It's Pronounced Chookshaw

The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza Jr.

Category: Generations

In a Jam

As I sit here typing this, a pot of ghost pepper jelly is getting to temperature on the stove, getting ready to be canned, labeled, and eventually handed out to family and friends over the holidays. My wife and I grew many of the ingredients in our backyard garden (supplemented with some not-worth-the-space green bell peppers), and I’ve developed reasonable canning instincts, if that’s even a thing.

My 24-year-old self would be embarrassed.

My 34-year-old self is quite content.

Like most, I had a 10-year plan early in my career. It’s cool to see how many of those things that I had hoped for my future self are now reality (marriage, getting my MBA, co-founding a successful start-up). I’m also humored (and humbled) by how much I didn’t achieve (amongst the incredibly long list are: running a marathon; getting my pilot’s license; and buying a private island [no, really, it’s on the list]).

Most striking have been the imperceptible-at-the-time ways that I’ve grown beyond the limits of what my 24-year-old self put on me. I’m less of a hot-head. I’m more patient and detail-oriented. I’m more open to negative feedback. I’m less worried about keeping score. I swear less. Ultimately, I’m someone I wouldn’t have entirely recognized (and not just because i’m going prematurely gray).

For those who are wringing their hands over Millennials, please stop. We’re capable of developing and testing plans, encountering challenges, and seeing the world a little differently on the other side. Some of that growth will be supported by people who are actively willing to guide us (that could be you!). More of that growth will come from people who serve as the anti-example. We’ll eventually figure out what works and adapt what we’ve learned to new situations. We’ll pick up skills that we didn’t even recognize existed. And in your honor, baby boomers, we’ll complain about how the generation behind us is lazy,  doesn’t know how to communicate, and is unprofessional; nothing like how we were when we started our careers.

Alright, now who wants some pepper jelly?

The Lesson of Second Place

When I was in kindergarten, I was fascinated by outer space. While other kids were into pro wrestling, cartoons, or dinosaurs, I was dragging my parents on near-weekly treks* to the local planetarium. I had a personally-autographed picture of Clyde W. Tombaugh (discoverer of Pluto) on the wall in my room. I was a weird kid.

Like every other elementary school student in America, I was required to participate in the science fair. Given my obsession with the planets, I wanted nothing more than to show off all of the things I knew about the solar system. I won’t get into embarrassing details about the process of constructing my display, but let’s just say that I was unusually proud of my cotton-foamcore-glue-glitter masterpiece.

The memory of the day is a little blurry, but I’ll never forget the feeling of running up to my project and seeing the second place ribbon on it. As a kindergarten kid competing against everyone up to the third grade, I was so proud to have won second place. What an accomplishment against the bigger kids! My first award! I could hardly contain my excitement.

My next memory is of finding the first-place winner, a third grader’s project that was also about the solar system. But, wait… Her colors weren’t right (Saturn isn’t blue-green!). Her Pluto was beyond Neptune (nope). She didn’t have an asteroid belt. I went from being very proud to being very confused – if she got these things wrong, and I got them right, then why did she win first place?

When my parents came to pick me up, I told them about how I won second (yay!) and how the girl who won first  got a lot of things wrong (boo!). In good Millennial-parent fashion,  they approached those in charge about the decision to ask about the disparity. The judges immediately dressed my parents down for doing the work for me. “What kind of lessons are you trying to teach your son?” they asked. “Is it so important for him to win a science fair that you have to do the work for him?” Despite my parents’ best attempts, the judges refused to believe that I did the work. Worse, they saw me as a cheater instead of a kindergarten kid who really, really, really loved the stars. I was devastated.

This James Harrison Facebook post, and the ensuing debate over participation trophies, sparked the memory.

Every time the “kids these days” subject comes up, a.k.a. Millennials in the workforce, the debate over trophies renews. Largely, there are two camps: the EARN IT crowd, that believes that participation trophies make kids soft and entitled to something that they didn’t necessarily deserve; and the ENJOY IT crowd, that believes that building confidence in kids is important to their ability to try new things and forge their own path, recognizing participation being part of that process. As with most public debates, there is no middle ground.

I recently went through the trophies and awards that my parents had packed away for me. Some of them were for participation (so much for the adage “80 percent of success is showing up”), others were well-earned first-place awards. It was great to go through them, of course, but I ultimately threw every one of them away. Well, except for that framed ribbon from the science fair. I kept it because it represented one of the most  challenging life lessons that I’ve learned; that sometimes, even if you do your best, and even if you get the results, you might not win. Further, in the vast majority of life, winning (whatever that means, anyway)  is based upon factors that are out of your control. Yes, work hard. Yes, do your best. And yes, if you’re failing, you either need to get better or do something else. Finally, it also taught me that losing is okay, too.

My verdict on trophies is this: they’re only as good as the meaning you give them. Teach kids to value the award over the effort, and they’ll grow into adults who value the appearance of success rather than the work it takes to get there. Ultimately, that meaning is a an infinitely-better reflection of your values than any piece of hardware you could ever earn, or get for just showing up.

