Mar 22, 2009

I'm always amused by portrayals of Gen Y in the media...

More often than not, the stories about my generation go something like this: Gen Y'ers are spoiled, over-indulged brats who have been given everything they've ever wanted by parents who have made sure they have never failed and are still doing ridiculous stuff like calling their children's bosses to make sure their kids are being treated right. Gen Y have never done anything for themselves, will never do anything for themselves, and generally speaking, DOOOOOOM!¹

Honestly, I can't say that the critique is entirely off the mark. We have grown up in an age of unprecedented privilege and wealth, and for those who grew up in a certain social set (certainly not the one I grew up in, but I've known those for whom this would apply) many Millennials have been told their entire lives that the sun shone out of their perfect little backsides. And yes, the parents of some of my cohorts have definitely shown up at the doors of our college professors and bosses to defend us in a way that was completely inappropriate. (Much to the rest of our generation's chagrin.)

That being said, I think a lot of people get our generation wrong. Do we expect better for ourselves? Yes, we do. But our generation has proven itself to be hard working and willing to do whatever possible to make "it" (whatever "it" is) happen. Are we unaccustomed to failure? Yes, to an extent. Most of us grew up in a period with little economic or political difficulty, where our parents also notably never really experienced failure. But as this writer points out, our generation's overwhelming positivity and can-do attitude means that failure, for most of us, automatically is spun into something positive or productive.

While our generation has experienced less hardship and more undeserved praise, we haven't used that as an excuse for laziness. Millennials are incredibly civic-minded, with 80% of all Gen Y'ers volunteering in the past year. (We prefer to work for companies that share our social ideals—that is to say, are socially and environmentally responsible.) Gen Y is rapidly making a name for itself as an entrepreneurial generation, with many of those in our cohort starting highly profitable and successful companies before they're even out of their 20s. You will also find that more and more in our generation have taken part in success-focused activities all our lives, cultivating skills that make us highly competitive and productive in the workplace. Part of the reason why failure is so unfamiliar to us is because we've spent our entire lives focused so wholly on succeeding at whatever we do. And even when we have failed, we've powered ahead into new endeavors where we will do our damnedest to make sure we don't fail again.

One of the comments on my generation that you routinely see is that while we're very "high maintenance," we're also very hard working. And while there are certainly things you could find obnoxious or hard to deal with about my generation, the truth is, I think we're going to change the way things are done in the market. We've seen the way the generations before us (the Boomers and Gen X) devoted themselves to a business model that was completely unsustainable, unfulfilling, and often, not as efficient or as effective as it could have been. Because we've always been taught to look at the world not only as a problem to be solved, but as a problem that we could solve ourselves, we are unlikely to tolerate unsatisfactory or unproductive business practices, methods or environments just because "that's the way it's always been" or because that's the way we are told to do it. That's not the way we work. In the end, we might become one of the most productive generations in a very long time. Or, we might become a bunch of indulgent whining do-nothings who think updating our twitter accounts is "work." That's what people keep saying about us, but somehow, I can't see that happening...

Only time will tell. For now, most Gen Y'ers are still working on getting through school or trying to break into/keep jobs in a job market where unemployment for our cohort is twice as high as it is for older workers. On the whole though, I'm incredibly optimistic about my generation. While I usually laugh at the hyper-negative portrayals of my generation that I see so frequently in the media, I can't help but be frustrated at the commentary that writes us all off as selfish, entitled snots. I know in part this kind of negativity comes from the natural inclination to think the generations that come after you are going to send the world hurtling toward a dramatic end, but I can't help but wonder if maybe there's not something more to this particular critique. Maybe it's just resentment that we have, on the whole, been a very lucky generation and have experienced luxury to an extent that no generation before us has. Maybe it's simply Boomer narcissism to believe that nothing better will ever happen to the world than the Boomers. (*snort*) But maybe also some of it is a little bit of fear. It's unlikely that business will look the same after our generation gets through with it. The model we expect is fairly different from what exists now, and when we can't find what we want, Gen Y'ers more often than not just start creating it ourselves. Do the older generations see us as a threat?

I'm always kind of curious how other Gen Y'ers view our generation, whether they feel the critiques directed at us are accurate or overblown and what concerns they have about our transition into adulthood. Everyone is predicting apocalypse—or at the very least, a very rude awakening. What do you think when you read these critiques?

UPDATE: Just a few minutes after I published this post, I came across a video about our generation on Jamie Varon's twitter. (I love when that happens!) It's about our generation, the Millennials, or as this video calls us, "Generation WE." It talks a lot about the strengths and challenges of our generation. It nails the traits that I think are not only good about our generation, but which are completely vital to the long-term survival and success of our generation. Watch it. It embodies the exact kind of optimism and sense of social responsibility that I discussed our generation having.

Generation WE: The Movement Begins... from Generation We on Vimeo.

¹ It's worth noting that the example the author closes with (a young man in the 18th century who didn't need his parents help getting him a job when he was 12) is in fact, completely and totally wrong. For centuries, parents in well-to-do families have been helping their high-born brats end up in the best marriages, the best jobs, and the best situations in general. I'm not arguing that it's a good thing, but it's not as if parents using their wealth, power or know-how to get their children into a better life is a new thing. The only thing new about it is that this mentality of mommy and daddy wrangling their kids a good job or a better paycheck now extends to the middle class--not just the extremely wealthy.


  1. I'm Gen X, but I agree with your assessment of Millennials/Gen Y. I have confidence that Millennials will work hard and are civic-minded. The real question is what ideals will your generation choose to follow? I don't doubt you will work hard to achieve those ideals, but the end result depends on what you aim for...

  2. I think that it is a shame to have 'experts' projecting things that have not even happened yet. We have seen how well experts do predicting the stock market, and I do not believe these generational experts are any different. First, the Millennials have just begun to enter the workforce, and to say that they are lazy or disloyal before researching them for even five years in a corporate environment is foolish. However, since there is so little scientific data it allows people to perpetuate stereotypes of Gen Ys. Luckily, studies are finally emerging that debunk these myths. Here are a couple for you to look at and use:

    An article on Millennials and how a scientific survey shows that they are engaged at work:

    Survey by PWC that shows Millennials are no less loyal than other generations:

    I also find it interesting that when you look at articles written about people under 20, they always discuss how involved these people are in their local community: juggling academics, sports, and doing community service. However, as soon as these over-achievers turn 21, all of the articles in the media suddenly shift and say that Millennials cannot succeed because they are entitled and lazy. It seems odd that a person who was praised for how active and innovative they are all of the sudden sound like someone who cannot even tie their own shoes without their parent's help.

    This is why I think it is important to constantly push back on the experts/stereotypes, and luckily we now have mediums like blogs to do so.

  3. Brett, thank you so much for your fantastic reply! I really appreciate the links. :)

  4. I hate the fact that Gen Y's get so much negative attention.
    We, like the generations have had more opportunites than the last.
    In some ways I think this makes us a target.
    I don't like to aim high, because I don't like to fail. But I love to do things I'm good at because I know i'll suceed.
    Does that make me a Gen Y?
    Or is it just part of my personality?

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