Living Between the Lines

This morning, I caught my reflection in a dark office window and took pause. There I was—black pencil skirt, red lipstick, slight heels, straight back, mug of coffee in hand. A to-do list running through my head, quickening with every caffeinated sip.

Mesmerizingly adult.

I took a long look at the big kid in the mirror, tucking a thick strand of almost-blonde hair behind my ear. I can’t tell you how exactly I felt at that moment. Might have been fear, or pride, or confusion. Might have been all three. It wasn’t that I was particularly uncomfortable with the look—this is hardly my first blazer/pencil skirt combo. But I knew that only three hours ago, I had been marching down the dewy sidewalk as the sun rose. Jean shorts, hoodie, messy ponytail. I was singing old blues songs to myself, and watched as the street light beside my house clicked off at 6:30 am.

The lady-type I was looking at now didn’t look like a 20-something kid who crashes on couches. But I knew. I knew that only a month ago, I was living out of the backpack that now carries my work laptop and homemade lunch. That these red shoes have seen their fair share of karaoke nights (and were purchased for $10 at K-Mart, if we’re being honest here). That I live in a cheap basement apartment on the other side of town. That I am no stranger to overnight bus rides, used furniture, and 2 am pizza orders.

Classy, classy, classy.

Shaking it off, I resumed power-walking to my cubicle. I proceeded to go through my emails. The language! Visual identity. Network application. It’s RGB, not colour. I had to “tighten up” some designs before a conference call.

I clicked my heels on the carpeted floor and streamed the radio through my headphones. I knew the language served an important purpose. I knew the jean shorts and the hoodie are no more “me” than the businessy blazer. But my head was spinning with all the transformations in my day.

Sometimes, my mother gives me this look that says “Wow, baby girl, when did you grow up?” It’s the same fear/pride double take I gave myself briefly in the window today. Only she’s looking at a transformation spanning a few decades; I was looking at one that took 30 tired Monday morning minutes.

We all wear so many costumes, and speak so many languages. I don’t think that makes our roles less genuine—we move pretty seamlessly through the motions. It’s an interesting process, though, playing a role (not that you’re faking it, but still, it’s playing) every time you walk into a certain place, or consider a certain person. Balancing the expectations and conflicting commitments.

In some ways, I think identity is somewhere in the cracks. It’s not in the office, or at a friend’s house, or at family dinner. It’s in those first few seconds when you wake up and aren’t quite sure where you are yet. When you’re driving—just driving, and for a moment you stop thinking about where you’re going. When someone touches you on the shoulder, or the hand, and your body unconsciously warms to the contact. Or maybe, if you’re anything like me, when you stare out the window at the rain.

Unexpected meditations, split second reactions.

The different costumes and languages and skillsets are important, of course. They define a lot of things. They help us fill our hours, contribute to society, et cetra. But I know, deep down, that I am neither a 9-to-5 busybody nor a sloppy, happy 20 something with a broken internal clock. Role after role after role. There’s something else, something much more powerful, dripping through the cracks with every scene change.

If you’ve ever wondered why I believe people have souls…this is it, man. When the pressure melts away for a few seconds, all that’s left to do is practice being human.

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Kids. These. Days.

First, a short list of things that I have no control over:

My gender
My sexuality
My race
My parents
My blood type
Where I was born
When I was born

Now, a list of things that do not directly affect my employability or job performance:

My gender
My sexuality
My race
My parents
My blood type
Where I was born
When I was born

I’m new to adultland, so correct me if I’m wrong: I was taught that character, skills, competence and experience are what make or break a new employee.  I was taught that the factors I listed above are not all that important. At least, they shouldn’t be.

Thankfully, I live in a time and place that reflects these values. Being a woman hasn’t stopped me from getting a job.  I have worked alongside folks of many races and backgrounds, all of whom seemed to be treated fairly. Diversity in the workplace, in my experience, has been regarded as a good thing.

I’m lucky.

And I’m lucky that the media, bless it, is hesitant to blame any behaviour, good or bad, on such superficial factors.

…well, except one.

g9510.20_Millennials.Cover

For some reason, it’s totally fair game to pick on an entire generation.

In fact, it’s fashionable.

On a weekly basis, I am pummeled with articles about how  the attitude of Generation-Y, meaning anyone born between 1980 and 2000, is all but a signal of the end times.  We’re the worst employees to have. We’re the take-take-takers.  The entitled ones.

