It was a strange day on 50th St. yesterday. And for more prosaic reasons than you might think. For the last four years, my walk to the office from our subway stop has gone more or less like this: I stop at the crosswalk in front of the Lehman Brothers building. I marvel at the incredible weirdness of the giant screens on its exterior playing video of a Lehman logo floating across nature scenes. I cross, look up, and laugh about the line of young men’s backs in that oh-so-familiar pale Wall Street blue leaning on a window ledge a few floors up in some regular morning meeting. And I arrive at the doors of the old Time & Life building, happy on my funky writer’s proverbial high horse.
But yesterday, when I got to our block, the Lehman building’s screens all said Barclays. The mountains and sky tape had been replaced by a static cerulean background. And who would’ve guessed — I felt a little pang of sadness. The woman in front of me on the sidewalk stopped to take a picture of the new look, and I couldn’t help but notice that, against all sense and precedent, I was nostalgic for Lehman and that lame loop.
Whatever you think of what’s happened over the last 10 days or so, it sure has been a reality check. And while everyone’s been affected, I think we Yers have gotten it even more from all sides. There is, of course, the crisis itself, which underscores so much of the discussion we’ve had on The Gig concerning Yers’ skittishness about corporate America. (Remember “Job-hopping Gen Yers aren’t disloyal. They’re smart”? But well before things got into $700 billion bailout territory, the broader distrustful youth story was already shaping up, and each day seemed to bring an event more shocking than the last. First, there was the obvious hook — the 9/11 anniversary — something that’s been so formative for our cohort and whose impact doesn’t seem to have dimmed much. I’d scarcely started planning that post before news hit of David Foster Wallace’ssuicide, and while he clearly wasn’t a Yer, the voice of Xer disaffection was well loved by many of my friends, and his death seemed to make us all take a step back and reevaluate in a way that other losses haven’t.
All of which might have been worth discussing, until 10 seconds later, when the headlines about Lehman and Merrill Lynch got hysterical. By the time I headed out last Monday morning for a quick business trip to Southern California, I was cringing in fear every time I turned on the TV or got on the Web. And just in case the big picture was too far removed, there were all sorts of more personal reminders, like the cab driver on the way to JFK who told me about a young man he’d dropped off early that Monday — the kid had just gotten married on Sunday, was heading to Greece for his honeymoon Monday afternoon, and on the morning he should’ve been basking in the newlywed glow, he was heading to Lehman to pack up his office and trying not to think about what he’d be coming home to in a few weeks.
Who could blame us for being afraid? And let’s be honest, given recent events, obviously our wariness isn’t exactly unjustified. It used to be that going to a company like Lehman was the “stable” path, and just look where those folks are now. (Not to mention where they will be; as career management consultant Paul Bernard told CNNMoney, “Only 20% to 25% of Lehman employees will eventually land Wall Street jobs. There are just not that many jobs.”)
And while the big bailout may save the hour, all the current flailing just keeps reminding me of something many of you have heard over and over already — that we will be the first generation in recent American history to be economically worse off than our parents. Perhaps, in the past, I understood this intellectually, but it’s a reality now — and one so stark it sort of explains Yers’ collective neurosis. Whatever the course correction, however successful, it seems we — and that means everyone, but especially Yers — are in for it.
Because, in case you didn’t know already, we’re in all kinds of debt, our parents have no real savings, and by the time we have kids, well, a decent kindergarten could cost as much as college did for us — all points that led my friend and editor to write in an e-mail, “Boy, are you guys wimps!” Easy for him to say; he’s the boss, and old enough to tell stories about walking uphill both ways to school barefoot in the snow. So while, to him, I know even talking about the situation in which we find ourselves sounds like whining, I think that’s mostly because it’s such a debacle that any discussion would sound a bit whiny. And hey, when you consider what the previous generation’s mistakes could cost us in the long run, I think we’re entitled to some complaining.
There is an upside, though, and it too fits into the Yer philosophy — but on the optimistic, rebellious, save-the-world side. Roger Cohen touched on it last week in his New York Times column, “The King Is Dead”. “When I taught a journalism course at Princeton a couple of years ago,” he writes, “I was captivated by the bright, curious minds in my class. But when I asked students what they wanted to do, the overwhelming answer was: ‘Oh, I guess I’ll end up in i-banking.’ It was not that they loved investment banking…it was the money and the fact everyone else was doing it.” Not so much anymore. And while I am going to miss the morning love affair Lehman and I had, if a small shift in the narrow thinking Cohen criticizes is what comes out of all this for us, I think I can live with that. Now we just have to start saving for (our parents’!) retirement.