Jean Twenge is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad researcher. in Those Public Entries

Revised: 09/01/2023 12:24 p.m.

  • Sept. 1, 2023, 10 a.m.
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  • Public

ETA: Title change.

And I, for one, am exhausted by the fact that she has designated herself The Voice Of Reason between Millennials and older generations.

From the author of Generation Me: My Research On Maybe 2% Of Actual Millennials in the Pre-9/11 World Led Me To Conclude That They’re a Generation of Psychologically Fragile, Participation Trophy-Wielding Narcissists, comes an essay from Yet Another Book Full Of Shitty Research That Would Make Even Jordan Peterson, Dinesh D’Souza, and Matt Walsh Gasp, I’m Sure, about how Millennials aren’t actually suffering financially.

And why, pray tell, does she thinks that’s true? Because Millennials’ income levels are higher than any previous generations and some of us are homeowners, so quit’cher bitchin’ and go polish your participation trophies, you selfie-obsessed heauxs. And she justifies this sentiment with these three statements:

“By 2019, households headed by Millennials were making considerably more money than those headed by the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, and Generation X at the same age, after adjusting for inflation.”

Even better:

“Millennials’ homeownership rates in 2020 were only slightly behind Boomers’ and Gen Xers’ at the same age: 50 percent of Boomers owned their own home as 25-to-39-year-olds, compared with 48 percent of Millennials […] many older Millennial homeowners got great deals on their most important purchase, having passed into their 30s during the early 2010s, one of the most fortuitous times to buy a house in recent memory.”

Oh, and of course, we’re the most educated generation in American history, so that absolutely means that any Millennial who complains about literally anything is just a whiny, entitled little brat: “[T]here are […] far fewer high-school-only graduates among Millennials than among previous generations, and many more with a college degree. Millennials are the first American generation in which more than one out of three had a four-year college degree by their late 20s, up from one out of four when Gen Xers were in that age bracket. And two out of three Millennials have attended college for at least a year.”

…The Aristocrats!

See, I’ve read Generation Me. Here is why I’m not a fan of this book or its author: In the foreword, Twenge describes Millennials as those born from 1970 to… some vague point in the early 1990s. More than that, she did all of her research from the mid-90s to around 1999, at which point she apparently stopped doing any research and decided to write about the damned kids playing on her lawn.

Twenge’s methodology bothers me. The fact that she defined Millennials as being born in the 1970s, when literally no other generational researcher has ever defined Millennials as being born any earlier than 1981, bothers me. The fact that she published this book in 2006, with no additional research done after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (‘cause it’s not like those had any impact on us!), even though she had at least four years -assuming that publishing a book can take up to a year- to revise her research and include them, bothers me. The fact that she constantly looks to pop culture (i.e. Friends) for what Millennials think bothers me. The fact that she blames participation trophies for what’s “wrong” with us (…Jean. Honey. WHO THE FUCK GAVE US THOSE TROPHIES?!) bothers me. The fact that she calls Millennials self-absorbed narcissists while constantly referring to herself and how very fucking special she is, and how much attention the rest of the unwashed are surely paying her, throughout the entire book, bothers me.

Finally, and most importantly: The fact that this book, which is nothing more than -as one reviewer, “Sara,” on Goodreads put it- a “conservative rant in the guise of research”, has been used by the Boomer audience it was clearly written for to continually denigrate and infantilize Millennials, nearly all of whom are in our thirties and forties, to this very day, bothers me most of all. And the “revised” edition from 2014? I haven’t read it yet, but given all the recent reviews on Goodreads, I must conclude that the only “revisions” Twenge made were, I dunno, moving a comma or something. She is a textbook author, after all.

And apparently Twenge, an “expert” in generational studies (according to whom?), is such a maestro of research that she can’t even be bothered to begin to understand why “Millennials are the most educated generation ever” and “their incomes are higher than any previous generations” are statements that cannot possibly mean anything when Millennials (a) never actually recovered, financially, from the Great Recession, (b) went to college and then grad school to ride out the recession, thereby incurring massive amounts of student loan debt, (c) were forced to choose between taking unpaid internships -which employers favor over paying people to take entry-level jobs because it’s cheaper- and taking low-wage entry-level jobs when we were done with school, (d) have had to jump from entry-level job to entry-level job for even a chance at benefits and higher pay, since there’s no such thing as upward mobility or seniority when staying in a job anymore, (e) took another folding chair to the back of the head with COVID, and (f) came out of COVID only to be clobbered with the worst inflation since the 1980s.

