways both tangible and intangible. I see it in various ways in my own household. (Mrs. Content Guy started off as a banker/stockbroker, but ended up as a third grade teacher to satisfy her own passions.) And it will be companies and leaders with eyes wide open that will be able to take advantage of these shifts.
KC's View: