As a member of the “millennial” generation, also known as “Generation Y”, I am always intrigued to read articles written about us. The world seems to have endless opinions about my generation, which is understandable as we infiltrate the work force and gain more of a voice and influence over world politics, social issues, the economy, etc.
There are many people who believe that millennials lack the work ethic of previous generations, are burdened by entitlement, and expect things to be handed to them without putting forth much of an effort. I wish I could say this was false, unfortunately I know there is some truth to it – but this didn’t spring from the collective laziness of an entire generation. The snowball effect of how we ended up here started well before many of us came of age. The assertion that we, as a generation, are lazy is also a wild generalization that clearly does not include those of us that are out there literally changing the world.
There is also an obvious shift in focus happening within this generation. The ambition is changing from working towards financial stability and security to following a passion, or finding a career of value that gives one purpose. This is also contributing to the growth of our collective consciousness and global awareness. The human race is more connected than it ever has been, and I believe our generation is more focused on social equality, unity, and diversity than ever before, and many of us are finding passion and purpose in fighting for these causes. And with the resources and technology we have at our fingertips, I for one, have hope for an incredible amount of global change throughout my lifetime, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary in current world events.
But long before the horror stories of today, there was a different kind of horror taking place – the Great Depression. Coming out of that Depression era, our grandparents were clearly focused on regaining economic stability.
For anyone who’s ever taken a Psychology class, you’re probably vaguely familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s theory is depicted in a pyramid, with the top being self-actualization and reaching one’s full potential. But he argued that you cannot move up within the pyramid until you satisfy a number of more basic needs, the most basic of which are physiological needs – mainly food, water, warmth, and rest.
So, coming out of the Great Depression, many of our grandparents had been thrown back down to the bottom of the pyramid, and their primary concern was to recover the financial security needed to feed their families and put a roof over their heads. This struggle for security and stability made its way into the psyche of their children (our parents).
They were taught to strive for an education, and to work long and hard for a practical, secure, and prosperous career so that hopefully they never had to go through what their parents had experienced, and could continue on to the next level within Maslow’s pyramid. Our parents grew up watching their own parents struggle and work hard to make their lives better. They came of age with the belief that if they worked hard and did their best over a number of years, there was no reason why they couldn’t have an easier, and certainly a wealthier, adult life than their parents.
Then, as our parents started their lives and built their careers in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the economy entered a time of remarkable growth, and many of our parents did better than they had expected to. They began to have children (future millennials) during this time of unreserved optimism and opportunity. They saw the world take a drastic turn for the better since their own childhood, and raised their young children with the idea that the world was their oyster, they could be anything or do anything they wanted to be or do.
The result seems to be a generation that is all at once incredibly ambitious, entitled, and not nearly as hard working as their parents or grandparents. The lives their parents built for them no longer seem like enough. They want more – more money, bigger houses, multiple houses, more time off and means to travel the world, and yet – the general work ethic of our generation seems to have suffered as people have been taught that they deserve all of these things, and they can have them, without the emphasis on how hard they have to work to earn them.
And then, just as many of us were entering the work force or getting ready to go to college, the economy took a turn for the worse in 2008. While it might not have been quite as devastating as the Great Depression, the world was certainly no longer the place of growth and opportunity in which our parents had begun their adult lives. While not entirely caused by the financial crisis, it definitely contributed to a myriad of difficulties that hit our generation at a crucial time: stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities, shrinking home values, and immense educational debt.
A study done by the Urban Institute concluded that Generation Y will be the first since the Great Depression to be less prosperous than the previous, and not supersede their parents in wealth, stability, and well-being. Most jobs these days, even those with low hourly wages, require at least a four-year Bachelor’s degree. And according to American Student Assistance, nearly sixty percent of college students borrow money to attend school, leading to approximately $870 billion in outstanding debt for graduates, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Urban Institute’s study also states that despite the relative youth of Generation Y, they may not be able to make up this lost ground, and if they are unable to accumulate a competitive amount of wealth, they will be less able to support themselves in retirement. In a time when humans are living longer than ever, this is a truly unnerving thought. This uncertainty could have repercussions for the economy as well, as the aging Generation Y is potentially unable to save and invest, thus unable to build upon the economy left to us by our parents. Historically, it has been true that as a society grows in size and in wealth, each generation finds itself wealthier than the last at any given age. So far, this does not seem to be the case for Generation Y.
