For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working out of my grandmother’s house in Vancouver, rather than my office in London. And so, whenever I take part in a MEL meeting on Google Hangouts, I’ve been doing so from a small desk in her floral, pink sewing room.
Now, like most doting South Asian grandmothers in their 70s, mine insists on doing everything from my laundry, to making my bed, to bringing me snacks on a regular basis — despite the fact that I’m a grown-ass 27-year-old man. Last week, it just so happened that she decided to come into the room halfway through a work meeting. While broadcasting live to all my colleagues, she declared she was going to do another load of my laundry, all while asking why my jeans and T-shirts were so dirty despite being washed just two days ago.
My grandma, however, didn’t realize I was working, so it took some time to explain why I was talking to a screen. This interaction inspired a barrage of questions: “If you’re in a meeting, why were you wearing pajamas?” “How do you work when you aren’t in the same office?” “What about the time difference?” Eventually, after I got into the weeds of navigating a media-based job, she offered a piece of advice: “You should wear a suit to your meetings.”
My grandma’s arrival to Canada following the Ugandan-Asian expulsion in 1972 — when Idi Amin demanded that all South Asians be forcibly deported from the African nation — follows a typical immigrant story. She and her family arrived in Canada with no money and few possessions. Like nearly all the Ugandan-Asian refugees in the West, her first jobs were in factories and at McDonald’s. Many Ugandan Asians, though, would go on to create their own companies and small businesses, ranging from convenience stores to laundromats to technology companies. As such, younger generations would be the first in their families to attend college. But before then, my grandma says success looked like “people who wore suits, went to offices, drove nice cars — that was what we wanted our kids to do.”
My grandma, of course, wanted her grandchildren to follow typical paths of immigrant success by becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers — careers that are viewed as stable and always in demand. And some of her grandchildren/my cousins have pursued such paths. But when I ask my grandma what she thinks I do for a living, she smiles and shakes her head: “I don’t know!”
“Come on, you must know something,” I push back.
She laughs again: “[I know] it’s something about writing… as long as you’re happy.”
Last year, NBC reported on the top five millennial careers that parents weren’t able to understand — jobs that ranged from “social media influencer” to “mobile app developer.” The cognitive dissonance that comes with older generations understanding the job market for millennials and Gen Z isn’t just about job titles either. A 2016 study showed Baby Boomers ranking at the bottom when it came to being “being adaptable and collaborative” in workplace environments. Moreover, a 2017 article from Forbes argued that post-war generations and Baby Boomers still struggled to understand people who have more than one job or frequently switch jobs. “Millennials have grown up with technology and mobility in a way that really provides less attachment to ‘one way of doing things,’ i.e. a full-time job,” Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs told the magazine. “While a full-time job may be paying rent or the mortgage, it’s not uncommon for millennials to find side jobs to supplement their income or fulfill a personal interest.”
And as flexible hours and multiple contract-based jobs become more common, young people are being told that the advice their parents gave them is no longer applicable. “Parents: the advice you’re doling out on how to seek and secure a job is bad. It’s really bad. It’s outdated and counterproductive. If you love your adult offspring and would like to see them succeed, you must cease and desist immediately,” Corrinne Purtill wrote in Quartz earlier this year, arguing that established job-seeking tactics like paper resumes, follow-up phone calls and attending grad school to boost employment prospects not only lack the desired effect, but in some cases, can be counterproductive.
“It’s difficult to explain what I do to my parents. They’re both lawyers and come from families of well-established lawyers and doctors. When they see me leave the house in jeans and a normal shirt, or even a hoodie, they always ask if I’m actually going to work or just pretending to,” says Eviane Yeung, a marketing assistant for a small advertising agency in Toronto. Yeung, 27, earns around $50,000 a year, and while she might not have to dress business casual, she works up to 14 hours a day, often with minimal breaks, before her hour commute back home to the suburbs.