* Pun alert – Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) was born in my home town of El Paso, Texas.

Ms. Hymowitz, I Believe You’re Terribly Mistaken About 20-Something Men

First, it was The End of Men, the controversial essay in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin, who argued that current social trends don’t bode well for the survival of men in the modern economy. While a little breathless in her assessment, Ms. Rosin came to some valid conclusions that should at least raise awareness that we’re in the midst of a societal shift. Yes, women are getting bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees at a rate of three-to-two of men. Yes, women make up the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Yes, women are more economically empowered than ever. I previously wrote my take on her essay here and here and, frankly, got too caught up in the hysteria myself.

Seven months later, Kay S. Hymowitz, senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, writes an article for the Saturday (2/19/11) Wall Street Journal entitled Where Have the Good Men Gone?, promoting her book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to call out some of the terms and statements used throughout the article:

“Semi-hormonal adolescence” … “they might as well just have another beer” … “pre-adulthood” …  “spend their days playing video games” …  “beer pong” …  “puerile shallowness” …  “pig heaven” … “[for women] husbands and fathers are now optional” … “[men] treat women like disposable estrogen toys” … “array of media devoted to his every pleasure” … “men’s attachment to the sandbox” … “most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, … state of semi-hormonal adolescence”

We’re hedonistic, beer-swilling, women-abusing, entertainment-focused slobs. Hymowitz says in another article, “…who needs commitment when there is a fantasy football team league to dominate, the possibility that a gaming product better than the Xbox 360 could be on the horizon, and your live-in girlfriend will have sex with you whenever you want?” Amen, sister!

It’s Really About Generation Y

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the freak-out about 20-something men is happening around the same time that HR managers, sociologists, psychologists and marketers are feverishly trying to understand Gen Y. Our generation has been poked and prodded for years as Boomer parents simultaneously attempt to make up for the sins of their parents’ generation while doing penance for their own youthful indiscretions (roughly translated to “my parents didn’t love me and I don’t want you to do drugs like I did”). This shift in parental focus — from authority to friend (evidenced by sites like When Parents Text)  — has produced a generation that seems to be doing things differently. (Note: for a more balanced take on Gen Y, I suggest Gen Y Now: How Generation Y Changes Your Workplace and Why It Requires a New Leadership Style by Buddy Hobart, a seasoned former-Gen-Y-hater CEO of the consulting firm Solutions 21 and Herb Sendek, head men’s basketball coach at Arizona State University, who knows a little bit about leading Gen Y).

There is an exhaustive amount of information, data and commentary that justifies about every belief about our generation. On one side, Millenials are an aimless generation of slackers and misfits who feel entitled to high salaries and plenty of leisure time, but are so focused on their smart phones that they’re incapable of even the most basic of human interactions. On the other side, Gen Yers are a superhuman contingent of tech-savvy team players who are leveraging the extensive opportunities afforded them by families they love, to broaden their horizons, befriend people of various races and sexual orientations, and help to bring the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. Just Google Gen Y. You’ll find it all.

Despite plenty of data that could support her opinion, Hymowitz writes an article that is nearly devoid actual numbers. Sure, she mentions educational attainment statistics and unemployment rates for men and women in their 20s, along with a graph showing the average age at which couples marry in both the U.S. and other developed countries (Ack! We might be like France!). These three data points might suggest that men are doomed. The data can also be explained from a different perspective — men are focusing on good, well-paying jobs that don’t require four-year degrees (e.g. plumbers, welders, mechanics, careers in the energy industry),  unemployment always hits men harder than women (construction and other labor-related jobs are the first to go in a recession), and the age at which people get married has been trending upward for years as people attempt to be more responsible by working to get on sound financial and career footing before having and raising children.

Furthermore, many of her arguments are gender-neutral. Take the following:

[20-something men and women] are looking not just for jobs but for “careers,” work in which they can exercise their talents and express their deepest passions … For today’s pre-adults, “what you do” is almost synonymous with “who you are,” and starting a family is seldom part of the picture.

In short, it’s intellectually dishonest to blame (credit?) an entire set of societal and economic trends on 20-something men. It’s also incredibly easy to find arguments that support either side. Can we just admit that it’s damn hard to pin down a group of people that makes up roughly 25% of the U.S. population?

Men-As-Adult-Juveniles — 160 Years in the Making

Ever heard of Dr. Dan Kiley? He wrote a book implicating the man-child in The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. The quick summary: “[the book] discusses the problem of men who, although they have reached adulthood, are unable to cope with feelings and responsibilities, identifying the symptoms of the syndrome and offering guidelines on coping with and treating the problem.” Sounds awfully familiar. It was written in 1983.