“Happiness” can be defined as Reality – Expectations. Basically, if things in life turn out better than expected, you’re happy. And if they end up worse than you expected, you’re unhappy. So while our parents entered the work force in a time of economic growth, and their reality exceeded their expectations, they were quite happy. Their optimism made its way into our psyches, and we grew up with this expectation, not knowing anything different. So then, as millennials went to college and entered the workforce, putting forth a mediocre amount of effort, but expecting incredible outcomes and benefits in the current economic climate, reality did not live up to expectations, and we became unhappy.
And even for those who do not fit into the laziness generalization, and work extremely hard, in this climate it can be hard to see the payoff to all of that work. You spend however many years in school to come out of it with thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars in debt – to what? A stunted job market and wages such that you may never pay off that debt.
Yet another facet of the millennial discussion is that of a shift in focus. Our ambitions have shifted from financial security to passion and purpose. Again, I believe the root of this change can be seen in how our parents taught us vs. how they were taught as children. Our grandparents said – get a good education, find a stable job and work hard so that you never have to struggle for food and a roof like we did. Our parents said – find something you love, follow your dreams. As opposed to stressing the importance of practicality and stability, we have grown up in a society that stresses personal fulfillment over financial security and career stability.
Google’s Ngram viewer is a device that shows the popularity of any given phrase in English, and how often it appears in print over any period of time. Research using this tool has shown that the phrase “follow your passion” has only really caught on in the past twenty years. Similarly, the phrase “a secure career” has dropped in its usage, and been replaced with “a fulfilling career”.
The question is, will this revision in goals and ambitions help us or hurt us? Sure, many people will end up broke while following their dreams. That is a reality. But what about all of the millennials who have started their own business? What about everyone implementing social change and committed to leaving the world a safer and more loving place for our children? And even the ones who do go the more corporate route – working for Facebook or Google or JPMorgan Chase. They will not sit back and accept low wages or inadequate paid maternity leave. They believe they deserve better and they know it is possible, so they will fight for it. They will fight for benefits like these to be implemented in companies all over the country, until they are the new norm.
The economic climate we find ourselves in coupled with our longing for purpose and to live our lives with passion has given birth to a generation of resourceful, creative, forward thinkers. The structure that benefited our parents so well is not holding up anymore, and we must pave the way and build something new. A new structure that is flexible and creative. In a way I believe it’s possible that our generations’ “entitlement” isn’t an altogether bad thing. People feel entitled to certain benefits, or a certain quality of life, and if they choose to not accept anything else, their only other option is to fight for what they want, and create change. And with a growing global focus, I believe the change we create will reach far beyond our own individual lives and communities.
I don’t pretend to have answers. But I do think that the conversation surrounding millennials falls somewhere at the crossroads of believing the world is ours for the taking, having the resources to follow our dreams, all while still striving to end up better off than our parents and continue in a trend of growth. This is not the time of supreme economic growth in which our parents built their careers, and our primary focus is no longer solely monetary. We are dealing with more varied financial issues, while at the same time trying to find careers in which we are both fulfilled on a personal level as well as supporting our families. If the upbringing of our parents was one end of the scale, and the pendulum swung to the other end during our upbringing, I believe we as a generation are seeking balance.
I also believe that Generation Y has and will continue to prove itself to be incredibly resilient. We grew up in the middle of the technological revolution, we’re smart, forward thinking, and globally mindful. Our collective consciousness is growing, whether or not we are all aware of it, and we hold a tremendous amount of capability and power. I would strongly urge others to not underestimate millennials.
I would like to believe our resilience, creativity, search for purpose, and thoughts to the future are unique to our generation, but in truth, these are traits of human beings. The human race has evolved tremendously due to these qualities, and I have no doubt that Generation Y will continue to contribute to that forward trend.