See, what Twenge is doing when she says that Millennials are more educated than our (mostly Boomer) parents and earn more, therefore we cannot be suffering, financially, as much as many of us say we are, is rhetorical trick: A because B, therefore C. “Millennials make more money than other generations” (A) “because they have more education” (B), “therefore they are not struggling financially” (C). It’s a half-truth, and it decontextualizes the facts. Now, to be clear, “taking a fact out of context” is not a logical fallacy, in and of itself, but it can be, and often is, a component of logical fallacies. Because when you take a fact on its own, it doesn’t actually tell you anything.

Let me demonstrate this for you: “Voters who were more favorable to Republican candidates turned out at higher rates compared with those who typically support Democrats “ (Pew Research Center, 2023). Taken entirely on its own, putting aside any ideas or biases you might have about Democrats and Republicans and why people vote the way they do, what does that fact actually tell you? Nothing. Not a damn thing. If you’re just taking that fact on its own, you might start to feel like there’s going to be a massive Red/MAGA wave in 2024. But that doesn’t seem to be the case: Pew published another study, almost at the same time, saying that the slight Republican gains in 2022 were driven by “turnout advantage,” which in turn is largely determined by access. That is, Republican governments have made it far easier for Republicans to get to their polling places and cast their vote, via gerrymandering, than for Democrats and unaffiliated voters. This doesn’t mean that Dems and other voters won’t get their asses out and vote next year; just that it’s harder for us to vote, because Republicans put a ton of roadblocks in front of us that they go out of their way to remove for their own.

So when Twenge says “Millennials have higher incomes in their thirties than their parents did,” she is stating a fact, but she is stating that fact incorrectly and without context. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average income for Americans in 1995 was $29,105. Using information from the US Census Bureau, Tokenist reports that the average income for Millennials is $47,034. But, Boomers in 1995 only carried, on average, about $20k of debt, where Millennials have, on average, $93k, and nearly half of that ($39k) is student loans. Both generations have roughly the same net worth at the same ages (~$7500), which is where Twenge seems to be getting the crux of this “Millennials are doing better than their parents!” argument.

But let’s be real, when you’re making a little under $30k a year and paying off $20k of debt, having a net worth of $7500 means a lot more, and goes further, than when you’re making $47k a year and trying to pay off $93k of debt, nearly half of which is non-dischargeable. Also keep in mind: The cost of cars and houses was lower by far in the mid-90s than it is in 2023: A new car cost just under $18k, and a house was around $133k. Compare that to 2022, when the price of a new car averaged $48,681 and a house averaged $348k.

Not to mention that our stated gross income does not, in any way, reflect more income coming to us and staying with us. Both Business Insider and the Foundation for Economic Education have fingered the cost of living crisis as overly affecting Millennials, especially in terms of being able to build wealth through traditional measures, i.e. home ownership and retirement funds. Most Millennials I know, myself included, don’t have enough in savings to cover even a month of missed pay. A majority of us are living paycheck to paycheck, not because we’re irresponsible with our money, but because our money is spent by the time it hits our checking account. With federal student loan payments set to start up again in October, a lot of us are going to be squeezed even tighter.

And before anyone says it: You can only tighten your belt so far. I’m not the only person who’s cut out almost everything that isn’t strictly essential, but honestly, it’s not helping. After all of my bills are paid, I’m lucky if I have $150 each month for gas and groceries. Shockingly, that doesn’t go far, especially in an economic climate where corporations disguise their greed with “because inflaaaaaation!” Oh, and “because inflaaaaaation!”, Millennials have now racked up almost $4 trillion in credit card debt, because it’s the only way we can afford to live right now.