Even Hymowitz turns back the clock. “American men have been struggling with finding an acceptable adult identity since at least the mid-19th century”, she states, apparently believing that men had the time to contemplate their identities while avoiding the fate of the 610,000 people who died in the Civil War. A century later, “the arrival of Playboy in the 1950s seemed like the ultimate protest against male domestication; think of the refusal implied by the magazine’s title alone,” suggesting that it was only in the mid-20th century that men enjoyed looking at beautiful naked women. I’m just disappointed that she forgot to mention the roaring 20s and the baby boom (those were the days of male class and chastity; when marital rape wasn’t considered rape at all). At least those men were married!

But now it’s 2011, and her citations of male-oriented pop culture are as gratuitous as the T&A featured in Maxim. She complains, “their male peers often come across as aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers—a gender gap neatly crystallized by the director Judd Apatow in his hit 2007 movie ‘Knocked Up.’ [Note: Hymowitz goes on to mischaracterize the female lead as a totally independent up-and-comer when she actually lives in her sister’s pool house and is none-too-eager to leave]” She mentions “overgrown boy actors” (Steve Carell, Luke and Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Will Farrell and Seth Rogen), Spike TV, crotch shots, awesome car crashes, Star Wars and beer pong competitions. Frankly, I’m disappointed that she did not mention Axe, the men’s line of personal care products that is promoted in a way that objectifies women. The one argument I could get behind, she fails to mention.

My frustration with this argument is that the same can be said for 20-something women. Are shows like The Bachelor, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and the various Real Housewives somehow more virtuous? Aren’t some women guilty of coming across as mean, shopping-obsessed, man-hating girly-girls who are so focused on their own wants and needs that their narcissism renders them incapable of recognizing others’ feelings? Is Cosmopolitan magazine any less trashy? Are actresses and entertainers like Paris Hilton, Katy Perry, Brittney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Christina Aguilera and Kim Kardashian exhibiting behaviors of a “good woman”? What about the obsession many women have for the Twilight series? Sex toy parties and pole dancing exercise classes? Lifetime? For every movie like Hangover, there’s Sex and the City 2.

To convict men for enjoying mindless entertainment is preposterous. It is dishonest to condemn guilty pleasures targeted to men while ignoring those of women. Finally, to believe that men and women go on to emulate these gender extremes is a cynical, out-of-touch, and unrealistic view unbecoming of a leading scholar.

Some of This is Great News for Women

One of the major goals of feminism was to provide women equal opportunity in the working world. While there is plenty of work to do (CEOs are overwhelmingly male, women earn roughly 77% of men), some of the trends Hymowitz uses to argue the demise of men are actually great news for women’s equality. For instance:

“In a number of cities, [20-something women] are even out-earning their brothers and boyfriends.”

Wait, you mean that some women are holding the financial position that men have held for damn near forever? How is this happening? Women are getting their MBAs, going to law school and becoming doctors (not to mention that the teaching profession, which is still dominated by women, is forcing many to get their Master’s degrees). Why are women showing more confidence in the classroom? They’re no longer being taught that they’re educational second-class citizens.

It is beyond my comprehension that two generations of hard work that leveled the playing field for women is beginning to bear fruit and the resulting reaction is one of derision rather than celebration. The world is not a zero-sum game. It is genuinely a better place when you combine the skills and strengths of men and women, which might be why Gen Y prefers teamwork. Perhaps I’m missing the canary in the coal mine, but I’m not all that concerned that women might finally have a shot at earning the top spots in organizations devoid of women just a generation ago.

The Family is Changing

One of the reasons that women have entered the workforce en masse is that raising a family is expensive and almost requires two incomes. With greater pressure on children to be successful and well-rounded, parents must pay for piano lessons, soccer leagues, after-school tutoring and educational summer camps. This stuff isn’t cheap (ever try buying hockey equipment?). Besides, it’s thought nearly child abuse not to take your children on vacation every year.

Seeing this pressure, many Gen Y men (and women) are trying to build their careers in order to contribute their fair share to a two-income household. In addition, 20-something men are recognizing and accepting that their wives might out-earn them. The concept of a 50-50 relationship is becoming more prevalent and gender roles are changing. There are more stay-at-home dads and other non-traditional family structures. These shifts are a function of new economic circumstances and much larger social trends.

Family is also beginning to reach beyond heterosexual couples as gays and lesbians are finding new opportunities to legally establish their relationships in a handful of states and Washington D.C. The federal government under the Obama administration has directed the Department of Justice to stop enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act (the law defining marriage as one man and one woman). Regardless of the lawsuits currently working their way through the courts, most notably the Bush v. Gore lawyers who have teamed up to assure the recognition same-sex marriages at the federal levelgenerational attitudes toward gays and lesbians show a march to equality inevitability. In the midst of this social change, these committed couples are adopting and raising children, which will likely grow as the legal impediments to gay marriage are broken down.

Yes, there are too many single parents (34% of children are in single-parent households). Too many children suffer through their parents’ divorce. Non-traditional families are even more prevalent. We don’t know how these situations will impact our future society, but I feel confident saying that whatever happens, good or bad, it won’t be the result of the Xbox 360, beer pong or fantasy football.

