The Return of “Do It Yourself”

For the last 40 years, America has been on a roll. Baby Boomers, raised in a competitive environment, have increased the average work week, made the two income household ubiquitous, and currently operate about 60% of the small businesses in the USA.

Boomers are what they do, and are what they own. They judge their success by position and consumption. From the standpoint of Gross Domestic Product, they have been the most impactful generation in economic history. Their parents had work/life balance. There was work, and there was life. When work ended, you came home and had a life. Boomers blurred that line, making work and life all part of an ongoing daily cycle.

hard-workerThey have been a productivity machine, especially in small business. Generating income requires time, and time is a static commodity. Every week has the same number of hours, so the more time you spend on generating income, the less is left for other activities. Boomers dealt with this by subcontracting many of the activities outside of income production to others.

They invented competitive parenting, hiring others to help with homework and teach their kids how to throw a ball, or dance, or play piano. Health was outsourced, with fitness centers, personal trainers, vitamins and running shoes helping to maintain wellness in a strictly limited time frame, leaving more hours each week for income production.

The chores of maintaining the McMansion were subcontracted to an industry of local small business owners, especially franchisees. Housekeeping, landscaping, oil changes and home maintenance were dealt with through the yellow pages (and then the Internet.)

The service economy, where consumer spending is 75% of the GDP, has been touted as the model for the 21st century. That norm is a society where the majority of people make a living by performing tasks for other people who are too busy performing their own tasks.

Not all of this will change. We won’t go back to fixing our cars in the front yard (too complicated) or, as my Dad did, building an addition on our home on evenings and weekends. But the velocity of money, the wealth created by millions of really hard working folks paying other millions of really hard working folks to do things for them, may be coming to an end.

When I present to business owners about the issues of The Boomer Bust I ask the younger (under 40) owners whether they are willing to work in excess of 55 hours a week for the next 20 years in order to achieve material success. Few are, yet when I ask the Boomer owners whether they still work over 55 hours a week, virtually every hand is raised.

What would happen if every Boomer reduced his or her work week to 40 hours today? As  a coach to business owners, I encourage them to flip the control the business has over them, and take more time for themselves. Some do, some don’t, but even those who are successful at it seldom get to a mere 40 hours. They may work from home one day a week, or take more frequent vacations, but actually not working isn’t in most’s DNA.

The driven work ethic of the Boomers isn’t replicated in the succeeding generations. If we are honest, it wasn’t there in the preceding generations, either. The Boomers are an anomaly, entering the workforce in huge numbers, and creating opportunities for each other as a byproduct of those numbers. We will look back on the era of “Boomers serving Boomers” as a golden age for US consumption.

GenX and the Millennials may return to a simpler time, but they had better learn how to hammer a nail. We haven’t yet figured out an economic model that couples lower productivity with higher disposable income.

 

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6 Responses to The Return of “Do It Yourself”

  1. John, I appreciate your articles and I often agree with you on many of your assertions. On this topic though, I must introduce an alternative not in sync with yours. That is … when the egg’s not frying fast enough … often the solution is to turn up the heat.

    You are correct that time is a limited commodity. And you are also correct observing that many individuals identify their own success “by position and consumption.”

    But comparing the priorities of the sub-40 generations with those of the “boomers” today is not a reasonable comparison. The “right” comparison would be to compare the sub-40’s to the “boomers” when they were sub-40. Individuals younger than 40 will naturally have different priorities at this earlier stage of their life than a “boomer” does now. Who’s to say that at 45 to 55 those sub-40’s won’t decide to “turn up the heat?”

    I agree that there a differences in generations. But sometimes differences have more to do with stage of development than with the constraints imposed by the arbitrary age cut-offs required of generational labels. What may be more accurate is that, to some degree, we all define ourselves “by position and consumption,” and when one’s actual circumstance does not reconcile with one’s desired level of position or consumption, that dissonance can create a sense of urgency to move closer to accordance. In response to the dissonance, some will choose to “turn up the heat” while others will simply adjust their self-definition.