Yeung is happy with her job. She studied marketing and advertising, and her ultimate goal is to become an account manager at a bigger advertising agency. “I always knew from the start that it was going to be a long game,” she tells me. “Unless you’re very lucky, people don’t make it in advertising until they’re older and have more experience. Back in the old days, you’d come into an agency as an apprentice, and you’d eventually take over from the person teaching you directly. But now, with universities and thousands of graduates, that system doesn’t work anymore. To get to the place I want to get to, I have to keep working. It’s an endurance game.”
Though Yeung’s parents are supportive, she says it’s still difficult to convince them that what she’s doing is worthwhile. “My parents are traditional Singaporeans so they’ve always had big expectations for me and my siblings,” she says. “Those expectations are reflected by the way we look. It would definitely be easier to convince them I had an actual job if I wore office clothes or heels. Part of that, I guess, is that when my parents came to the U.S., and later to Canada, they had to constantly prove themselves in a climate that was very anti-Asian generally. There’s a story my dad tells about how he had to borrow a month’s worth of money from my grandfather to buy a Hugo Boss suit just so he could get his foot in the door for an interview. I guess, when he thinks about how hard it was for him, it’s difficult to understand how someone who dresses in streetwear could even be allowed into an office.”
For other millennials stuck in lower paying, highly unstable gig economy jobs, the problem of explaining exactly what they do to their parents is even harder. Jal, 24, lives in London and requested anonymity due to non-disclosure agreements he’s signed for “gig economy” jobs he’s been working since graduating from the University of Manchester in 2016 with a master’s degree in economics. His normal week involves working as a courier for Deliveroo, making food deliveries for the U.K.-based fast-food app Just Eat and driving for Uber. During whatever downtime he has, he applies for jobs ranging from entry-level finance roles to assistant positions on six-month contracts, while living in his parent’s home in North London.
“You end up feeling like you’ve disappointed your family, and that you’ve been disrespectful to their struggles when they moved to the U.K. for a better life for us,” Jal says about his parents and grandparents, who moved to the U.K. from Punjab, India, in the 1980s. “My grandfather came here not speaking a word of English, and he was working in textile factories up in [Northern England]. He would work long hours, but that was his only job really. And he knew that whatever happened, he had a stable income to support my grandma, my mom and her sisters. I think of myself and my generation, and I’m like, Damn, I wish I was that lucky. Instead, I’m working loads of these jobs despite having a degree, and the money I’m making — which isn’t much — is going toward student loans and saving whatever I can for a house I probably can’t afford to buy.”
To Jal, the issue isn’t necessarily about the kind of work he’s doing, but rather, what it represents — especially to South Asian families like his who pride themselves on the success of their progeny. “If your son is a doctor or a lawyer, or they have a job in the city, that’s not just a success for them, it’s success for the whole family,” he says. “The opposite is true as well. If you’ve messed up in school, or you’re on welfare, it’s our families who are blamed. No one in our community wants to see that. But at the same time, when family members come over — or when my parents go to the Gurdwara [Sikh temple] — and people ask what I’m doing, they don’t know what to say, even though I’m working and have prospects. They usually make up something, like I’m doing a PhD, or I’m working in the city. That, though, just ends up making them feel worse because they aren’t sure if I’ll be successful in my life.”
Worse yet, his family considers his current state of employment as a personal issue, not a generational one that affects tens of thousands of young people impacted by a shortage of stable, longterm jobs. “They’ll always compare me to my cousins who work in big offices and earn a lot of money, and ask if they’re the reasons I’m not as successful as them,” Jal says. “Even though I keep telling them that there are so many people like me who do well at school but they don’t get the rewards of that education straight away.”
As for me, my grandma may never understand why I spend so much time on my computer, or why it’s perfectly fine to participate in Google Hangouts in pajamas. But to her credit, she doesn’t believe such an understanding is essential either. “We never had the opportunity to do what we wanted to do,” she says when I ask her if she’d rather I work a “normal” job. “I don’t understand all these new jobs. But if you can [support] yourself and you’re doing something important, that’s what matters.”