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Generation Y

Millennial Tension: The Generation-Y Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

How do Generation Y reconcile their inflated sense of their own economic value with the looming prospect of ever declining incomes and living standards?

I recently had the chance to talk to the son of one of my colleagues. He stopped by the office the other day to have lunch with his mother. He was  giddy with the prospect of his impending graduation from college. Always interested in what members of Generation Y imagine the future to bring, I asked him what career he’d like to enter into upon graduating. With a self-satisfied smile on his face, he proudly exclaimed, “Finance!” When I asked why he wanted to go into finance, he answered, “Because I’ll be able to go into the office for maybe five or ten hours a week and bring home about $200,000 a year — to start.” He then proceeded to enumerate all the baubles he was going to buy with his easily-earned pile of cash: Beamers and bottles of Moët, silicon-enhanced female chests straining against blouses, yachts, private coves and all the rest. He was going to live the Goldman Sachs dream, he declared, and he wasn’t going to have to lift a finger to do it.

Perhaps this prodigal son of my co-worker can achieve such a standard of living skimming the American economy for its rapidly dwindling social surplus, but I doubt he can do it in five to ten hours a week. Yet it seems members of Generation Y are convinced they can do it, despite one of the worst recessions in recent American history. The March 2010 edition of The Atlantic Monthly features an article by Don Peck entitled “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America.” Peck reports:

Many of today’s young adults seem temperamentally unprepared for the circumstances in which they now find themselves. Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has carefully compared the attitudes of today’s young adults to those of previous generations when they were the same age. Using national survey data, she’s found that to an unprecedented degree, people who graduated from high school in the 2000s dislike the idea of work for work’s sake, and expect jobs and career to be tailored to their interests and lifestyle. Yet they also have much higher material expectations than previous generations, and believe financial success is extremely important. “There’s this idea that, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to work, but I’m still going to get all the stuff I want,’” Twenge told me. “It’s a generation in which every kid has been told, ‘You can be anything you want. You’re special.’”

This profound disconnect characterizing Gen-Yer’s self-perceptions is partly due to the absurd tendency of modern parents constantly to enforce that sense that their child is unique and special even when the child in question might be quite unremarkable. Peck goes on to cite Jean Twenge and he her 2006 book, Generation Me:

Twenge notes that self-esteem in children began rising sharply around 1980, and hasn’t stopped since. By 1999, according to one survey, 91 percent of teens described themselves as responsible, 74 percent as physically attractive, and 79 percent as very intelligent. (More than 40 percent of teens also expected that they would be earning $75,000 a year or more by age 30; the median salary made by a 30-year-old was $27,000 that year.) Twenge attributes the shift to broad changes in parenting styles and teaching methods, in response to the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what. As the years have passed, efforts to boost self-esteem—and to decouple it from performance—have become widespread.

Certainly this is a disaster in the making. When an entire generation (Yes: there are always exceptions) expects instant success and riches, but then lacks the problem-solving and coping skills to handle not getting those riches immediately, well, there’s not a WPA-like organization powerful enough to channel the impotent and muddle-minded rage that is bound to result. Which is sad, because while recessions tend to demoralize as they impoverish, they also force one to fall back upon certain intellectual and spiritual resources. Long bouts of unemployment (eased, one hopes, by benefits extended into the far future) can allow a formerly overworked person to pursue hobbies and intellectual avenues they otherwise lacked time for — avenues that might empower and enlighten. But according to Twenge, Generation Y lacks the very intellectual stuff to pursue those avenues; they’re too busy mirror-gazing, Facebooking, and waiting for that dream job to bounce into their laps.

Generation Y is the largest generation yet. There’s a lot of potential for political change tied up with them because of sheer numbers alone. The shock of not landing that $175,000 a year job by age 24 might just catapult them into some sort of consciousness, but it also might just make for an embittered, paralyzed mass of unweened adults instead.

Road to nowhere: Generation-Y career hopeful spins his wheels.

But it’s hard not to imagine that their expectant indolence was constructed from outside. They are, after all, a generation fully immersed in the wide and deep stream of junk culture. From day one, they’ve been the captive audience of the mass marketers and social psychologists, so their optimism isn’t surprising, given that they’ve been trained from the get go to be cheerful consumers until the end.

Gen-Yer optimism remains weirdly decoupled from any real sense of what it means actually to have to work for a living.

And yet, Gen-Yer optimism remains weirdly decoupled from any real sense of what it means actually to have to work for a living. The wage system is something altogether alien. The wildly inflated salaries this cohort pay themselves in their imaginings they regard simply as a sinecure or annuity owed them by a world undeservingly graced by their fabulousness. If such fabulousness comes at a price in the low six figures (to start, of course), then the world has gotten off cheap. At the risk of reductive thinking, I can’t help but think that television and cinema are to blame for this staggeringly delusional, unfathomably narcissistic way of thinking. If one derives her worldview, at least in part, from the kinds modeled for her most frequently, then one need look no further than the various dramas and comedies of the large and small screen. Despite their differences in setting, situation and conceit, these movies and programs display a single common tendency, which involves the representation — or, more accurately, non-representation — of work. Very little does one see of people engaged in the drudgery necessary to keep the power on and food on the table. Rather, what little is seen of the workplace (the work in most cases is of a glamorous sort) usually involves those odd moments of goofing off, goldbricking and whatnot. No sooner is the office or studio glanced at than the story hurries to another scene — a character’s home, a bar, what have you — as if made anxious to linger so long over anything which even offers the merest suggestion of economic necessity.

