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What’s good about Generation Y?

Jeremy Adam Smith, Editor, Greater Good Magazine | January 28, 2013

To judge by the state of public discourse and media coverage, old people really hate Generation Y — that is, those born after 1978 or so. I was born in 1970, but this hostility toward the younger generation has always struck me as misguided, and at times even slightly crazed.

San Diego State psychologist Jean M. Twenge calls kids these days “Generation Me” and has made a career warning us of their alleged narcissism and entitlement. A raft of books and articles have indulged in moral panic over so-called “hookup culture,” which is how Baby Boomers imagine kids these days have sex. There are also gender-specific worries about Gen Y men, who apparently want to play video games and watch porn all day.

But that doesn’t describe any of the Cal students I encounter. I mean, I’m sure there’s narcissism and entitlement (which I’d characterize as American problems not specific to one age group), reckless sex (yeah, Boomers, like that never happened in the Sixties), and more screen time than is healthy–but does any of that define a generation? Is it so easy to forget the tens of thousands of Millennials who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan or taken to the streets for the Occupy movement or worked for the election of President Obama? Youth violence has actually been declining for decades, and it’s not hard to see in the social scientific averages many other positive trends.

When we at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center asked three scholars to explore the other side of Gen Y, all their contributions identified one major circumstance that older generations simply forget in their criticisms of today’s young adults: an increasingly unstable and unreliable economy.

Chief among the accusations hurled at Gen Y is that they are taking too long to become fully adult, in the sense of getting married, buying homes, and settling into careers. In “What Gen Y Needs from Parents,” developmental psychologist Diana Divecha (and mother of two Gen Y daughters) argues that there are some very good reasons why today’s young adults are taking so long to launch — and that as a result of these circumstances, parental support is becoming normal and even necessary:

My children’s generation is reaching financial independence later—thanks largely to a struggling economy, unstable employment, high housing costs, and low wages—delaying full adult responsibilities into their late 20s and even early 30s.

Because of this trend, some scholars have begun calling the period when one is 18-25 years of age “emerging adulthood”; others are calling 18-34 years “early adulthood.” But whatever the label, it’s clear that many consider this age group not fully independent. This leads parents to question their role in offering further support — or not — during this crucial period.

Parents of UC Berkeley students will find Diana’s article to be absolutely essential reading. But what can we tell their bosses? Doesn’t Gen Y’s sense of entitlement drive them to skip around from job to job and try to circumvent traditional dues-paying? In “Can Gen Y Fix our Schools?” our education director, Vicki Zakrzewski, acknowledges that Gen Y teachers are leaving the profession in droves — a fact often held up as a result of their short attention spans and sense of entitlement.

But Vicki points out the obvious: Schools today are just not good places to work. Young teachers are faced with annual budget cuts and chronic instability — in some districts, young teachers are laid off at the end of every year as a precautionary measure in case the budget isn’t there to keep them — and it is hard for all but the most committed to not look for other opportunities. Moreover, many of the non-monetary needs of Gen Y–for more collaboration and more recognition of accomplishment–are actually long-overdue school reforms. Reviewing the research, Vicki argues that meeting the needs of young teachers would make schools better, not worse.

In her key contribution, “What’s Good about Generation Y?”, Canadian sociologist Karen Foster points out that there are very substantial methodological and conceptual problems with the generational research. Existing studies fail to account for the ways in which people change as they grow, or for how pathways to adulthood have changed over time; fail to account for how concepts like “community,” “sexuality,” “environment,” and “politics” evolve in response to changing social, technological, and economic circumstances; fail to look at the world through the eyes of Gen Y, instead evaluating them against the Baby Boomers as a kind of baseline. Finally, they depend upon completely artificial ways of slicing time, when comparing people of different age groups. She writes:

This is partly why, in my own research, I’ve argued that “generation” is a matter of ideas rather than a category of people. And those ideas grow in response to the state of the economy, the spread of technologies, and the contradictions of politics — as well as the zeitgeist of the day, the spirit of the times.

So what positive ideas does “Generation Y” stand for? It turns out that 20- and 30-somethings are looking for more than just a job. They want work that is meaningful and consistent with their socially and environmentally responsible values. They’re disaffected, to be sure, but that disaffection conceals a drive toward more caring, compassionate relationships and away from materialism. And in these ways, they’re not so very different from Boomers and Generation X.

I hope you’ll read Karen’s terrific essay, and consider sharing your own experience or information as a comment on the site. We are sponsoring a Twitter chat with other Gen Y researchers and commentators–including those who have a more pessimistic view–on Tuesday at 4 pm PST / 7 pm EST. Look for the #GenYChat hashtag, and bring your questions!

Comments to “What’s good about Generation Y?

  1. Interesting article. For someone who belongs in the Gen Y or Millennials, I definitely agree that our generation is more open when it comes to different matters. We are more liberal on a plethora of topics which include sex (but not only sex). We do not settle for a specific career since we want to challenge ourself. We know our worth and we refused to be tied in the norms of the society.

  2. Very interesting article. I think that narcissism is a serious problem for this generation. Too often parents create these narcissistic viewpoints by becoming overly involved, uber supportive or “living through” their child’s accomplishments. The parents are overly positive and build up the child’s accomplishments leading them to want that from all of their friendships and relationships later in life. What these parents perceive as loving and supportive actions are actually very harmful to their children. I recently read another article on the topic that I found to be very interesting and informative,, I highly recommend it!

  3. Sigh. Yes, Kevin Z. managed to single-handedly undermine the point of the article and make an entire generation look bad. But let’s hasten to note that Kevin is just one person, and one person — or even a hundred thousand like him — do not a generation make.

    It’s also worth noting that rapid technological change has been a fact of life for Americans going back generations — the Boomers were the first to grow up with TV, for example, and proved themselves to be adept manipulators of broadcast media.

    Actually, the most amusing thing about Kevin’s comment is the equation of the Internet with “the world.” There is more to the world than the Internet…but that’s something Kevin will have to find out for himself.

  4. “It turns out that 20- and 30-somethings are looking for more than just a job. They want work that is meaningful and consistent […] And in these ways, they’re not so very different from Boomers and Generation X.”

    Gotcha. So the most salient difference about my generation is that we’re not different than the generations that came before us. Really?

    I work in Marketing, and conversing with anyone over the age of 30 about how to sell products online is like speaking Russian with someone who learned it as a second language, their grasp of this environment is so piecemeal and halfhearted.

    We’re the first generation to grow up in tandem with the Internet. We’re better poised for the world than our immediate elders. If we seem to others entitled and narcissistic, it’s for damn good reason.

    • You may be the first to grow up with the internet, and you may have developed unique and effective online marketing strategies (at the expense of our privacy), but lets not forget who invented that internet you’re so dependent on. You’re welcome. Now have some respect for those who made your way of life possible.

      • We will all stand on the shoulders of giants when mentioning any accomplishments. Did you invent the internet Mike L? Most likely not. Whatever you did accomplish, someone brought mankind to some milestone that made THAT possible.

        We, however, have to deal with certain “milestones” previous generations have brought to our doorstep: a global financial crisis, a buckling healthcare system, and an increasingly divided partisan political system, to name a few.

      • The previous generation may have created the internet, but my generation has utilized it much more and now it is an actual tool. A lot of the country, maybe even the world, believes the internet is a necessity, and should be in every household. A millennial created Facebook, and a lot of people use that too. A millennial created a test to detect pancreatic cancer. A millennial created a 3D-printable prosthetic arm. But, go ahead, say the internet is the greatest invention.

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