Also, let’s examine the “Millennials are the most highly-educated generation in American history” claim. Because the data does not say what Twenge thinks it does. In 1990, only around 21% of American adults had a Bachelor’s degree; by 2000, a quarter of Americans did. As of 2021, that percentage has increased to slightly above 37%. The reason for that increase isn’t intellectual curiosity, which is how Twenge frames it. It’s a marketing strategy: Most white-collar jobs in 2023 require a Bachelor’s degree, at minimum. Also, Millennials in general graduated into a recession: Either from college or (as I did) from high school, so some of us got our undergrad or our Master’s while we waited for the economy to recover. (And by the way? I think it’s time we had a serious conversation about if the Great Recession ever really ended, or if it just became the new normal for our economy.) As Millennials got more and more education to wait out the recession, hiring managers started bumping up their basic education requirements along with them.

However, I do want to point out that not all Millennials have college degrees. In fact, in 2020, UC Berkeley questioned the claim that Millennials are the most-educated generation, and their research showed that only about 35% of Millennials had completed a four-year degree by age 29. Furthermore, in contrast to Twenge’s claim that Millennials are the most-educated generation, UC Berkeley states that “Millennials will likely have the highest college attainment rate in the coming years” (emphasis mine). I know that a lot of Millennials, myself included, who dropped out of college before getting their degree (often due to financial or physical/mental health issues) did go back and finish our degrees during the pandemic. But again, not necessarily because we wanted to. Instead, it was because a lot of us had been furloughed or straight-up laid off from our jobs. It was just another waiting game: None of us knew, in 2020, how long the pandemic would last, or how long we’d be in quarantine, and because no one knew, it seemed reasonable to use the time to just finish our degrees. Which is pretty typical, as college enrollment increases during economic downturns. And it came at a cost: Because scholarships are both difficult to get and almost universally aimed at people aged 16-24, older college students are often forced to take out student loans to pay for their education.

So yeah, we’re more educated than Boomers, but we’ll pay for it for the rest of our lives, in more ways than one.

Having student loan debt very often disqualifies a person for a mortgage, so, of the 47% of Millennials that are homeowners, I think most fall into one of three categories, as far as this topic goes: (1) They were able to graduate from college without any student loan debt or such a small amount that they/their families were able to pay it off quickly, meaning they were more likely to get a high-paying job right out the gate, (2) Their families were able to help them with a down payment, or (3) They didn’t go to college at all, just went to work/enlisted in the military/entered a skilled trade (where you can work your way into a six-figure job very quickly) straight out of high school, and never had any student loan debt to begin with.

Another problem with Twenge’s assessments is, of course, that she’s basing them off of surveys whose results were published in 2019. Which was, literally, a different world. Take the price of food: In 2019, a loaf of white bread cost $1.30, a dozen eggs cost $1.40, milk cost $3.04 per gallon, and bacon cost $5.61/lb. In 2023, a loaf of white bread in my area is $1.99, eggs are $1.99/dozen, a gallon of milk is $4.49, and halfway decent bacon is creeping up on $12/lb.

And these prices have come down significantly from where they were about a year ago. We came very, very close to having double-digit interest rates across the board in 2022, and the prices of consumer goods skyrocketed (because ain’t nothing like inflation to almost hide companies’ corporate greed, amirite?). I think most of us have economic trauma from last year; God knows I have. I mean, Hannaford, one of the staple New England grocery chains, the one I go to the most, has been charging 50 cents for single packets of Maruchan ramen for the past year, and advertising it like it’s some kind of steal!

Mortgages had much lower interest rates in 2019, averaging around 3.94%; earlier this year, when my mortgage company pissed me the fuck off and I looked into refinancing, I couldn’t find any refi’s that had any lower than a 6% interest rate, and since my loan is locked in at 2.99%, nah. No. Not worth it. //side-eyes my lender// But once the housing market pulls a 2008, I am so fucking gone.

There’s also the question of how home-owning Millennials came into home ownership. Twenge references this Buzzfeed list (Seriously?! Using a Buzzfeed listicle as your source?! The Prime of Miss Jean Twenge this ain’t!) and picks on the number 2 entry, the person who got hit by a truck. She treats this as a joke. But the joke’s on you, Jean, because -and I can’t believe I have to spell this out for someone with a fucking PhD- there is no way to verify ANY of the stories on that list! Because it’s Buzzfeed, Jean! Because Buzzfeed doesn’t do any sort of quality control or verification on their listicles, Jean! Because Buzzfeed cribs these listicles from Reddit, Jean, which also does not do any sort of fact-checking, and yes, Jean, people on Reddit lie, too! And! The chances that at least half of these people are just posting whatever bullshit pops into their mind is pretty fuckin’ close to 100%, JEAN!