When I read these articles, I am tempted to write an article to shout back. To cite statistics and stories on the other side: NO YOU’RE WRONG! LOOK AT US!  LOOK AT ME! WE’RE WORKING HARD! IT’S YOUR GENERATION THAT RUINED THINGS! LEAVE US ALONE!  I could make a case for it. I could.  Most millenials I know are working multiple jobs, some of which are unpaid, often heavily supporting the very function of the government or helping advance the world of technology, while dealing with a hugely changing economy and paying off record-high tuition.

Whew.

Yeah.  I won’t write that article.

I won’t write it because all that seems self-evident to me.  And I won’t write it because the positives that I see are also an oversimplification. I don’t want to contribute to a totally contrived “debate” about what it means to be born between 1980 and 2000.  Because honestly? We’re insulting our own intelligence with this mainstream conversation about KidsThese. Days.

When we talk about the Generation-Y, we’re talking about a massive group of people with different capacities, backgrounds and relationships with reality. Admittedly, as with any cultural group, the Generation has some shared experiences and perspectives.  But the conversation we’re having is about jobs, about standard of living, about a person’s individual worth. Before we all flutter to the comment sections with our personal stories and claims of “I work harder than you work,” let’s get real:  You should really hire some of us.  You should really not hire others. Everyone born in this twenty-year period is not meant for the same job, nor are they bound to infect workplaces with the same “sins.” 

While headlines damning the upcoming generation may be a good way to sell papers (all together now: Kids. These. Days.), it’s lazy, self-indulgent, and stereotype-pushing “journalism.”  And it breeds attitudes which hurt. A lot.

Obvious stereotyping.  Gets a positive score of 5 on the Globe and Mail online.
Obvious stereotyping. Totally out of line. Gets a positive score of 5 on the Globe and Mail online.
tim hortons
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free education
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To be fair, the 9-year Arts party has left many young people able to spell words like "Like".

(Thankfully, the alleged 9-year Arts party has also created a generation of people able to spell the word “like.”)

Now, if these comments were tough love from someone with a right to give me tough love, I could take it.  If my client or employer thought I was acting lazy, entitled, or selfish, I would really want to know.  I appreciate, deeply, any constructive conversations that I’ve had in my short career. I love to work; I love to improve at work; I love to learn from people who have been there awhile.  Specific jobs require specific skills and behaviour, and figuring those things out is important.

But those conversations would be about me. They wouldn’t be about a Generation spanning twenty years.  In practice, it would be ridiculous for anyone to make it about that.

“Well, I’m a millennial and have an Arts degree…what did you expect?”

(said no one ever).

Once again, a list of things that no one can cite as an excuse for good or bad workplace performance:

My gender
My sexuality
My race
My parents
My blood type
Where I was born
When I was born

The reality is that it’s not only insulting for someone to use those things to categorize one’s competence: It’s dangerous.

Like any stereotyping, this “debate” distracts from real problems, solutions, and cooperation. It breeds fear and hate. It welcomes barriers based in bullshit.

If you don’t believe me, you should check out the backlash.  The “Generation” conversation has created unnecessary hostility between different age groups. As someone with a lotta love for older Generations, this backlash really, really upsets me.

NO YOU’RE WRONG! LOOK AT US!  LOOK AT ME! WE’RE WORKING HARD! IT’S YOUR GENERATION THAT RUINED THINGS! LEAVE US ALONE.

Remember this? That all may be true, but it’s about to get ugly.  A division has been created, and now there is no stopping it.

boomers

boomers2

boomers3

Look at what we started.

Not productive. Not helping. But when slurs are being thrown at the younger generation from high-ranking news media, is this defensiveness all that surprising?

Charlotte Whitton’s popular quote reads “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

That was said a long time ago, but if you replace “women” with “Millenials,” it is somewhat of a reality for me today.  In some ways, I’m okay with that: To be perceived as “worthy” members of the workforce, we have to pay our dues, show up on time, and earn it.

But no one should have to “earn it” while faced with discrimination, lowered bars, and prejudice from so-called Generational differences.

If we need to work harder, and be smarter, then okay. Okay.

Let’s do it together.

Let’s start by being smarter about how we categorize people.