Where She Deserves Some Credit

This quote might be as clear as anything she says, if only she omitted “undomesticated”:

“Today’s pre-adult male is like an actor in a drama in which he only knows what he shouldn’t say. He has to compete in a fierce job market, but he can’t act too bossy or self-confident. He should be sensitive but not paternalistic, smart but not cocky. To deepen his predicament, because he is single, his advisers and confidants are generally undomesticated guys just like him.”

She’s absolutely right! The country is in a challenging economic environment. Gen Yers are just hoping to find jobs in an era where Baby Boomers are staying in jobs longer, which has slowed the workforce turnover by a decade-plus. Men aren’t sure whether opening a door for a woman will get him a “thank you” or “I’m capable of doing it myself thank-you-very-much”. Who pays for the first date? How do men know when to accept an offer to split the check or turn it down? How do men balance “being a good man” and being thought of as a misogynist for what was once considered chivalry? And those advisers and confidants — they’re a peer support group of guys and women. Sometimes, our age-mates are not the perspective we need. In those cases, we ask our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, uncles, bosses, older friends and mentors  — not exactly a sign of oblivious immaturity.

She addresses another issue that’s tough for men to navigate — the lack of milestones of adulthood:

“But pre-adults differ in one major respect from adolescents. They write their own biographies, and they do it from scratch. … I see it as an expression of our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men. It’s been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test. They needed to demonstrate courage, physical prowess or mastery of the necessary skills. The goal was to prove their competence as protectors and providers. Today, however, with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.”

This is a difficulty for us — it is hard to write our own script and we’re challenged by what to write. Conventional wisdom that the world is a zero-sum game and the rise of women necessarily means the fall of men, we’re being given mixed messages and becoming more defensive of “our turf” (watch a family comedy, like Everybody Loves Raymond, and you’ll see the in-control wife having to suffer a witless husband). Add the pressures we face to be quickly successful in an economy that isn’t lending itself to success and it becomes overwhelming. We’re trying to be all the things we’ve been taught that the modern man can be — as Hymowitz says, “sensitive but not paternalistic, smart but not cocky”.

Men are confused. Men are being told their interests are stupid (see this commercial from McDonald’s). Men are told they’re supposed to be sensitive. But, don’t be overly-sensitive because they need to be strong. But don’t be overly strong because women need to be in charge, too. But don’t let women be too in charge or you’ll be an unattractive pushover. But be ready to give in and compromise because a relationship should be 50-50. And for the love of God, dress stylishly, but not too stylishly because you’ll be thought of as gay. Men are told to accept women for their interests no matter how banal (I MUST watch Teen Mom tonight), yet are castigated for watching football on Sundays. When we point these things out, many of our female companions respond, “I don’t know why you’d want to date us!”

Maybe There’s a Different Conclusion to be Made

Here’s the thing … the kids are alright. Really. We are. We got this.

Social shifts have never been clean. Whether it’s directing fire hoses at civil rights activists in the 60s, figuring out how smoking pot and listening to Stairway to Heaven brings the end to war and racial injustice in the 70s, coming to terms with AIDS and economic downfall in the 80s, attempting to make sense of why we all exist in the 90s, or sorting through the emotional turmoil of war and terror in the aughts, generations of young American men and women have proven themselves to be capable of demonstrating the kind ingenuity, discretion, and know-how required to lead this in this world as adults. Facebook, Twitter, Skype and other internet tools are turning freedom movements in the Middle East that are 30 years in the making into successes as a result of the leadership of young people using technology developed by 20-something counterparts.

I cannot and will not apologize for the loser men with whom the comedian Julie Klausner has slept (she’s quoted early in the Hymowitz article). Everyone knows a parent’s-basement-dwelling unemployment-collecting slacker 20-something who has permanently created an indentation of his considerable butt in a 70s-era couch as a result of hours-long video game binges. Every guy I know has a friend who treats women as sex objects, looking to rack up points like the video games Hymowitz likes to cite. There’s the Star-Wars-friend and the guy-who-drinks-too-much friend and the sports-obsessed-did-you-see-that-play-on-SportsCenter friend. We choose these friends because, in most cases, they represent a part of ourselves through whom we live vicariously. We’re as likely to pound beers as in the movie Beer Fest as women are likely to have sex with anything that moves a la Samantha in Sex and the City. It’s stupid, mindless entertainment that allows us to imagine a life that, for just a moment, appeals to our lesser reptilian selves. Despite Hymowitz’ belief that “most [emphasis mine] men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort … semi-hormonal adolescence”, it is simply untrue. Most men in their 20s are simply navigating the world like everyone else, including our female counterparts.