Jean Twenge right now

And even if, by some wild statistical anomaly, every single person on that list is telling the truth, then it reveals some pretty depressing things about lengths Millennials are being forced to go to, just to have even a chance at home ownership. Number one bought a mobile home, which is great, but a lot of states really screw over mobile home owners. There are plenty of stories of people living with their parents while working 80 hours a week, or working multiple jobs for up to ten years, to save up their down payment. Plenty admit that their parents were wealthy, meaning they didn’t have to take out student loans and were able to land high-paying jobs straight out of college or that their parents gave them money for the down payment. At least three stories, including #2, involve some type of insurance payout. Nearly all of the non-privileged ones had to sacrifice their diets, their free time, and in some cases their option to have kids, just to save up for the down payment. Plenty opted to only put down a 3% down payment, which is a solid indication that it’s becoming increasingly harder to save up a 20% down payment. Gee, I wonder why? Could it have anything to do with the average home price being almost $350k in 2022? (Also, if you put less than 20% down, you’re gonna get fucked on PMI, which lenders force you to take out, “just in case.” Source: I put 3% down on my mortgage, and I’m getting fucked on PMI.)

A 20% down payment on $350k is $70,000. Remember how the average income for Millennials is just over $47k a year? If you are making $47k/year, and you’re paying off student loans (and depending on whether those loans are federal or private, you’re paying up to 13% interest on them, and most people have both), and you have $20k of credit card debt (again, with a variable and often stupidly high interest rate up to 30%, depending on your credit score), and you have a car loan (for a used car) of around $20k (again, with an interest rate that, credit score depending, could be anywhere from 2% to 25%), and you’re paying $1937 in rent every month to boot, how the fuck are you supposed to save $70k?! Take a second job, or a better-paying one? We’re on the verge of another recession, and plenty of companies are not only not hiring, they’re laying off tens of thousands of people, sometimes even eliminating entire departments. So not only can’t you take a second job, you can’t even take another, higher-paying job, if one exists and it’s feasible for you to take it. And it’s probably not a smart move to take that job anyway, because the newest people are always the first to get laid off. In which case, not only are you out of a job, but when the recession hits, finding another job could take months or years. Job-hunting during a recession is hard at best and impossible at worst, and I know this, because I was looking for a full-time job in 2008, and I didn’t get one until ten years later.

Also, according to a recent article by RedFin, 69% of Boomers were homeowners by the time they hit 40. 62% of 40-year-olds in 2023 are homeowners, but again, this number needs context: Only Millennials who were born in 1981, 1982, and 1983 have turned, or are about to turn, 40, as of today.

Jean, hunny: If you’re going to make grand, sweeping statements about entire generations, maybe don’t focus on the oldest 1% of them? Oh, wait… You wrote Generation Me and refused to accept that Millennials weren’t born in the 70s; wildly misrepresenting entire generations based on less than 1% (if that many) of all members of them is your bread and butter.

Plus, Twenge is completely ignoring the fact that Millennials have experienced four “once in a lifetime” economic craterings in the last 23 years. First, there was the Dot-Com bust, which didn’t affect most of us directly, but I kinda hope that, at some point in the immediate future, economists will take another look at it and realize that it was the canary in the coal mine. Then there was 2008, the Great Recession and the housing market bust, which, again, we never really recovered from, as a generation. Things stabilized (arguably) from about 2010 to 2020, but then, COVID; how many people lost their jobs during COVID? And then, we “came out” of COVID (it’s ongoing, but you know, only disabled people could still die, and how quaint, these disableds thinking they’re people, /s) into literally the worst inflation since most of us were born. When the newest recession finally hits, that will be five “once in a lifetime” economic crises we’ll have experienced, before any of us are 45.

Economically, Millennials not only haven’t won in any real sense, but at this point, I don’t think we can. I’ve suspected for a long time that, even if Boomers didn’t intentionally rig the system against us, they absolutely rigged it in their favor. And if that is the case, well, to-may-to, to-mah-to. An entire generation screwing the economy for forty years straight, just because they are, almost to a man, too short-sighted and selfish to understand that they’re not the only people who live on this planet? Intent does not matter, here. The result is a generation that’s been scrambling to play catch-up, economically and temporally (that is, we’re experiencing a crisis of atemporality), without much real or reasonable success.

