When I was younger, greener, and earning just under £18,000 a year, I had a boss that asked me to do a spreadsheet. Not just any spreadsheet, mind. This was a spreadsheet detailing the tea and coffee preferences of everyone who worked in the office, to be stuck up in the staff kitchen. I did it, and at the end of the day, I found myself at the wrong end of a conversation about The Problem With Young People.
“You see this,” he said, pointing at my spreadsheet, where “HENRY – 2 SUGARS” was curling under his finger. “This is what is wrong with your generation.”
He set me a task, he said, which I completed. His problem, however, was that I didnt' "throw" myself into – I made a list, but I wholeheartedly failed to do anything "interesting with the colours or the fonts".
"It’s all about going above and beyond what is being asked of you," my boss explained.
I don’t think this kind of thing is uncommon. Hell, maybe you’re an employer reading this right now and thinking: well, why didn’t you give everyone’s name a different font? Show a little pizzazz, for god’s sake.
Maybe you even agree with the people at arts cafe Tea House Theatre, who, after having a series of short-lived “millennial” employees, posted the following job ad on the Arts Council website. The ad, which started with a mighty "Dear Milliennals", questioned if young people "are taught anything about... the real world" and lamented that "it shouldn't be this hard" to find a "grafter, who can commit" to do a full time job worth £15-20k per year.
Everything about this makes me want to scratch my own skin off, and apparently, I’m not alone. The job advert has touched a nerve with job-hunters and millennials alike. Twitter is thick with “er, excuse me?” reactions, as well as stories from people who have worked or have interviewed at the Tea House Theatre, and are just as unimpressed with the hiring staff as the hiring staff are with the outside world.
This story has burrowed under my skin. Not because it’s so outlandish and bizarre: but because it’s so perfectly one-hundred-and-ten-per-cent believable. Here’s the fact of it: in my experience employers – not all, but many – tend to treat anyone under 25 as though they’re the human equivalent of anti-bacterial hand gel. Necessary, cost-effective, but slightly distasteful to deal with. There’s a long-held belief that if you want a “start” or a “leg-up” in any career – particularly if that career is arts-adjacent – you have to be a “grafter” who “can commit”.
'Grafter' is part of a lexicon of words people use to talk about work that is intended to shame anyone who gets ideas above their station (by, say, asking for a pay rise, or leaving on time at 6pm)
“Grafter” is possibly the word that irritates me the most here. “Grafter” is part of a lexicon of words people use to talk about work that is intended to shame anyone who gets ideas above their station (by, say, asking for a pay rise, or leaving on time at 6pm) and to soothe anyone who stays in their place. “Grafter” is used as a weird, backhanded compliment in the work place, and when I worked in recruitment, it was a word I heard a lot. When someone is looking for “a real grafter”, it means they are looking for someone peppy, preferably young, and willing to do more work than they are being paid to do. Grafters are perpetually grateful for any job, of any size, and always smile when they do it. Grafters are basically the shoemaker elves of the employment world, in that they are rarely seen, but you just missed one, ten minutes ago. Oh, you didn’t see her? Our last girl was a real grafter. Unlike… well, you.
(See also: “all-rounder”; “willing to get her hands dirty” or someone who is “willing to make the job their own”. Young readers, please note, if someone would like you to “make the job your own”, it means that you will be expected to sleep under the copier)
And maybe the language of the grafter made sense a few years ago. Maybe asking someone to dedicate their days, nights, hearts, and souls to a lowly-paid job was fine when you could promise a clear career trajectory, a benefits package and a gold watch on retirement. But that’s not the kind of deal on the table for the much-loathed “millennial” worker, and so there’s no reason for them to give it. It’s something for nothing. Or rather: it’s everything you are in exchange for £15k at an arts cafe.
When someone fails to be a grafter, they become part of The Problem With Young People. The problem with young people is that they’re all bone idle. Or, the problem with young people is they expect too much. The problem with young people, according to one 27-year-old business owner I recently interviewed, is that they want a “free roast dinner for lunch every day”.
The funny thing here is that places like Tea House Theatre – and I honestly don’t think the arts cafe is unique here, merely expressing publicly what many employers already say privately – will lambast young people while still insisting that only a young person could do the job that they’re advertising. The ad reminds us that "one old lady used to run the whole of Mountview Academy with an IBM computer, it shouldn’t be this hard", but fails to recognise that the old lady probably had decades of experience before going to Mountview in the first place. There’s two assumptions here, and both of them are nasty: one, that a 20-something fresh from University should know exactly how an office environments works, and two, that an “old lady” is somehow the least impressive species of employee.
It’s gross, lazy ageism, and it cuts both ways: we’re not going to pay enough to employ an older person with actual experience in office admin, but we’re not going to take the time to train a young person to do a job they are not yet qualified to do.
No, we’re just going to take aim at millennials. We're just going to bitch.