When I was eleven years old, my best friend was an 80-, perhaps 90-year-old woman named Myrtle Friedman. Myrtle lived alone next door, on Second Street in Hailey, Idaho. Her two-story green stucco house was perched on the corner, just two blocks from Main Street. I would tend to her rhubarb, weed her vegetable garden, and listen to her tell stories. Myrtle had lived through both wars and the Great Depression. I got paid in hard candy, which I enjoyed in her formal living room as she told me about her life. In that room (my family certainly didn’t have a formal living room), I felt protected from the insecurity and chaos of my own house and the looming threat of the Cold War.
It’s hard to imagine the same little girl sheltering from the world in Myrtle Friedman’s house would grow up to become the owner of a business that employs 52 souls, most of them much younger than me. Ever since Millennials entered the workforce a decade ago, I’ve been relying on their energy and ideas to build my business. Now I am eager to start hiring from Gen Z.
It is long past the time to quit disparaging these resilient generations. Among the many lessons this week of righteous civic upheaval has brought, one is that young people are shifting the national discourse. As difficult as our current era is, it’s living through an era ripe for lifting up new ideas and fostering new leaders. Luckily for us, I believe we may be looking at the two greatest generations, back-to-back, that this country has ever seen.
In his national 2020 commencement speech, President Obama reminded the nation’s graduates “to be alive to one another’s struggles.” In other words: it’s not all about you. Having built a business with a team of emerging professionals, I’m here to tell you that my staff not only understands this message but knows how to live it. This is not the young workforce of the greed-is-good 1980s: for the most part they are innovative, scrappy and interested in a mission-based approach to work. The young people who have helped me build my company are akin to snowflakes only in their humble grasp of the fact that snow melts fast, and survival depends upon sticking together.
Nowadays I spend quite a bit of time contemplating how to keep a roof over everyone’s heads given “these times.” Not only my employees but the thousands of others whose homes we manage. In the COVID eraToday, managing property is also a public health responsibility. And our sector’s role in the economy isn’t insignificant: property managers are tending to our nation’s real estate in the shadow of what we’re now apparently calling the Greater Depression. As a community-oriented business leader, I’m not crazy about the hand we’ve been dealt. But these days, everyone needs to learn how to play with a new hand.
I often lie awake thinking about my endless Zooming, about how everyone’s office decor has been replaced by the domestic backdrops of their colleagues and customers. We’re so far apart, yet we’re inviting each other into our homes every single day. I am so intrigued by the differences and similarities that tie our work families together. We commiserate over one another’s stir-crazy kids in the background, slow-clap as cats get settled on keyboards, and enjoy more canine workmates than ever before (and there were a lot before). We’re all living out the irony of intimacy at a distance.
If our company’s revenues flounder and we have to lay people off, who is going to pay my employees’ rent and mortgages? Who’s going to feed their human and fur families? Certainly not the current administration, whose one-time checks are slow in coming and not nearly enough. We can expect no help from a reality TV star playing politics, a man who hasn’t experienced an empathetic moment in his life, nevermind a sleepless night over payroll.
Like most small business owners, I’m no stranger to struggle. I’ve struggled in my personal life, but in a way, I’ve also struggled because I’m an American–I’ve struggled in the way each of us has been struggling all along, without really understanding that our struggles aren’t normal, or necessary. As a Gen-Xer, a member of the beleaguered lost generation, I have lived through, and felt existential stress about, The Cold War, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, ketchup as a vegetable, 1980’s interest rates, AIDS, 9-11, and the great recession. For years I lived with the certainty that my family and I would be leveled, whether by a nuclear bomb or another layoff. But all this insecurity and uncertainty made me empathetic and gave me grit.
Grit is currency in life, not to mention a requirement for small business owners in the U.S. In the end, our grit is what will get us through. Empathy is a requirement to be a decent human being, and in the end, our humanity is all we have.
But when it comes to grit, my generation has nothing on Millennials, nevermind Gen Z, where opportunities are limited, and social anxiety is abundant. Our nation’s young people–the faces in my Zoom meeting grids–have come of age through 9/11, the great recession, crippling student loan debt, the housing market crash and now a global pandemic, and the highest unemployment rates the United States has ever seen, and a long-overdue national reckoning on race. We may as well be calling them Generation Grit.
And yet, despite the historic struggles they’ve been through and are living every day, they’re also kind and empathetic: they understand that things are hard, they listen to and validate one another’s feelings, they grasp their role as citizens of the planet and defenders of justice, and frankly (thanks, I suspect, to those much-maligned helicopter parents), their emotional intelligence is off the charts.
This combination of empathy and grit is why, when many in corporate America were busy writing off Millennials as lazy and self-centered, I doubled down on the generation. It’s also why I’ll be first in line to start onboarding the graduates of 2020 and beyond.
I’ve learned through years of experience–not to mention through the empathy of people like Myrtle Friedman, who bore gentle witness to my anxiety, that being alive to the struggles of others is not just a sign of a good human being but it’s also good for business.
As an employer in COVID times, what’s my responsibility to the Millennials on my team, and to the Gen Z workers soon to be joining the workforce? How do I keep a formal living room open to them? I want to provide this space not just for them but also for myself. I am comforted by the vision and drive of today’s emerging generations: their determination and fearlessness give me hope for humanity. I see now that Myrtle must have felt much the same about me, a brooding girl with a vision for a better world.
In 12 years, I’ve grown my property management business from a little adobe duplex that made me an accidental landlord, to a very intentional landlady running a family of companies that manage more than a billion dollars in assets. I’ve done it all within a corporate culture of empathy and emotional and social well-being. I’m glad to report I’ve seen a remarkable return on investment–unlike many in our field, we’re still standing strong, not to mention pivoting, innovating, adapting, and charging full speed ahead.
Humanity is only at the beginning of this pandemic and, America is only just beginning to understand its relationship to racism. When we come out of this crisis, we’ll be facing a very different world. Let’s not treat Gen Z with suspicion and judgement, like we did to the Millennials. My bet’s on their resilience, and their heart. Let’s give them some credit, and some respect. Let’s greet them with a loving embrace, capture their ideas, and welcome what will certainly be the grittiest generation in generations.