What Twenge either doesn’t understand, or refuses to understand, is that the goalposts for Millennials have shifted drastically. If we can be said to even have goalposts, and that’s immensely, endlessly debatable. Any observation of Millennials that doesn’t acknowledge that fact is inaccurate, but as I’ve established, Jean Twenge cares as much about facts as Ben Shapiro does about feelings.

Not to mention that it’s mainly her fault that Millennials have been kicked around so much. Generation Me is responsible for the continued infantilization and mischaracterization of Millennials, as it’s still the most popular and well-known book about our generation. Take this (incredibly cringey) article from Time, published in 2013, which took Generation Me‘s assertion that Millennials are “narcissistic” and ran a fucking ultra-marathon with it. This myth persists, in spite of recent research showing that Boomers are far more narcissistic than Millennials, and I blame that entirely on Twenge. Not only has she never backed down from that statement, in spite of all the research that debunks it, but she doubles down on it, particularly in this essay that I’m critiquing.

As a final nail in the “Millennials are all participation trophy-wielding narcissists” coffin: In 2014, a study of 1571 people by Emory University’s Emily Bianchi suggested that young adults who come of age during economic downturns are less narcissistic than those who come of age in thriving economies. These findings were echoed in a study of 30,000 people later that year. What, if anything, do you make of that, Jean?!

It’s hard for Millennials, who are genuinely struggling, to be taken seriously when the person behind the most persistent, noxious, and untrue myth about us absolutely refuses to say, “My research was flawed and my conclusions were inaccurate.” Because even when we correctly point out that (a) the economic system is rigged against us, (b) many of us are in legitimate and immediate danger from a deeply homophobic and transphobic society (as of today the ACLU is tracking 496 anti-LGBTQIA+ laws in 47 states), (c) fascism and support for it are at levels not seen since the 1930s, and (d) because of A through C, we’re not okay in any sense, we get written off and sneered at. You know, “Go away, child, the grown-ups are talking,” as if literally every single Millennial on the planet is not a whole fucking adult! Most of us are in our thirties. A few of us are in our forties. An equivalent few of us are in our late twenties.

It is really shocking and disturbing to me, how little Twenge cares about the reality of Millennials’ existence, especially those of us born from 1981 to 1991¹. She doesn’t care at all about the fact that we experienced three cataclysmic political events -Columbine, 9/11, and the War in Iraq- in the space of three years, and moreover, during our formative years. She doesn’t care at all about the fact that we graduated high school and college in not just the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, but the beginning of the most politically divided climate since the 1960s. She doesn’t care at all about the role of the internet in Millennials’ social, political, and psychological development. She gives absolutely no thought to the fact that Millennials -as Dr. Sunny Moraine pointed out- are facing never being able to retire in the context of having been lied to, and that finding this out was the big, definitive, “revealing the man behind the curtain” moment for us. She gives absolutely no thought to the reality of living with crushing amounts of non-dischargable debt, especially when we were told by our parents that this was our key to the middle class and when the interest rates on them are genuinely cruel. She gives no thought to the fact that Millennials spent our twenties and thirties working either a succession of severely underpaying entry-level jobs, or were forced to take temporary and gig work, instead of establishing ourselves in our career fields, because the latter is simply no longer an option. She gives no thought to the fact that Millennials have a shorter life expectancy than Boomers and Gen Xers, and that many of us are being felled by what sociologists have termed “deaths of despair”: Drug overdose, alcoholism, and suicide. Or that these deaths of despair are most common in the South and the Midwest, where industry is mostly gone, public schools are severely underfunded, and higher education is financially unattainable for most people. (Or that deaths of despair surge in times of economic hardship and uncertainty.) And of course, she doesn’t even try to see the connection between Millennials’ economic strife and these deaths of despair.

In essence, Twenge simply does not care, or even think about, the fact that Millennials are a generation of people who never had even the opportunity to succeed that our parents did, and that that lack of opportunity is literally killing us. And because she doesn’t think or care about this fact, it does not exist in any of her studies on us. Furthermore, she refuses to take any criticism of her work to heart, to the point where it appears to me that she’s the emotionally fragile narcissist who needs constant validation.

