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Talkin' Bout My Generation...

By Christopher Schonberger

In a recent Newsweek article called “Narcissists in Neverland,” Emily Vencat takes us Gen-Yers to task for making financial sacrifices early in our adult lives while forcing our parents to postpone their retirement to keep us going. She speaks to sociologist Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, who basically claims that there is an underlying current of selfishness that motivates today’s twentysomethings—a generation raised on “bad advice,” like “believe in yourself and you can do anything.”

That is bad advice, no doubt, but I would caution Ms. Twenge with a yellow card and tell her that sometimes it’s not quite as simple as all that. “Gen-Y” has been dissected by the press a lot recently, even making the cover story in Fortune back in May, but it’s clear that no one has bothered to really find out what we have to say for ourselves. Let’s start with the basics: we have never referred to ourselves as “Gen Y.” We also don’t believe that all the “facts” that are bandied about are as apocalyptic as Twenge and others make them seem. Here are a few of the favorites:

  • “Around the developed world, more and more twentysomethings are staying home with their moms and dads so they can pursue their interests instead of worrying about secure jobs that will pay off mortgages.” (This is even worse in Europe, and I read somewhere recently that in Italy they are even offering tax benefits to young men who move at least 50 miles away from their parents.)
  • A study shows that “under-30s would overwhelmingly rather “pursue their passions” than “make lots of money,” with 73 percent of young Spaniards and two-thirds of Americans and Canadians backing that statement.”
  • Achieving work-life balance is the number one goal of twentysomethings in the workforce.

Is this indicative of an entitled and somewhat spoiled young populace? Yes, I think that’s fair to say. But are there some positives? Of course.

Where is the progress?

I tend to agree that the sense of entitlement that characterizes this generation can be irksome, but I see more of the negative aspects of this trend in the people who do work straight out of college than those who go off to volunteer, travel, and “find themselves.” We are a generation of know-it-alls, and we have assumed proficiency with “technology” and the Internet which makes us feel like we have something intensely valuable to offer as soon as we enter the workplace. After a few weeks, we think we should be running the place. I see this attitude all the time.

But let me play the other side of the ball for a second: why are the kids who are volunteering and pursuing their passions being lambasted? What was the point of the Baby Boomers’ success if their offspring does not gain anything new? Why should the old paradigm of “graduate college, move out, get a career, get married, have some kids” still apply if the urgency to do so is not as great? Times have changed, and maybe it’s even a good thing, on the whole, that some (fortunate) young people have the ability to think beyond a “pay the bills” mentality and try to do something positive or creative. It’s easy to knock the do-gooders and the soul-searchers—I do it all the time—because the fact is a lot of them are phonies who just don’t want to “grow up.” But some of these people will do great things, and it’s because they aren’t immediately stifled by soul-crushing careers.

The risk-averse generation

While the article paints Generation Y as a bunch of kids hanging out in their childhood bedroom and dreaming up something interesting to do with their lives, these are actually just the brave ones. For a generation with so much alleged freedom and financial support to fall back on, twentysomethings in my experience are often extremely risk-averse. This is why I watch the vast majority of my classmates go down pre-established routes of “success”—i.e., med school, law school, I-banking, consulting. It is the allure of these money- and prestige-driven, risk-free, and socially acceptable “tracks to success” that pulls many people in, and while they might be lauded by Twenge and her cohorts, I see this as a disturbing trend that displays a fear of taking risks.

Thirty’s the new twenty

When Jay-Z said this on Kingdom Come, he basically meant that is cooler to wear suits and button-ups than throwback jerseys and sneakers. In short, he was encouraging people to grow up. When Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, editor of “Emerging Adults in America,” says it, he means that people are waiting until they’re thirty to move out of their parents’ house, get married, and pay mortgages. Slightly more condescending and much less fun. But here’s the rub: Jay-Z is enjoying being thirty because he got to mess around so much as a youngster. The big question is whether the “mid-life crisis” will expire with this generation as the regret of “never doing what you wanted to do” will be less severe. If it does, maybe taking a few years in “Neverland” isn’t so bad…

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