Posted by: spacewritinguy | March 1, 2008

Generation Y Might Need to Wait Its Turn In Space

It all began with a PowerPoint:

I have to admit, I was impressed and pretty much in favor of these kids’ suggestions/observations. I can say “kids,” they were all, at least, 8 years younger than me. I agree: NASA needs to start making room for Gen Y.

However, I had a very animated and interesting conversation with a Boomer friend about this issue. He, too, saw merit to the Millenials’ presentation, but he had a perspective I had not considered: “Well, there are a lot of groups NASA needs to pay more attention to; they aren’t the only ones. We need to reach all of them.” Then he threw this interesting curve ball at me: “They keep saying, ‘You need to hire me, me, me, because I’m a member of this generation.’ It’s like these kids have been handed everything all their lives, so they just expect that they should get the keys to the kingdom. It’s not going to happen. They need to wait their turn.”

I suggested that Gen X needed its turn as well, though there’s a huge gap in the number of 31-to-45-year-olds at NASA because the Cold War ended around the time my generation graduated college. There is hope, of course. Steve Cook, the Director of the Ares Project Office, is an Xer. Some of the other folks leading the Project are in the same age range, from what I’ve seen.

I pointed out that I was helping a young skull full of mush who was fresh out of school and he didn’t understand why I was asking all these questions about what he’d accomplished. It was like he expected to hand in a plain-vanilla resume and get a job just because he was special–you know, just like everyone else.

My friend wasn’t done: “Never mind if they’re part of some big group. So am I. What do they bring to the table? Do they have the skills to get the job done? These kids want to jump to the head of the line, ahead of people who have waited their turn. How will they feel when the next-younger kid comes in and wants their job? Will they just move aside?”

So far as I’ve seen, the plus side of Generation Y, as opposed to the Boomers, is that they aren’t as militant, violent, leftist, or hedonist. Mind you, they’re electronic exhibitionists and wear tattoos and piercings in odd places, but on the whole they haven’t struck me as the types to burn bras, sit in at the student union, or try to overthrow “The Man.” They’re more likely, if they’re female, to be wearing a high-priced Victoria’s Secret bra. And instead of wanting to overthrow The Man, they want to be The Man. They want the keys to the executive suite. Or, as Jim Morrison put it, “We want the world, and we want it now!

Now if the Millennials find that they’re NOT getting their way at the speed at which they want it, will they try to relive 1968? Unlikely. But if they feel they’re not going to get where they want within NASA, they will pick up their toys and go elsewhere: NewSpace, for example, or just out of the space business entirely. And eventually, as Burt Rutan put it a couple years ago, NASA will have truly gone senile.

Ares is Generation X’s turn to run things. And yes, the Millennials can join in, too, but they might have to turn a few wrenches before they can occupy the corner office. Will they be patient enough for that? Difficult to say. My generation wasn’t much better at “paying their dues.”

I myself graduated with Liberal Arts degree, about as useless a degree as you can find in a profession-oriented marketplace. I expected to finish that degree and be able to get a job writing for Lockheed Martin or some other big-space company. Didn’t happen. Instead, I spent about five years doing the equivalent of burger-flipper jobs, five years doing something resembling my degree, and then got a serious job. Resentful of my place in life, I got pissy with my managers when my desire for advancement was held up by people ahead of me with more experience. I had to learn the hard way to play the game and pay my dues before I was allowed to advance. And then I had to acquire some skills in my desired career via volunteer work before I got the paying job. Elapsed time between B.A. and serious job: 15 years.

A sense of time and patience are what human beings must cultivate before they advance themselves. Generation Y, at present, has neither.