Realizing that there are generational gaps in thinking, I’d like to propose some questions. For those who complain about how “these kids got trophies for everything”, I’d like to ask, who bought the trophies? [Hint: Boomer parents] Who doesn’t want a higher salary, especially when the minimum requirement for a job includes a graduate degree and well-rounded background by the age of 24? Does anyone turn down more vacation time? How many people who married in their early 20s wish that they had thought about it a little more as they sign their divorce papers in their 40s? Would most couples want to financially struggle in the beginning of their marriage as they’re trying to have and raise children? Who would bypass traveling and other once-in-a-lifetime experiences at a time in their lives when there are few consequences? As life expectancy extends into the 80s and beyond, is it horrible that 20-somethings take more time to figure out what makes sense to them? Who wouldn’t want to work to find the ideal job and life? Could previous generations be irritated/jealous that Gen Y has the guts to pursue these goals? As I’ve heard several HR consultants say, “Generation Y asks for what we all secretly want.”

A Modest Proposal

Here’s the disclaimer … I love beer. I can sink a ping pong ball in a cup like champ (there’s nothing like the pressure of double redemption). I own a Wii and have rocked out on Guitar Hero. I have a subscription to Esquire. I own Superbad, The Hangover, Billy Madison and thoroughly enjoyed Hot Tub Time Machine. I’m dating a medical student who will likely out-earn me sometime in the future. Some of my friends are gay, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Pakistani, poor, rich, slackers, over-achievers, aged 14 to 88, married with children, and/or perpetually single. I took advantage of opportunities in my 20s: I failed at a couple of jobs, traveled to Eurpoe, missed my rent because my graphic design freelance work wasn’t paying the bills, and survived on wings and beer for the better part of my 25th year. Shockingly, I survived. I’m gainfully employed making a decent salary in a good job, pursuing my MBA, own a few successful companies (including one focused on beer), have a great family life, and am not terrified by the thought of marriage. Ms. Hymowitz, I’m both your pathetic typecast and the person who is the exception to your rule.

Since you’re comfortable with dispensing unsolicited advice, I’d like to offer you some myself. Get out of Manhattan and come to Pittsburgh. Have a few beers at a bar with my friends. Take in a game of hockey with us (seriously, you have to appreciate the talent of Sidney Crosby). Ask us questions. Talk to us about our love lives. Ask us about our hobbies (from golf to home brewing to skydiving). Maybe you’ll realize that we’re stressed out and have our own ways of blowing off steam. Maybe you’ll realize that we adore our girlfriends who are feeling equal pressure to succeed in their own complicated lives. Maybe you’ll realize that our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are our best friends and teachers. Maybe you’ll appreciate that even the most slacker of us are volunteers and go to church on Sunday. Maybe you’ll enjoy hanging out with us and want to do it again or, in male parlance, come to the dark side of the force.

Post-Gazette Round #2 of The Kids Aren’t Alright

First, I really have to thank Maria Sciullo for responding — I’m not sure that many reporters would. Here is her response:

Albert, I see your point and am sorry if you believe I have painted your generation (again?) with a broad brush. I did not set out to bash your generation, in fact, the story idea came from two of my colleagues, both under 27 years old.

I appreciate your opinion. Incidentally, the Beatles were before my time.

Maria

While I did appreciate the response, shockingly, I wrote a long clarifying email.

Hello Maria:

I appreciate your response and sorry for my own delayed one.

Perhaps it is unintentional, but I don’t think it’s difficult to see where I (and many other more silent individuals my age) might take offense. I will concede that we are a little hypersensitive — there are a whole lot of books, web sites, consultants and “experts” who seem to feel the need to proclaim something profound about our generation, much of it negative. This sensitivity is especially true for our generation of men, who seem to be written off as parents’-basement-dwelling slackers who, as you quote, seem to be suffering from a “failure to launch”. Is it really that extreme to think that a title like For some 20-somethings, growing up is hard to do might arouse some suspicion that it’s not an article that reflects well on Gen Y?

As for the Modern weddings a social conundrum article, I concur that social media platforms do complicate the wedding scenario, an event that is already a minefield. It just seems so foreign to me that anyone would be offended by a lack of wedding invitation from anyone other than the closest of friends. Facebook is not a great indicator of friendship regardless of the connection terminology (and, for the record, Twitter is about “followers”, not “friends”), as demonstrated by my nearly 640 friends. While I do have a more-than-just-hello-in-the-hall relationship with each person in that group, few would expect to attend my own theoretical nuptials. I’m not discrediting the premise, I just think that you could easily focus on technology and its challenges versus an age group.

Finally, it is good to know that the idea came from a couple of individuals who are within the age range of the group about which you’re writing. However, I don’t think that’s justification for two articles that aren’t particularly accurate (for instance, I would equate that defense with me feeling free to use the word “faggot” anytime I want because I have gay friends).

There are plenty of examples of people who are around my age and are doing extraordinary things. I would have no problem saying that individuals of my generation are incredibly talented and have already accomplished a great deal in our short lives (we wouldn’t have Facebook to complain about if a college kid in a dorm room hadn’t invented it). Here in Pittsburgh, we have so many examples of 20-somethings who have tried to change their own little piece of the world (the P-G’s own Annie Tubbs does a great job of this in her Right Here series). I suggest taking a look at Brazen Careerist to find a group of like-minded Gen Yers who are doing what they can to make an impact. My generation has plenty of warts, but we’re a whole lot better off than we’re credited.

