People / Psychology / Work

“The Typical Millennial”: Changing the Conversation About Generation Y

“Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”

–          George Orwell

Every generation, when young, is ambitious at its best and narcissistic at its worst. When old, every generation is wise at its best, and condescending at its worst. Without exception. Given the fact that we know this to be a truth, why is there such noise when the young adults of the time find a new way to stand out and to be loud and different? Why is there noise when we see them struggle with the social and economic environment that was created for them, and learn to adapt to it, if we know that they will learn to manage, and grow old, comfortable, and calm in the same way as every generation before them had done?

There is such buzz today around Generation Y – those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, who are also known as the Millennial Generation, or sometimes the “Me Generation” (sorry, Baby Boomers – Gen Y has apparently outdone you in their proficiency to focus on “Me”). Perhaps this is amplified by the information age that we live in – all content propagates so easily on the internet. Or perhaps I am noticing it more because I am part of this group, which has been put into such a spotlight as of late. Like many of my peers I am growing frustrated at the associations that have been pinned onto us: lazy, entitled, narcissistic, selfish. I have seen articles giving parents advice on how to deal with our inability to be self-sufficient (we will not leave home or show financial savvy unless kicked out and forced to manage on our own), articles giving managers advice on how to keep us involved at work (since we have short attention spans and are hardly professional), and of course nobody can forget this cover story that Time Magazine ran in 2013:

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There is now a counter-revolution, of sorts, and many articles about Generation Y speak more to the ways in which we are not the self-centered, entitled free-loaders that the stereotype suggests. Many people now agree that it isn’t fair to single out the current generation of young people, and assign broad generalizations with such enthusiasm. However, I’d like to argue that the sheer amount of Gen-Y-shaming that has already gone on isn’t just unfair but harmful to us as a society. Here are a few reasons why.

(1) It suggests that nature is more at work than nurture. The Baby Boomers and those in Gen X calling Gen Y entitled and lazy often conveniently forget that they raised this generation. There are no traits that are completely inherent in individuals, and perhaps those qualities that we are quick to label as annoying were defense mechanisms for the environment in which Gen Y grew up. A focus on a personal brand is a direct result of pressure to compete with many others when a greater scope of personal details are on display than ever before. In high school, a social personal brand is managed with selfies and Instagram accounts. For young adults, a professional personal brand is managed with LinkedIn and appropriately documented leisure activities that add up to a well-balanced personality. This is simply how Gen Y competes.

(2) It underestimates challenges that Generation Y has been faced with. Adjectives such as “lazy” are particularly hurtful, because Gen Y has been presented with very real roadblocks to making a successful living. Costs of education have simply soared; previously lucrative fields of work have been saturated by competition; the financial crisis of 2008 was frightening to see from the point of view of a first-year business student. Recruitment all but froze for some time and my older peers were out of work for years after graduating, in many cases. In spite of all this, I would not generalize Gen Y to be unsuccessful and resigned. I would argue that this age group has as much drive to succeed as with any other. We are working and in some cases still recovering from a slow start, but to simply quit and sit back was never a realistic option for myself or my peers – we are not nearly as “privileged” or “entitled” as the stereotype indicates.

(3) It is demoralizing, and provides an excuse to those few individuals who are looking for one. Besides the fact that generalizations are unfair to most of the people in Gen Y who work hard, telling younger Gen Y members that they are part of a group of people who are lazy and are sure to fail in this world is grossly unproductive. I’m talking about the crowd born between 1995 – 2000 who are now graduating high school and listening to the Gen Y conversation. No good will come from labeling them as hopeless before they enter the workforce. Interestingly, and luckily, I haven’t seen this group resign to the stereotype at all. Perhaps this is because they, like the rest of Gen Y, are not the doomed generation they have been falsely identified as.

(4) It creates preconceptions in relationships – personal as well as professional. I am lucky to currently be part of a work group that is largely comprised of fellow Gen Y members, who are highly professional, intelligent, and able to manage difficult situations with determination and hard work. I think that because many of us are young, there is no prejudice against our age among any other groups we work with. However, I know for a fact that if I were part of an older group, I would not want to disclose or discuss my age too quickly. I believe that this is an instinct that some of us develop to disassociate ourselves from “the stereotype.” This argument can surely apply to any generation before us, but again, due to the unusually large focus on Gen Y specifically, this generation is affected by this age-conscience to a greater degree than necessary.

(5) It does not embrace change. A big part of the Gen Y discussion centers around technology, the speed of things, the inability to stay in one spot for too long. This is written off as fickleness and a lack of commitment. It is so easy to turn these same characteristics around and paint them in a positive light: Gen Y is competitive and feels the need to stay relevant, updating their skills and competencies, both socially and professionally. They leverage a multitude of networks and information sources to do so, developing fantastic time management and multi-tasking skills. They do not waste time in places, positions, and situations that are not value-added, but once they find a worthwhile investment of their effort, they will be sure to stick with it and make the most of it to better themselves, and their communities. They are finding ways to improve and adapt, and refuse to succumb into irrelevance.

I am guilty of talking about Gen Y in its most stereotypical form. I’ve agreed (and still agree) with articles like this one, calling for a psychological reality check for the Millennials who are still settling into their adult lives. However, I believe that we can all change the angle of the conversation slightly, and stop singling out Gen Y as the first generation that is self-conscious and different and young. The conversation would be better if we all became aware of how deep time is and how many generations before us were young, and middle-aged, and old, and how similar each one of them was to the next.

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Further reading: The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe discusses the generational cycles that the world has seen from the middle ages onwards, explaining how each generation does have unique characteristics, but placing them in a context of societal change and individual adaptation. A website is also available outlining some of their ideas.

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