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Digital Natives, Meet Your 19th Century “Spirit Twins”

Like many of his peers, 20-year-old Charles Plumber spent his days at an entry-level job and pursued his real passion as a “side gig.” But a nagging worry kept him up at night: With the economy and technology changing so quickly, was he destined to fall behind?

Though his predicament sounds familiar, Plumber didn’t grow up during the Great Recession like today’s millennials. He was a child of the Industrial Revolution, who worked in a Philadelphia boot factory in the mid-1800s. (That “side project” wasn’t a start-up, it was street preaching.)

The young man recorded his anxieties in a diary, which was recovered almost two-hundred years later by Jon Grinspan, a curator at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., who studies the lives of young people in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Line of ladies posing for picture

Grinspan has read hundreds of diaries from that period and isn’t the first historian to find notable parallels between those entering adulthood at the dawn of the 20th and 21st centuries: Both entered the job market in a time of great economic upheaval. Both experienced far more employment instability than their parents. And both came of age during a time of radical technological transformation.

Why the history lesson? While generational comparisons (and even the word “millennial”) are overly simplistic, they’re also unavoidable. Pop culture often paints a picture of our generation as more immature, self-centered and just plain lost (see: repeated references to living in parents’ basements) than any that’s gone before. But, Grinspan argues, the idea that millennials as a group are uniquely flawed, or faltering, is “nonsense.”

“[Our culture] spends so much time rolling our eyes at this generation without any sense of historical context,” he says.

Here, three truisms that link young people from the Digital and Industrial Revolutions:

1. We’re job-hopping, and that’s just fine.

There’s been much hand-wringing over our generation’s supposed propensity for switching jobs. But the young men and women of the late 19th century were equally unsettled, Grinspan says, and it’s Baby Boomers with Mad Men-era ideals who are actually the aberration.

Two line charts showing that in the 19th century, employment shifted from mostly farm-based to mostly non-farm based; and in the 20th century, employment shifted from mostly goods-based to mostly services-based.

In the 1800s, as the country transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy, young people left their hometowns in record numbers to seek out work in rapidly expanding cities (in some towns, census returns show that up to 90 percent of young men departed over a 10-year period). But it was a time of intense boom and bust, Grinspan says, and they could have a job one minute and show up empty-handed on their parents’ doorstep the next.

“[Careers] were much more like today in that you might be doing one thing one year and another thing the next, and your skill is kind of adapting to how the economy is changing,” he explains.

The takeaway: Just like the post-Victorians, millennials have seen whole industries dissolve and new ones spring up before our eyes. While the mid-20th century may have prized stability, our mantra is “adapt, adapt, adapt.”

2. We get married on our own time.

The sudden economic and employment instability in the late 19th century also led to a sharp spike in the average age of marriage—to the ripe old age of 26. (People waited until they had a more sure financial footing before tying the knot, Grinspan says.) While headlines (and many of our parents) fret that today’s millennials are waiting longer than any previous generations to get married, studies rarely look as far back as the 1900s or take changing lifespans into account.

Bar chart showing 1890 to 2010. Both men and women are now getting married at an older age, but because of increasing lifespans have a greater percentage of their lives ahead of them at marriage.

“In absolute numbers, yes, young people today seem to be marrying later than any generation. But people live to about 78 on average today,” says Grinspan. “So waiting to 26 if you’re only going to live until you’re 55 is a much bigger deal than if you wait until 27 and you’re going to live to 80.”

The takeaway: There’s nothing “traditional” about the Boomer-era notion that a young person should get married right out of college. So tell your mom to stop stressing, already.

3. Lazy? Entitled? Excuse us, we’ve got work to do.

In the diary entries he pored over, Grinspan noticed a collective shift in consciousness early in the 1900s. While young people in the 1800s blamed themselves for struggling to find stability, they began to look critically at existing social institutions at the turn of the century—eventually forming labor unions to battle for better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions for all.

Others find echoes of those social movements in today’s generation. Sara Horowitz, founder of the 270,000-person-strong Freelancers Union, argues that today’s bearded artisans and their post-Victorian great-grandparents are socially-conscious spirit twins. She points to the Occupy movement, crowdfunding and even the rise of co-working spaces as evidence that millennials, like their 19th century forebearers, recognize their own strength through collective action.

Line chart showing the unemployment rate from 1880 until today, with a peak due to the Great Recession around 2008 that is a bit smaller than a peak during the Panic of 1896.

Babson professor James Hoopes, author of Corporate Dreams: Big Business in American Democracy from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, agrees that today’s workers are finding strength in numbers by creating their own advocacy models, such as protesting virtually rather than picketing with signs.

“Big labor unions were effective in getting benefits for their workers [in the 19th century],” he says  “We are creating a new work model that is similar to what happened 100 years ago.”

While this generation’s historical impact has yet to be written, Grinspan says the fact that we can’t rely on government safety nets such as social security and medicare and have seen whole industries crumble before our eyes makes claims that millennials are more immature or lazier than previous generations absurd. Here, again, he finds commonalities between the 19th century and today —and notes that it’s Baby Boomers who are the odd generation out.

“It’s amazing to hear people who are 65 or 70 saying young people are so entitled when they’ve been benefitting their whole life from [programs like] the New Deal and the G.I. Bill,” he says, “the idea that young people are more entitled today—there’s no basis for that.”

The takeaway: Just as they did two centuries ago, young people are transforming the way we work, interact and do business. What will be the result? That’s up to us.

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