Thank you again for your time.

Regards,
Albert

My only regret in my response is a missing P.S. — I don’t believe that the Beatles are before anybody’s time.

Post-Gazette Says the Kids Aren’t Alright … Again

The Post-Gazette ticked me off. Again. I just can’t take it anymore. So here’s the letter I wrote to the editors:

Dear Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editors:

I’m writing because I’m a 20-something and just can’t take it anymore. The “young people need to grow up” articles just have to stop.

On April 14th, 2010, Maria Sciullo wrote an out-of-touch, connect-the-dots-that-aren’t-there article entitled For Gen X men, seems growing up is hard to do, re-titled on the web as For some 20-somethings, growing up is hard to do, an adjustment that was likely made because she seems to have confused Gen X for Gen Y. In addition to being factually incorrect, Ms. Sciullo makes a leap of Grand Canyon proportions — from Ben Roethlisberger’s abhorrent behavior as a $102 million Super Bowl-winning quarterback to the behavior of the average 20-something male who’s making his way in society. Somehow, she brings the boomers into the fray as well, suggesting that the 50-to-65-year-olds who feel a decade younger than their age is a celebration of immaturity. Add a heaping helping of Tiger Woods, Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Sandler, along with quotes from authors and experts, and you have the perfect example of a “the kids aren’t alright” hit piece, even if it veered off course for a moment to mention the generation who sang the Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four at the top of their pot-smoke-filled lungs.

I wrote a lengthy letter to the editor then, but never quite nailed the tone, so it sat in my “Drafts” folder for a few months. I forgot about it. Until today.

Maria Sciullo is back today with an article entitled Modern weddings a social conundrum. She mentions that there are many people who are upset about being left off the 400-person guest list for the Chelsea Clinton, which is undoubtedly true and has been covered extensively by the New York Times, Washington Post, and other publications that often cover well-connected, politically-oriented, elitist whiners. However, Ms. Sciullo once again makes a leap even Evel Knievel wouldn’t attempt, going from the multi-million-dollar wedding of the former first daughter to the average couple who happens to share details about their nuptials on Facebook/online. She uses the word “friends” in quotes when referencing the connections made on Facebook and Twitter, and goes on to talk about how rude it is to make all of these people feel left off a wedding guest list. There is another round of quotes from authors and experts that reinforce her view that, again, us kids aren’t alright. At least she spared the baby boomers this time.

It seems that Ms. Sciullo’s opinion of Generation Y is as follows: we’re a bunch of immature social media addicts who just don’t understand basic common courtesy, offending our Facebook/Twitter connections left and right with our need to tell the world about every minute detail about your lives. The repeated publication of articles like this (I once had an email argument with Bill Toland regarding an article he wrote in his The Diaspora Report series that had a similar tone) suggests that this isn’t simply the opinion of one reporter, but something a bit more pervasive throughout the culture of the newspaper. To put it kindly, this again shows that the Post-Gazette is hopelessly out of touch.

I’m more than willing to help you understand the culture of being a 20-something in our modern world (my contact information is below). However, if you prefer an example from another columnist, I suggest reading The Kids Are Alright by the New York Times’ Gail Collins, who covers the exact same topic as Ms. Sciullo’s article, but comes to a much different conclusion.

Thank you for your time and I hope you take this to heart. I will be publishing this letter on my blog (http://ciuksza.com) and will be sharing it with my “friends” on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I will be interested to hear their reactions.

Best regards,
Albert Ciuksza Jr.

P.S. My reference to the Beatles and Evel Knievel was intentional — unlike your disinterest in better understanding my generation, I have a love for the cultures of my older cousins, parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents. I wanted to make sure I made connections we could both understand.

Marketing to Women #1: U by Kotex

It looks like confetti!

It looks like confetti!

I threatened you that tampons would be my first women’s marketing post. Might as well go big or go home, right? Why not tackle one of the things us men are most challenged in discussing on the first go ’round?

So, I’ve been particularly fascinated by U by Kotex since encountering it in the health and beauty section of Target. It was featured on an endcap (I’m particularly obsessed with the endcaps at Target, which often feature some amazing clearance items). The black box with the big ‘U’ and color contrast was a particular draw, having no clue on first sight as to what it was. I saw the Kotex brand, tilted my head, furrowed by brow and said “Really?” out loud, drawing the attention of a couple of women in the section (awkward). Since then, I’ve seen these boxes everywhere where feminine hygiene products are sold, as they’re being displayed in very prominent store placements. At this point, the guy-freaked-out-by-the-monthly-cycle-that-shall-not-be-named was bested by my marketing mind.

Wow, that's boring, even for me.

Wow, that's boring, even for me.

