45-year-old sighs tiredly at drama between 20- and 30-year-olds

I heard that there’s been some sort of kerfuffle in the millennial world about how old you have to be before you deserve a well-paid job. I’ll be honest: I just skimmed the articles because I don’t have that kind of time. I did read the headlines, though, and I noticed a definite pattern. so I guess it’s time for the 40-somethings to weigh in. Since most of us are too tired by the time we get home from work to write, I took the initiative and scientifically polled my peers on Facebook to get their reactions (for those of you who haven’t heard of it, Facebook is where old people go to share picture of their children. It’s like Snapchat, but you don’t have to screenshot the pictures if you want to look at them again).

The general consensus of the 40-somethings is: we can remember when we had enough energy to get this upset about other people’s opinions. Those were good times. We also stayed up later and drank more back then, so we had more time and incentive to share our opinions, whether you wanted to hear them or not. We’re also amused by the verb escalation as people “destroy,” “rip,” and “shred” each other’s arguments. We’re always up for a good “lambasting” or “shellacking” ourselves.
As near as I can tell, this conversation hinges on a simple question: when have you done enough that you deserve to be paid well, and how much of your personal history do you have to share to prove your point? After 20+ years in the work force, I can tell you that you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not about what you deserve, but what you deliver.

Life isn’t about getting what you deserve. The only place where people get what they deserve is in prison (most of the time) and on The Bachelor/Bachelorette. Those people deserve each other. If you’re waiting for your boss to give you what you deserve, you’re going to be waiting a long time, and when you do get it, you probably won’t like what you got. Work is about what you deliver, its worth, and what people will pay for it (which aren’t always the same things).

It all comes down to economics. Whether you’re working for yourself or for a massive corporation, you have to produce something that people want and are willing to pay for. Even an artist has to sell his paintings if he wants to eat. Whether or not you find that process fulfilling is up to you, as is your decision about how much unpleasantness you can bear as part of that process. And unless you want to become part of the “freegan” movement (or as we called it when we were in our 20s, “crackhouse squatting”), you can’t opt out of the process. You want to buy stuff? You need money. You want money? You’ll need to sell something, whether it’s your time or something you made.

I think everyone understands this (well, most everyone). What really seems to get our boxer briefs in a wad, though, is the value that we receive in this transaction. There’s a feeling that, “I should get more for what I’m doing, because I need more/want more/deserve more because I have a college education.” The problem is, that’s self-perceived value — you think your time is worth more than someone else does — and that’s not how this whole thing works, especially when you’re starting out. Entry-level jobs — or the jobs that we all get for the first 5 years or so of our careers — are a buyer’s market. The company has the money, you have the need, and you’re an unproven quantity. The realized value of your time is non-existent, because you’ve never done it before. Once you build up some equity by actually delivering value, you can close the gap between your self-perceived value and your realized value, and that’s when the market starts to shift. You have a product that people want to buy, and if you play your cards right, you can enter a seller’s market, where companies are bidding for you. 

There’s another factor to consider in this equation, and that’s your competition. If someone else is willing to do the same work for less than you are, then that’s the value of the work. I don’t care how polished the prose is in those Yelp blurbs you’re writing, or how expensive your English degree was (those are your supply expenses, not your employer’s). If there are 20 other people right down the street willing to do the job for $2 less an hour than you are, or a whole bunch of people across the globe who will do it for $2 an hour, then you’re in a commodity market. You need to find a way to create some unique value that only you can provide, and you won’t do that by proclaiming your specialness. Remember: it’s the deliverable, not the delivery person, that matters.

“But wait,” you say, “what about that 22-year-old who built a company and made millions of dollars in a couple of years? What makes him so special? Or what about that douchebag frat boy who made millions of dollars off of other people’s work?” Well, they managed to deliver value (or at least a perception of it) that a lot of people were willing to pay for. And one of them probably worked a lot harder than both of us for those few years, while the other one got what he deserved.

So, here’s a thought before I go back to my family: can we stop talking about what we deserve and start thinking about what we deliver? Let’s create some value instead of creating a fuss. When we stop worrying about how unique we are and start focusing on what we can uniquely bring to the market, that’s where real fun begins.

By the way, I hope this pattern continues. I can’t wait until a couple of weeks from now, when we get to hear what my grandmother thinks about this whole situation. I can hear her now: “What’s Medium, and what are all these kids yelling about?”
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