Now, to backtrack and take the Millennials’ side just a little: the seniority-minded thinking of “waiting your turn” is a side effect of a bureaucracy more concerned with time served than work provided, and it’s killing NASA. A Millennial friend of mine spent a year or so at one of the NASA centers and had enough after a year, when he realized he wasn’t going to be allowed to touch anything until someone above him died. That is entrenched bureaucracy of a particularly inane kind. After all, you can go a long time in an organization doing the minimum and getting your prescribed raises without accomplishing a great deal, especially if you’re not in the front-line business end of a bureaucracy. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy deserves to be quoted here, because it is directly relevant to the problem at hand:

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

Is all of NASA that way? No. But enough parts of it are ossifying to cause newcomers to be wary, especially if they are young and ambitious and want to do new and exciting work.


New Space” companies, while they have not yet made the big splashes everyone has hoped for, still have one great advantage over NASA and the large aerospace companies: because they are small with relatively flat organizations, they have not become big or established enough for people to build personal empires within them. Indeed, empire-building is contrary to the New Space ethic, as they don’t have money or time to do anything except build the product. This is a mind set born out of the dot-com culture, which makes sense given that many internet moguls are founders of New Space organizations.

New Space has another carrot to dangle before aspiring Millennials: the magical possibility of going into space oneself, not just wishing a bunch of super-competent Astronauts. While by no means cheap, space tourism offers anyone with the means the theoretical opportunity to go up there without getting three degrees and a pilot’s license. That is a more democratic, if somewhat utopian, approach to space. And quite frankly, space tourism is the only way this liberal arts major stands a chance in hell of going at all, short of having my ashes shot into the ether after I die. So I understand the attraction.

But even in the New Space community, Millennials are going to require hard skills: math, science, machining, engineering, materials, etc. They must be willing and able to take on informed risk. The machines they aspire to build are meant to have airline-like safety, flight frequency, and operability. In 50 years of spaceflight, no one has built such spacecraft. So this will still require schooling, hard work, and yes, patience. They will have to acquire such skills somewhere, either at a big aerospace company or at NASA or at a New Space company willing to take a chance on a rookie. But if you look at the want ads for New Space companies, it becomes clear that they would prefer experienced personnel as much as the big guys. And they’re probably going to pay less than the seniority-based organizations.

So where does that leave us? It means, in my book, that the courting of and outreach toward Generation Y should by all means continue. If NASA’s management is willing to brave it, they should even try listening to what these young people want and see what reasonable adjustments can be made to adjust the agency’s culture. However, some of the facts of life need to be shared with Generation Y as well:

  • Sheer population mass does not ensure a place at the table. A population of highly educated, skilled, and hard-working people will earn that place.
  • They will need to be shown how difficult putting things into space really is and be willing to put in the time and effort to get the job done, wherever they end up working.
  • Group identity does not, or at least should not, apply to the worlds of science and engineering, however much our mavens of political correctness and equal opportunity might wish otherwise. The universe is an equal-opportunity killer of the foolish and incompetent, and the laws of the universe are not going to suspend themselves just because an engineer was his parents’ favorite.
  • Any teacher worth his salt will learn as much from a student as the student learns from the teacher. However, the teacher should not just learn “how to communicate” with the student. The student needs to be expanding the reach of a difficult technical discipline, or the whole enterprise is futile. Again, it comes back to skills.
  • Aside from communicating with Generation Y for the purposes of integrating them into the space workforce, we need to convey a sense of mission. They should have some sense of a greater whole toward which their efforts at building rockets or payloads are merely a part. They should also understand, as a first step, how the whole space enterprise applies to their individual and collective fortunes. At both of these efforts NASA and other advocates have been lacking, and I’m as much to blame as anyone. When in doubt, we must start with their Earth-based concerns and work our way upward toward the deep black. These traditions and goals are what we, the older generations, are expected to instill in the younger.

There is a lot of work ahead in space, for all of the working generations alive today and yet to come. Generation Y is taking a positive step by starting a conversation and saying, “Hey, listen to us!” And by all means, Generation X, Boomers, and Silent Generation workers should be polite enough to do so. However, Generation Y must also understand that conversation is a two-way street. When it is their turn to listen, we should have something worthwhile to say.


  1. Please bear with this GenX input but here is a different perspective, and one you may not want to hear. I saw the briefing by the NASA GenY employees and must say it was EXCELLENT! If our colleges are turning out people that can communicate this well, then they are, at least, doing SOMETHING right. Having said that, here goes.