The next natural progression was to take a stroll down the feminine hygiene aisle, where I found some fascinating packaging (see above). There’s really nothing to distinguish a brand — category leader Tampax is at the top (I noticed that the logo had been changed since the one on the box used by my mom to store batteries in the closet as a kid — Reduce, Re-use, Recycle!), positioned next to the store brand that has a very similar scheme (the usual tactic when a company wants to sell their higher-margin private label and have it be compared to the market leader), with a bunch of indistinguishable pink and baby blue boxes. Playtex Sport stood out because the women on the box were depicted as having an absolute blast while on their period, contradicting the behavior of every one of my ex-girlfriends while in a similar state. Perhaps the most interesting was Kotex — not only was it on the bottom shelf (retail products and Tequila have a similar rule when it comes to placement on the shelving hierarchy), but it had a generic box design with red flowers. Not sure exactly what subliminal message the flower was supposed to send, but, even in my open-mindedness, I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about it. Kotex obviously figured out that, well, its brand sucked.

Speaking with a friend of mine about the subject, she said that she goes to the aisle, grabs a box of the tampons to which she’s been brand loyal since her first period, and vacates the premises as quickly as possible. “I HATED it when they changed the box on me, because it made me stay there longer than I wanted to”, she complained. So, maybe that was exactly the point in the package design and positioning — keep it simple for women bothered by the experience and help them get the hell out of there.

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Thoughts on Trust

Trust model stolen from<br /> Paul English<br /> (http://paulenglish.com/trust.html)

Trust model stolen from Paul English

In my forever-ago last post, I talked about personal branding and reputation, but realized that I might have missed the point. In all the conversations taking place online, from marketing, ‘personal branding’ and credibility to religion and politics, trust seems to be at the core of what everyone is talking about. How do we build trust? How do we keep people from thinking us untrustworthy? Who deserves our trust in the first place?

A friend and I were having a couple of beers post-finals and got to the question of trust. We came to the conclusion that trust is in crisis: the Catholic Church is waging a battle for survival as a result of a sexual abuse scandal that might point to the Pope himself; a movement of vocal activists are declaring their distrust of government, accusing it of attempting to become a socialist state; and banks are being charged with fraud for purposefully selling investors funds that were specifically designed to fail.

This wouldn’t be such an issue except that we’re built to trust, we need to trust. We don’t have the energy to evaluate all of the things in our life every day, so we find those cornerstones that we can lean on. When those things crumble, we have to find something new. We’re now forced to evaluate everything in our lives for trustworthiness and are incredibly quick to pull the trigger on the least hint that it is being violated. This isn’t healthy but we’ve been given little other choice.

This article by Pete Blackshaw in Advertising Age speaks well to the current challenges facing marketers attempting to build trust. He mentions the study showing that peer-to-peer trust is down significantly as a chilling reminder that we’re not even trusting our friends’ opinions anymore. And why should we — a recent study that I can’t seem to track down concluded that Gen Yers work very hard to manage their online presence to show their ideal selves (pictures attending parties vs. winning 1st place at math camp). Perhaps the best point he makes is that we have many more questions than answers.

My personal theory on trust was well summarized by Dave Popelka from Mullen Advertising, who wrote a great article about striving to be good rather than the best. He talks about the challenges and pitfalls of measuring your business (or, as I think about it, yourself) against others and suggests that shooting for “good” is the best approach. In my world, this means being good, being consistent and doing as much as possible to avoid our human tendency to pass blame to others when I’ve failed.

Overall, I see trust as an incredibly personal thing. Attempting to manipulate people’s perceptions of you lowers that trust, makes the relationship (be it you or your products) superficial and renders already fragile brand loyalty null and void. However, I still don’t see this as an answer, but rather the beginning of a series of questions that helps us to figure out what trust means to us and how we allocate it to the people, companies and brands we interact with.

Learning from 2009

I had the opportunity to contribute to a series by Sharalyn Hartwell (Twitter @SharalynHartwel) at Examiner.com entitled Gen Y Gives Thanks. Her stated goal for the month-long project was to counteract the many myths that are associated with Gen Y, most notably that we’re spoiled, thankless brats.

While my answer was pretty short (you can read it here), I didn’t come to it easily. It has been a hard year for learning tough lessons and I can’t say that I’m happy about some of the situations I encountered. As I thought about the last year, I kept reliving some of the individual frustrations that made it difficult. I’ll admit that I also got into a bit of a “poor me” mood, rehashing mistakes and reliving decisions that, while not wrong, I might have made differently with the benefit of hindsight.

However, as I started looking at 2009 in total, I realized that I had made some considerable strides, all in the shadow of a horrible economy. I chastised myself a little bit for the woe-is-me attitude and realized that the year was actually one of the greatest opportunities for learning I’ve ever had. In addition, I got to go through these challenges while remaining gainfully employed and with the support of friends and family.

Maybe you’re a Gen Yer, maybe you’re not, but for what are you thankful in 2009? What has made this year an important one for you? What challenges and opportunities helped you grow?

Reactions to AlphaLab Demo Day

AlphaLab

AlphaLab Logo

Instead of a summary of each company (Alan Veeck (twitter-feed-icon-12x12 @aveeck ) at Meakem Becker Venture Capital and author of Pittsburgh Ventures blog did a fantastic live blog roundup of the companies here), I’d like to toss out some gut reactions to the companies, presentations and the feel of the environment overall.

