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Why life is about timing; the "Lost Half-Generation"

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Just like some people believe in guardian angels, I believe in timing. Oh, it is real. Simple things like finding a parking spot in an overly crowded parking garage, or grabbing a friend’s arm and yelling “Stop!” just as she’s about to cross a busy intersection, while a car ran a red light … blame it all on great timing.

Timing, it would seem, is everything. Timing determines when and how you met or will meet your significant other, if you get the best deal anywhere and on anything, or even if you signed the client you wanted. OK, that last one is more like a little bit of timing and lots of prospecting and planning, but you get the idea.

Why am I attributing life-saving events, mundane things like finding a parking spot, and something as important and delicate as a client signing to timing? Because time is one of the few irreplaceable, precious and priceless, yet constant, things in life that can and will determine the road you take.

We are here today, but we don’t know where we might end up tomorrow. A fortunate or unfortunate event might lead you down a different path that you had not planned. How many times have you found yourself in the right place at the right time?

Timing affects all areas in our lives, including our roles as leaders, whether our investments perform well, and even getting a job. At least that’s what a blog in the Washington Post says about the latter. The newspaper’s opinion piece says the reason why the “older part” of the Millennial demographic, specifically those ages 25 to 34, don’t have great paying jobs is because of timing:

“The younger members of Gen Y are loaded with debt, but they are at least graduating into an economy with expanding job opportunities; meanwhile, the cohort of young people unlucky enough to have entered the job market during a time of scarcer openings sees its economic misfortunes (and resulting inability to afford a homestead or other life milestones) persist.

In other words, the Great Recession may have led to a new Lost Generation — or at least a Lost Half-Generation.

Economists have known for a while that the damage from downturns can endure long after the economy has turned, especially among those whose greatest sin was bad timing.

Yale’s Lisa Kahn finds that people who graduate from college during a time of high unemployment earn significantly lower wages than workers with better timing. This differential persists not for a year or two but for decades.

The impact of those words on me was not lost. Part of me was screaming, “Yes! The author is right!” and yet … it’s not entirely due to timing that the older millennials are behind in what they should be earning. That would be too simplistic and kind of hurtful: “Oh yea, you’re not doing well because of bad timing. Sorry!” I would like to think that the reason why many millennials are still struggling is something that, unlike timing, can be controlled.

I’m part of that “older” millennial generation and there’s no way I could’ve controlled a) when I was born and b) where the economy was headed by the time I graduated and looked for a job related to my field of studies. Just fresh out of college, and after an internship at a newspaper, there were talks and interviews for a full-time position. But that never materialized due to circumstances out of my control, maybe timing … but for more on that, read this post.

To me, that experience was like when you’re standing in a long line at the supermarket and, finally, you’re next. Suddenly, the cashier says that that lane is closed and you should go to the next one over. By the time you look for the shortest line, which doesn’t exist because they are all miles long, it’ll take you about another hour to cash out and get out of the store.

That’s what happened to many of us. So what did we do? Executed plans B, C, D … we took ANY job. I saw many of my peers become highly educated waiters, bartenders, or “temps” working for temp agencies. And many decided to go back to school for a Master’s degree because “maybe if I have Master’s degree, I’ll be qualified for a better job.” And what that did was make them “over-qualified” for an entry-level position, plus accumulate more student loan debt. What a conundrum…

The Washington Post blog — mentioned above — calls this part of the millennial generation the “Lost Half-Generation” and says that doing what we did, taking any job, leads to being stuck on a lower trajectory, career-wise, with fewer opportunities for upward mobility. And the earnings gap is astounding, measured in millions of dollars in some industries, according to the article:

“(…) a famous study by Stanford’s Paul Oyer found the lifetime earnings of MBAs were largely determined by the number of job openings in investment banking the year they graduated. ‘A person who graduates in a bull market and goes to work in investment banking upon graduation earns an additional $1.5 million to $5 million relative to what that same person would have earned if he or she had graduated during a bear market and had started his or her career in some other industry,’ Oyer wrote.”

And you might be thinking, “If they weren’t making any money, why didn’t they just switch jobs?” Catch 22: There weren’t any other jobs. And when there were other jobs, many may have become too risk-averse to consider switching, or maybe employers wouldn’t hire them because of a spotty résumé.

And that part was true. By the time I realized, a year later to be exact, that I wasn’t going to find a better-paying full-time position, I thought, “Maybe if I network out of my area, and relocate, I will have a better chance.” In my foolish dreams, I thought that now, with one year of “real life” experience under my belt, I could reach out to massive media companies in other states. So, I ventured to a journalism conference and job fair a thousand miles away from home … and a few of the recruiters scoffed at my résumé and lack of “quantifiable experience.”

I remember a recruiter for one of the biggest newspapers in this nation said to me: “To just be considered, you need at least eight years of experience. Then, you have to take one year of training and after that you can freelance for us,” or something to that effect. Eight years…EIGHT YEARS. Basically, my career wouldn’t have started until eight years after my graduation, which by then, I would’ve probably gone back to college frustrated that it didn’t work out. Eight years … that’s almost a career in medicine.

If there’s one redeeming quality in my generation it’s persistence: We won’t give up. You shut one door; we go in through the window. And so, persist I did. Fast forward a few years and here I am, finally, a productive and happy member of society. But it took a while longer than it should have, and I know that I’m going to pay for the time lost.

It was and is heartbreaking to see young people that were excited about graduating college, making a good living and becoming “productive members of society,” flicker like a candle about to burn out. Some of my peers have made it out of the tunnel, yet some are still stuck. I can’t quite explain why they’re stuck or how to help them out so that they’re not stuck anymore, but it’s heartbreaking to see them living half-lives, lost in a fog of paying for things paycheck to paycheck.

Now, compare that with generational contemporaries like Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook co-founder, and the billions he is worth. That’s a small percent of my generation, but it exists. Was Zuckerberg’s success due to great timing or sheer luck?

I like to believe that I’ve had great timing, no matter what anyone says.

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