    I suspect that every generation will contain an ample cohort of individuals who will not be satisfied until there is a good fit between their own wants and needs, and their ability to satisfy those wants and needs. It may even be true that given the opportunity that the “boomer bust” creates, the “sub-40’s” will elect to “turn up the heat” a little earlier to seize the unique opportunity presented to them.

    Thanks again for your thought provoking articles John.

    Mike

  2. John:

    Good, thought-provoking article! Given the fact that Gen Xers and Millennials prefer to “work to live,” I wonder if another reason Boomer business owners continue to work long hours is because they feel there’s no one else who can manage their businesses as well as they do. Do you think the Boomers have done a good job finding and cultivating the right talent to take over for them one day?

    Rob K. – MillennialEdge360

  3. Pete Begin says:

    in your last paragraph you say that GenXers “better learn how to hammer a nail” as their reduced productivity will cause them reduced disposable income. That warning is looking at the world from a Boomer perspective. When i talk to my GenXer kids and their friends, they’re quite willing to live on reduced disposable income – they have no desire to “judge their success by position and consumption”. My (Boomer) initial reaction is to try to talk sense into them; but them i think about it more and say – maybe you’re right. Take that year sabbatical at age 28 and go to Spain with your girlfriend. The rat race will be here when you get back!

  4. Brad Elmhorst says:

    Thanks again John, spot on, thought provoking as usual. To Rob’s comment on cultivating the right talent, it is difficult to find the margins to hire two people for a job that used to take one passionate employee, the exception being a family owned business, where the children are vested at an early age and actively engage on their own.

  5. Kim Jackson says:

    While I’m no coach, so therefore, don’t have the broad background you have, my experience in working with Millennials is that they’ve learned lessons from their parents quite well, thank you very much.

    The small group of entrepreneurs I’m working with now are looking at leverage, from every angle. Several want the material trappings Boomers are noted for, yet I agree, they don’t want to work the long hours they saw (and many still do see) their folks put in every week.

    So they’re finding ways of creating passive revenue, at every turn. While they’re willing to put the time and energy in getting something off the ground, their overriding goal is to have others do the work, so they can do something else. (I’m assuming they’re starting other ventures for more passive revenue streams. But you know what they say about assume!)

    So what do they do? They follow in their parents’ footsteps: They outsource, both stateside and overseas. There are still plenty of other millennials who are willing to put in the long hours, and this group of millennials I’m working with are happy to leverage that.

    They’re also leveraging their outsourcing efforts, too. Because they’ve watched their Boomer parents’ loyalty get in their way of profitability and progress, they’re not overly tied to one vendor. So they find a few who will do the same tasks. If one rises to the top, they’ll outsource more to that individual or organization, but not all of it. From what I’m seeing, they’re not putting all their eggs in one basket.

    Yes, they’re more group-minded, but they’re also very bottom-line driven. And if something’s not working, they’re willing to pull the plug faster than their elders.

    Because not all millennials are like this group of people I’m working with, I think there’ll be plenty of folks who will still be willing to put in the long hours, just because they’re having so much fun doing it. As long as it’s fun, Millennials will play the game. Once it stops, it’s game over — and on to a new one.

    Most of my 20-year career as a custom publisher (magazines and newsletters, both electronic and printed) has been spent working with Boomers. As one myself, I understand them, their motivations and how to make them happy. Millennials have opened my eyes to doing business a different way. I find it refreshing to work with and learn from this group of business people.

    And if I can get out of my own way and take a page from the millennials’ book, I, too, may just find myself with a nice passive income stream. Until then, though, the 40+ hour work week beckons…

  6. Interesting and thought provoking article. I think that Baby Boomers are doing something very different than our parent’s generation. When my dad was my age his career was on a path that he stayed on until his retirement. My friends and I have cobbled out careers that have spiraled and shifted based on changes in the marketplace and changes in employer/employee relationships. Those of us no longer in the traditional workplace find ourselves at a new frontier and work relationships are like a circling of wagons to be better able to get to the new world. Though there is more DIY, there is also much more ad hoc team building driven by what works. I haven’t quite figured out how to not work long hours, though…

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