  • In monitoring local media, it seems like there has been a lot of funding activity in the region recently, from early stage angel investments to larger acquisitions of Pittsburgh-based startups. That feeling of optimism was present at the event today as well, and from the folks I was able to speak with, there might be more good news coming down the pike.
  • It was great to hear about some of the success stories coming out of AlphaLab. One of my personal favorites is a company called The Resumator, led by Don Charlton (twitter-feed-icon-12x12 @TheResumator). They’ve gotten some serious press and some seed funding post-AlphaLab, which is helping them to expand their feature set.
  • Social is everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. It’s hard not to get sick of hearing about it, but it really doesn’t make it any less important. I’m reminded of when everyone was talking about the internet being game-changer in the late 90’s-to-early-’00s — while it was so annoying to hear, the folks saying it were absolutely right.
  • The actual design of the various PowerPoint presentations was pretty good. I know it sounds superficial, but a stylish presentation makes a company look much more “together”. Great job, everyone.
  • Loved the presentation by Nick Pinkston, CEO of CloudFab (twitter-feed-icon-12x12 @cloudfab). I continue to believe that storytelling and metaphor are the best way to connect with an audience, and I think Nick did a very good job of doing just that. Speaking with him afterward (both about his company and about using his technology to develop some components for a project on which I’m working), it was evident that he sees this as a product customization revolution rather than simply a sourcing opportunity. I love the vision.
  • Fooala has developed a site called CollegeBite (twitter-feed-icon-12x12 @collegebite), a very cool open ordering platform that enables restaurants to create/expand an online presence using mobile and the web. One of the things I loved about it is that I’ve already used the site! While the presentation was a bit difficult to follow at times, I did find the team to be very, very strong. Finally, they’re classic Gen Yers —  smart, mobile, experienced, passionate, hungry and making a difference. Two of the guys are from Duke, one of whom met one of the CMU founders while in Sydney, Australia. What a story.
  • Brian at NavPrescience has a compelling pitch — a software package that is integrated into GPS functionality that learns your driving habits and adjusts routing and point-of-interest suggestions accordingly. One of my favorite lines of the day was Brian’s deadpan delivery of “[GPS] devices are pretty stupid”, referring to the dictionary definition of  “slow to learn and understand”. As a recent owner of a BlackBerry Tour with GPS capability, I’ve found how dead wrong TeleNav can be with even the simplest of directions (he cited that only 35% of GPS routes are actually ‘fastest’, confirming my experience). Brian’s use of a scenario in his presentation (there’s that storytelling again) was very engaging. Things that I disliked are mostly brand-oriented — I’m not a fan of the name (I keep wanting to say NavPresence and the word ‘prescience’ is a bit SATish) and the logo is a rough (use of Verdana, complicated design and the invocation of magic when the system is built on three years of solid R&D at CMU). I know that the company isn’t looking to sell to consumers, but it’s still something that could be improved.

While it’s a tough time for everyone in this economy, I’m really optimistic about the entrepreneurial community here in Pittsburgh. Being named the second-best place to start a small business in the U.S. doesn’t hurt, either. All-in-all, I have to commend AlphaLab Class #3 on a job well done.

Gen Y and the Entrepreneurial Opportunity

Generational issues have been a hot HR topic for years, and the urgency to develop a plan to integrate these generations is becoming even greater now that economic factors are forcing Baby Boomers to stay in the workforce longer than they anticipated. Along with this phenomenon, the workforce is integrating Gen Y workers, a group that brings a very different skill set  — and expectations — to the workplace. The anticipated workforce shortage that scared executives earlier in the decade is now simply a non-issue.

This presents an interesting challenge for Gen Y. What once appeared to be a fast-track to positions of authority as older workers retire is a now fierce competition for available jobs, a fight that pits early-career professionals with much more experienced counterparts. For Gen Yers lucky enough to have a job, the opportunity to move up and contribute to meaningful projects  (identified by Herb Sendek and Buddy Hobart in Gen Y Now to be one of the major needs of Gen Y workers) has decreased considerably.

The challenge, as Hobart and Sendek identify in the book, is leadership. Many Baby Boomer and Generation X managers have negative perceptions of Gen Y, which lead to managerial decisions that hurt everyone, i.e. the manager doesn’t get out of the employee what he or she needs and the Gen Y worker in turn doesn’t get the fulfillment/experience that they are looking for. The inevitable consequence is that the Gen Y worker “checks out” and eventually moves on. This situation is often blamed on the Gen Y worker (they’re lazy, they’re entitled, they don’t try to fit in, they’re babied, they’re spoiled, they’re not willing to ‘put in their time’) as opposed to the individuals who are leading them. For both short- and long-term results, organizations simply can’t function this way and hope to be competitive in attracting/retaining talent.

However, where larger organizations might falter in assimilating Gen Y talent, start ups and smaller entrepreneurial companies can thrive. There are several reasons: Continue reading