To be clear, I’m not the first person to criticize Jean Twenge on these grounds, nor the first to heavily imply that she’s a narcissist who projects her own narcissism and insecurities onto Millennials and Gen Z. As Malcolm Harris, a journalist and editor of The New Inquiry, pointed out in his review of Twenge’s 2017 book iGen: “Twenge is not very interested in possible financial reasons for general change. In her scholarly work, she has suggested that market cycles fluctuate rather than follow a consistent trend, and that makes economics a poor explanatory variable. In iGen, she writes off the importance of the 2007–09 recession because “[u]nemployment, one of the best indicators of how the economy is affecting real people, peaked in 2010 and then declined.” Aside from the unemployment rate being a notoriously unreliable indicator of how the economy is affecting real people, that is a profoundly incurious sentence. There have been major changes to the nature of work and employment over the past few decades, and for Twenge to more or less ignore all of it because unemployment is back under 5 percent seems like more than an error. It hints at something deeper about why the book exists.”

I feel like “profoundly incurious” perfectly sums up both Jean Twenge and her work. You can only come to the conclusion that Millennials and Gen Z are Okay, Actually, They’re Just Narcissists, if all you’re doing is looking for a snappy by-line for your next book. Twenge is, at the end of the day, providing support for Boomers’ bashing and victim-blaming of Millennials, and then bringing in “studies show” with air support.

Oh, and Jean? Hunny? Darlin’? The line, “That’s how depression hits. You wake up one morning afraid that you’re going to live.”? It’s from Prozac Nation, which was written by Elizabeth Wurtzel and published in 1994. I know this, because unlike you, I’ve actually read Prozac Nation, and I have clinical depression (and the Wellbutrin prescription to prove it). Just because it sounds like something an angsty teen would write on her Tumblr doesn’t mean a teenager came up with it. And even if an angsty Tumblr tween did come up with it, it’s a million times more clever and insightful than anything you’ve written so far. As the yutes these days say, “Do better.”

¹Elder and middle-aged Millennials are very different from younger Millennials. Not better, just different. Basically, you can split Millennials into two categories: Those of us who clearly remember 9/11 and before, and those of us who vaguely or don’t remember it. For example, I was born in 1988, so I clearly remember 9/11 and the relative political peace of the 1990s. But I have met Millennials who were born from about 1992 to 1996 who don’t remember the 90s at all, and if they remember 9/11, it’s in vague terms. And I think it really is not only an important difference, but an explanatory one. Because if, like me, you have those clear memories of the pre-9/11 world, then you also have a point of comparison and what the world was like back then, as opposed to how it currently is. The youngest Millennials tend to be a little more, well, Boomer-ish than my cohort, and I’m pretty sure it’s because they don’t have that point of comparison. They don’t know how chaotic and cynical the world became on 9/11, because this chaotic, cynical world is the only one they really know. (I notice they tend to be a lot more conservative, politically, and they haven’t quite accepted that their middle-class aspirations are probably just as DOA as older Millennials’ are.)

Last updated September 01, 2023

synapse September 01, 2023

This looks really comprehensive critique so I'm bookmarking it to read completely later. I was assigned Generation Me in college for freshman English in like 2009? 2010? --ish and I thought it was a pile of shit. so I'm glad to see you're tearing it apart.

abrawmclaren September 01, 2023

I read Twenge's book and it made me want to take a weed whacker to a field of tulips. Ugh.

Park Row Fallout September 05, 2023

Very well written and passionate. Twenge's writing on a generation she failed to identify properly is akin to The Silent Generation writing a book on Boomers that failed to take into account the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam War. And those failures would be for the same reason Twenge has written her tripe the way she has... it is not at all intended truly to be proper research from a place of curiosity or wonder. It is, imho, a marketing book drafted from the same spirit the Boomers treated the economy and planet. "I need validation and a pat on the back; screw the future Generation." Every relatively unbiased economic article I've read in the last two months has essentially mentioned "Boomers deferred payments that are now coming due" in Climate Science, Education, Government, and Economics. But, as Boomers have largely been the REAL snowflake generation, there can be no discussion that implies anything other than "hard working, boot strapping generation who knew the value of a good work ethic".

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