Lessons From the Recession

March 9, 2009 | By Lauren Gamber

There is little upside to this current economic crisis, but for parents of children born after 1961, there may at least be an opportunity for realistic talk. So-called Gen-Xers (born between 1961 and 1981) and Millennials (born after 1981) have little personal history with massive layoffs, credit crunches and market crashes, and are looking to older adults for advice.

“Young people will listen to their parents and grandparents with new interest, in the same way that after 9/11 there was a renewed interest in Pearl Harbor,” says Neil Howe, an economist, historian and coauthor of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.

That interest gives parents and grandparents an opening. If you lived through the Great Depression or the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, describe how you coped. “Be honest about your own fears,” says David Stillman, coauthor of When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work. But resist the urge to lecture about how life was tougher back then—you know, before cellphones and the Internet, when you had to walk uphill both ways to get to school.

Every generation has its own starting point, Howe says, and parents need to recognize the unique economic hardships that Gen-Xers and Millennials face. Take housing, for instance. In the 1940s and ’50s, a couple could afford to buy a home on one income. Today, two-income couples struggle to purchase a modest home in the suburbs.

Like their elders, Gen-Xers and Millennials who have lost their jobs may feel a mix of fear, anger, resentment and a sense of loss. Even those who survive layoffs often experience a range of emotions: survivor’s guilt, frustration about having to take on others’ work, anger toward managers, and worry about getting laid off next, says Mitchell Lee Marks, assistant professor of management at San Francisco State University and author of Charging Back Up the Hill: Workplace Recovery After Mergers, Acquisitions and Downsizings.

Older adults can show their support by reaching out. “Give them a call and say, ‘I know these are shaky times for you,’ ” says Lynne Lancaster, who coauthored When Generations Collide with Stillman. “Ask them, ‘What do you need to feel safer and stronger in this situation?’ ”

Encourage them to do a skills assessment and to stay socially connected—networking may help land that next job. If you can provide a Gen-Xer or Millennial access to your own contacts, do.

Lancaster advises younger people who still have jobs to get their resumés in order, find mentors, take on extra projects and responsibilities that will make them more valuable, and even consider consulting on the side.

Marks agrees. “You have got to always think about managing your own brand, managing your own career,” he says. “What are you doing today that can prevent your being a victim from the next round of layoffs?”

One caveat, Marks adds: Don’t overpromote yourself. “If you do feel a need to promote yourself, try to do it looking forward. Don’t just say, ‘Wasn’t I great?’ Instead, say, ‘I think I can make a contribution in this new area.’ ”

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