The Lost Generation, Explained (finding purpose in an uncertain future)

"We'll start you out here, then give you more responsibilities as you gain experience."

I’ve heard that, in the minutes before a natural disaster, farm animals often exhibit a general and uneasy restlessness – long before any detectable indicator appears on the horizon, they mill about and complain noisily, not exactly able to identify the impetus for their discontent – but fearing the impending storm nonetheless.

I watched the election unfold with considerable fascination. It surprised me how strongly my peers felt about their respective candidates – after growing up in a generation where anything above a blasé attitude about politics was considered uncool, I found the shift towards political passion intriguing.

There is a general and growing discontentment amongst young people these days, I think –  unemployment often plays the scapegoat, but it’s more than that, isn’t it? Though I’ll be the first to admit that I’m predisposed to making sweeping and extreme generalizations – earning me the nickname “Mr. Hyperbole” from my older brother – I truly don’t believe that I would be exaggerating to say that 90% of my friends from high school and college hate their jobs.

But why is that? Are we simply becoming more self-aware as a generation – meaning, are we less satisfied with doing the same jobs that our parents did? Or has something shifted in the workplace that is the root of this discontentment?

Peter Drucker observed that, at the turn of the 20th century, the majority of the population in every developed country was comprised of two main groups: farmers and live-in servants. The Industrial Revolution rapidly changed that composition – with the advent of large factories and a near-insatiable demand for consumer goods, farmers and servants became blue-collar factory workers. Their standard of living improved immeasurably.

There is an inevitable economic cycle, though, of fragmentation and consolidation. As an industry first appears, opportunities are seized upon by hundreds or thousands of different companies. Investors distribute capital to this wide variety of entrepreneurs, and these investments have a way of identifying and cultivating great leaders and innovative methods.

The more profitable of the group receive more investment, and the additional capital is used to make long term improvements in productivity – it is through this miracle of capitalism that businesses gradually consolidate into a few, powerful conglomerates through a series of mergers and acquisitions as well as organic growth. Less efficient – and thus less profitable – companies are eventually edged out of the market altogether as the more adept competition gains market share.

Let’s look at the tangible result of this phenomenon: in 2011, the average US factory worker produced $156,500 of manufacturing output, up from an inflation-adjusted $19,500 in 1950. That means that one worker today has the same output as eight workers in 1950. That’s incredible.

But this wasn’t a particularly crippling problem for most of our parents – as those manufacturing jobs disappeared, the computer age created a tremendous demand for knowledge workers. Let’s take management consulting as an example – in 1980, there were only 5 consulting firms that employed more than 1,000 consultants. Today, there are 44 of them.

Statistics can feel abstract, though, and I’m not sure that they give us any more clear view of why our generation is feeling so lost. We need to look at the softer side of the equation – what does the consolidation phase feel like?

I would imagine that working on Henry Ford’s first streamlined production line was exciting. To be sure, it must have been incredibly hard and draining work – but efficiency feels good, and the buzz must have made the day pass quickly, particularly in comparison to a slow, scattered day on the farm.

Now, let’s fast forward to the 1980s – the time when Ford began to incorporate robotics into production lines. Workers aren’t eliminated overnight – first, processes are iterated and improved upon, and only when our beloved management consultants are observing “significant underutilization of human capital” are the workers fired en masse.  So, then, on their eve of obsoletion, what did a typical day in the life of a line worker feel like? I’d venture a guess: boredom, lack of purpose, understimulation.

Sound familiar?

Evolution – and its unfriendly cousin, extinction – has been chasing the work force for two thousand years: from hunter/gatherers to farmers and servants to factory workers to knowledge workers, which is how many of us are employed today. If, as a knowledge worker, you find yourself doing highly similar tasks, day in and day out, I’ve got some bad news for you: you’ll likely soon be replaced by a computer or a robot. And I fear that there is no prospect of mass job creation in the foreseeable future – the simple truth is that our ability to leverage technology is outpacing the growth of demand, even as our population expands at an unprecedented rate. There is simply nowhere left to run.

Rallying against automation, outsourcing, and the resulting layoffs is as logical and effective as dinosaurs protesting an incoming meteor.

The truth is, there will not be enough jobs to go around until a disruptive technological breakthrough creates a highly inefficient and fragmented market. That could happen tomorrow, or it could be another fifty years before this sort of job creation comes about.

I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to offer a social solution for the impending job crisis. But I do believe that there will always be opportunities for top performers, if positioned correctly to be relevant and necessary.

The world today – and the future of tomorrow – belongs to engineers. I don’t mean that in the traditional sense of a degreed inventor, but rather in the sense of someone who solves problems. Everyone else exists to manage the difficulties that arise from attempting to deliver the engineer’s solution to the end user – and this latter group is really quite temporary in nature. They exist only as a stopgap solution for inefficiencies until technology catches up and obviates them.

The author, for example, is an engineer, developing a solution for the end user in the form of information – whether it is some sort of instructive learning (like self-help topics) or entertainment (like a fictional story). Around this inventor spurts a whole industry of helpers – editors, agents, publishers, printers, bookstores, and libraries come to mind. And the existence of the printing house brings about a whole set of ancillary industries: ink manufacturers, printing press maintenance providers, and consultants to help make the operation more profitable.

But, as we’re already seeing, these tangential support functions are but a brief and fleeting flash in the pan – with the rising popularity of the e-book, the traditional publishing industry and the house of cards it supports is collapsing inwards upon itself. And the e-book is really itself a temporary solution, propping up a multitude of companies that feed upon the scraps created by the author.

Technology is systematically eliminating everything but the two parties that are absolutely necessary for a transaction to take place: the end user and the engineer. It is amazing – and, I have to admit, entertaining – to watch companies like Barnes and Noble lash out against it (as we’re seeing with Tim Ferriss’ latest book, the 4-Hour Chef).

Eventually – perhaps not tomorrow or a year from now, but certainly within our lifetime – an author will transmit thought directly into the mind of the reader, and will likely go the way of Barnes and Noble, who in turn followed the corner bookstore on the march to irrelevance in the face of innovation.

And so, I think that we should all endeavor to be the engineer – or, if you’re not ready yet, at least position yourself as close as possible to the solution. If you work for a company that makes the chemicals necessary to produce the ink to print the book to deliver the information to the reader, I think you will have a hard time finding fulfillment in your job – you’re simply too far removed to feel the impact of your work. And even within a company, position yourself in a department that makes a mark on the life of the user. The further you are from the user, the harder it will be to see the meaning in your day-to-day tasks.

We’re seeing polarization in all aspects of our society. It is evident in the consolidation of wealth in the hands of fewer individuals while the plight of the poor gets worse, how our Olympic athletes continue to shatter records while obesity rates skyrocket, and how top universities produce unparalleled thinkers while public schools struggle to teach basic subjects.

These trends are natural and unavoidable, and I can’t help but feel that they will continue regardless of which politician comes to power and what regulation, stimulus, initiative, or intervention they attempt. Any measure intended to reverse the tide will merely delay it momentarily – and that’s a wonderful thing if you’re on the right side of the equation. Never before in the history of the world has one person been able to wield so much influence and deliver such substantial impact.

And so, my friends, I’m finding the key to living a happy, fulfilled day-to-day life is to remain relevant. I’m trying to be the engineer – maneuvering myself as close as possible to the end user, instead of investing my time in an ancillary support business that will inevitably collapse in the face of an engineer’s next great idea.

It’s exciting out here on the edge, and there aren’t many of us out here. I hope you’ll join me.