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Guilty Generation

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Summer Jobs for the Guilty Generation

By ANDY KESSLER, The Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2013

Passing through the San Francisco airport recently, I ran into a couple I know who were waiting to pick up their teenage children. "Coming back from camp?" I asked.

They responded with a gaze that could curdle milk into yogurt. Their kids were coming back "from their service trip to Guatemala," their mother informed me. "It was a wonderful volunteer experience, they really are improving lives." Gee, and I thought my kid was doing well by working at Jamba Juice this summer.

A little digging turned up some information about these service trips. One is called the Global Leadership Adventure: Children of the Maya. "Volunteer at a Maya school, attend a ceremony with a Maya shaman," the website reads. You'll receive 30 hours of community-service credit—also known as college-application fodder—for only $2,999. For $200 more, head to Ghana for two weeks to "improve local health and living conditions, live just steps away from the beach." What about investing the same $2,999 in Guatemalan entrepreneurs? Fat chance. Volun-tourism is charity for the giver.

I understand that overbearing parents encourage their children toward such do-good interludes, hoping that it will get them into Brown, but why does this generation go along with it? My take: Because they have it all. The baby-boom generation gave way to the slacker Gen-Xers, followed by Gen-Y and now we've moved up the alphabet to Gen-G—for Guilty.

So many young adults today really do have everything: GPS smart phones so they're never lost and Facebook [FB +2.27%] so they're never bored. Macrobiotic yogurt, photorealistic computer-generated movies and shelves filled with participation trophies. Gen-G has not yet contributed anything but still feasts from the cornucopia of technology plenty.

Instead, these young people "serve." Out of guilt? Facebook is filled with rationales: "I volunteer because: it is a way to show gratitude for what I have," wrote one teen. Another wrote: "I want to make the world a better, fairer place." DoSomething.org, a nonprofit aimed at getting teens to volunteer, surveyed 4,363 teenagers last year and found that 70% of children from wealthy families volunteered compared with 44% of kids from lower-income families.

My 16-year-old son volunteers with an organization that feeds the homeless and fills kits with personal-hygiene supplies for them. It's a worthwhile project, and I tell him so—but he doesn't like it when our conversation on the way to his minimum-wage job turns to why these homeless folks aren't also working. Perhaps, I suggest, because someone is feeding, clothing and, in effect, bathing them?
But there is a deeper question, rarely asked: Where does the money come from that funds all this Gen-G volunteering and charitable giving? Somewhere, somehow, someone worked productively and created wealth that could be given away (and tax deducted) to help the unfortunate.

Recently I attended a lunch for a "new kind of charity"—one structured like a startup, with equity and stock option gimmicks. The room was filled with successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Afterward, I spoke with the young, energetic woman who ran the organization. She lamented to me that she could be running a real startup, but she chose a different path and was getting, as she put it, "pennies for heaven." I felt guilty about this, until I realized that she was actually taking productively earned dollars and converting them into her guilt-lifting pennies. By giving up a productive career, perhaps she is doing less for society than she thinks.

Don't mistake me for Scrooge. I'm all for charity and volunteering. And there are plenty of charities—the Acumen Fund and College Track come to mind—that should be praised for breaking the old-style "donate and give away" model. But these are the exceptions.

Given the massive wealth created in the U.S. economy over the past 30-plus years, it's understandable that the mantra of the guilty generation is sustainability and recycling. But obsessing over carbon footprints and LEED certifications and free-range strawberries and charging for plastic bags will not help the world nearly as much as good old-fashioned economic growth. Gen-G will wise up to the reality that the way to improve lives is to get to work. If Woodstockers figured this out, so will they—as soon as they get over their guilt.
Mr. Kessler, a former hedge-fund manager, is the author most recently of "Eat People: And Other Unapologetic Rules for Game-Changing Entrepreneurs" (Portfolio, 2011).


  • Winston Wood Wrote:

Working a real summer job for real money is a great idea..., if there were real jobs for high school and college kids to get. A number of factors in the "new normal" prevent this.

1.) Hotels and other businesses in resorts like Cape Cod etc. run into the fact that the school year now begins before Labor Day and they need workers who will be available for the entire season. Hence, many reject Americans in favor of kids from overseas hired thru specialized employment services.

2.) Lawyers have spoiled the blue collar work experience. In our increasingly litigious society, no employer today would risk the liability of hiring a college kid to work on a canning line as I did one summer for the old Crosse & Blackwell Co. in Baltimore. Think Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" with French onion soup. The food worker's union would pitch a fit too. 

3.) High schools and colleges increasingly have community service requirements for graduation. For many kids I know, summer is the best time to do this so they can obsessively concentrate on grades and SAT prep during the school year, and thus stay competitive with all the Chinese kids flocking here to go to Harvard, Columbia and Yale. 

4.) Summer camp councilor? Ha! The old Camp Runamuck model has been eclipsed by computer camps, space camps, theater camps, etc. supervised by adults with working experience in these fields. Again, legal liability is partly to blame. That my friends and I survived jumping off railroad bridges into mountain gorges on Adirondack canoe trips, hiking thru thunderstorms with councilors who couldn't read maps, and eating undercooked hot dogs cooked by same, is nothing short of miraculous. Many parents see summer activities as an extension of school whether the kids like it or not.

Yes, there are jobs scooping ice cream in a road side stand, baby sitting and working as life guards at the community pool. And a lot of kids do them, probably even many of those who do a summer "volunteer" program overseas once or twice.


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Background photo by Rusty Pickett