    1) NO seat “at the table” is given, it must be earned. I’ve been in manned space over 20 years. My seat at the table was not given, it was earned by taking my basic education, learning my job, thinking critically, and CONTRIBUTING ideas that helped accomplish the mission. As the Boomers retire, I am finding my seat closer to the HEAD of the table and here is what I see relative to Gen Y. Intelligent, communicative, free thinking, do not know when to shut up, no desire to “stick with it” through a long or tough project, out for instant gratification, easily bored, self-important, and generally only in it for themselves.

    Many of these negative attributes ARE NOT GenY, they are true about youth in general, they were true about me and others in GenX at one time.

    2) The “establishment” is finding it rather difficult to take the GenY folks into their confidence. GenY folks think that data and information is PUBLIC ACCESS (e.g. music file sharing) but large companies, in fact the entire capitalist system is built on finding a better idea, KEEPING it a secret until the right time, and making your million before any competitor can find a way to do it better and/or cheaper. GenY seems to have a problem grasping this to some extent. Where NASA plays, the “sensitive data” isn’t sought by other companies, but by other governments, and not to make a better cake mixer either.

    3) GenY seems to be self-important. For example, the expectation that they DESERVE a place at the table. The Greatest Generation gave us a victory in WWII and an industrial country. Boomers gave us CDs, microwaves, color TV, portable computers etc. Gen X is about to assume the reigns and we’ll see what that group does with their time at the forefront. THEN comes GenY. NO, you are NOT building the next generation rockets, that effort is the swan song of the boomers and the “coming of age” of the GenX folks. I know, I work with them. You are not yet at peak earning years, the youngest of you is just 8 years old. By and large, the older groups are still footing the bill too. So buck up and start earning your place at the table.

    4) This one is NOT about GenY in particular, but about youth in general. You come onto the scene right out of some good 4 year college and are under the impression that you are competent. Well, you ARE competent, but you are not yet educated. College lays the foundation and gives you the ability to walk on to the playing field, but you will find that you learn more on the job in the first year than you EVER learned in college. Seek out one of us who are older, find a mentor. To really be successful, you will need one AND you will need to listen to them.

    5) Want a good crash course in the reality of the workplace and the way things really are? Read “The Art of War” by Sun Tsu. It’s over 4000 years old and still in print. THAT should tell you something.

    You have potential, LOTS of it, probably MORE than we did at your age. You WILL change the world one day, but you also have to realize that, while you may throw out some of our ways as antiquated, you will also find, to your astonishment, that many of them are worth keeping.

  2. The response of the Boomer confounds and irritates me a little bit…this whole idea of “waiting turns” is a foreign concept to me, honestly. With technology and business practices changing at an accelerating pace, and the traditional resistance to those changes from the Boomers and others currently in the marketplace, “waiting turns” sounds like short-hand for “becoming obsolete.” I think this gets to the heart of the indignant response…it’s not about wanting something handed to them with the Millenials. It’s about recognizing that they possess the skills and savvy to maneuver in a world the Boomers, by and large, just flat-out *don’t understand.*

    Lead, follow, or get out of the way, I believe the saying goes. Not enough leading going on from the entrenched culture of Boomer business practice, in this industry or any other.

  3. Gonna be interesting to see which group of “entitled” individuals wins the contest. Of course, in the long run, we know who will win by time and attrition.

    The point he raises about having the necessary skills still warrants attention. We keep hearing how bad our schools are compared to the rest of the world in things that Generation Y is supposed to understand. They can play with the computers. Can they design and build them? That’s the bottom-line issue for him, I think.

  4. Comment to Allen:

    Sorry if it wasn’t clear from my postings. I am a Generation X creature, so in the contest between the two big generations on either side of me, I can watch with comparative equanimity…at least until some whippersnapper decides they should have my job just BECAUSE they’re younger. “Qualified” goes farther with me than age, too.

    Thanks for your thoughts.


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