If, on the other hand, the film or program cannot easily repress suggestions of economic necessity for practical reasons (the show may be set in a workplace, or may involve people of a certain profession), then it effects its bit of labor-denying legerdemain by making actual work incidental to the real matter of the show. The duties characters were ostensibly hired to perform become incidental to the personal drama, the various couplings, pairings, divisions and intrigues among the characters: Reviving a gunshot victim occasions Dr. Studly’s confessio amantis to Nurse Lonelyheart as they lean over a sucking chest wound and gaze meaningfully at each other. The push to assemble a blockbuster legal defense leads to an all-nighter with ordered-in Chinese food and domestic beer. Two rival associates, both promising young hotshots, drop the cudgels of their long-standing rivalry and learn that they need to cooperate. You get the picture.

Gen-Yers are nonplussed when hotness and ample self-esteem don’t send them hurtling pass their co-workers into the executive boardroom.

Regardless which narrative tack a film or program takes, the emphasis is the same: Personal matters are the real business of life, and work is that thing one does — offscreen — in the downtime between soul kisses, trysts or other escapades. Anyone who has had a job in the real world can report that bringing one’s personal life into the workplace is strenuously discouraged as a drag on one’s productivity. But one would never know this if all she had to go by was Hollywood. And, lacking much sustained or significant engagement with the real world for having been cosseted and micro-parented by their anxious Boomer parents, Gen-Y’ers seem incapable of drawing a clear distinction between their personal and professional lives largely because of all the television and cinema they’ve imbibed. They are thus nonplussed when hotness and ample self-esteem don’t send them hurtling pass their co-workers into the executive boardroom.

And how different child-rearing modes were during yesteryear! I recently came across a 1933 home economics manual, within which was a chapter on the proper means of raising an American child. The first mistake in child rearing, the manual suggests, is “inviting whims”: the early-twentieth-century child had to conform to the realities of family life, realities that were usually quite harsh because of … well … the bad economic depression going on then. That didn’t mean that children were denied pleasure — quite the opposite, in fact. The depression-era child was, at least according to ideal situations depicted in home economics textbooks, a valued and respected member of the family. But it was not considered an always already special, unique human being; it had to learn to craft that uniqueness and specialness through discipline and restraint. It’s hard not to imagine this lesson in “bucking up” came in useful during the years following the depression and well into the war years.If anything, it made for a generation responsible for the American glory years, the dessicated carcass of which the current generation wishes to scavenge — with a minimum of effort but a maximum of gain.

Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.


5 Responses to “Millennial Tension: The Generation-Y Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”

  1. Interesting blog, Ylajali, but it’s missing an important part of the equation: Generation Jones (between the Boomers and Generation X). Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten lots of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press’ annual Trend Report chose the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009. Here’s a page with a good overview of recent media interest in GenJones: http://generationjones.com/2009latest.html

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. And most analysts now see generations as getting shorter (usually 10-15 years now), partly because of the acceleration of culture. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978
    Generation Y/Millennials: 1979-1993

    Posted by TGR500 | February 26, 2010, 3:27 pm
    • Thanks for the comment. I’d never heard of “Generation Jones” before; I’m going to check out the link you provided. I wonder if Douglas Coupland’s Generation X was really referring to Generation Jones…

      Posted by Ylajali Hansen | February 26, 2010, 4:46 pm
  2. Many members of Gen-Y have been living with this reality for at least 4 years now if they haven’t gone to grad school. The wage system hardly seems alien to someone who’s been a part of it since before the beginning of this new Depression. It would be interesting to know how they actually are meeting these challenges rather than speculating about what shape this disaster might take.

    Posted by Nickelas | February 26, 2010, 5:18 pm
  3. Do you think that there is something slightly leading in the question “What career he’d like”?

    In other words, the tendency that you are describing is partly formed in your own imagination already, namely “career”. How come you didn’t ask: “What would you like to do with your life, are there places you’d like to visit, virtues you’d like to possess, social relations you would like to establish, people you’d like to help?” ??

    Posted by colono | February 28, 2010, 9:33 am
  4. “Very little does one see of people engaged in the drudgery necessary to keep the power on and food on the table.[…] Regardless which narrative tack a film or program takes, the emphasis is the same: Personal matters are the real business of life, and work is that thing one does — offscreen — in the downtime between soul kisses, trysts or other escapades.”

    While I understand part of the point here is that mass media attempts to distort or efface economic reality beneath a veneer of pop-culture bliss, I couldn’t help but be disturbed by this article, portions of which seemed like they could’ve been lifted straight out of the National Review. For a blog that quotes Marcuse (for example) quite often, it seems strange to be criticizing Gen-Yers for their supposed prioritization of personal life and love and happiness over “the drudgery neccessary to keep food on the table.” Isn’t the ultimate goal to create an economic system in which we are *all* able to have both (yes) meaningful work and sufficient time for a rich and meaningful personal/inner life?

    From that perspective, the Y Generation’s (supposed) unwillingness to buy into a model of 60-hour a week office work and little to no time for family and personal pursuits seems praiseworthy rather than lamentable – and potentially even radical. I can see a problem in this sense of privilege when it remains on the level of individual entitlement (“I deserve more than everyone else”) but on a broader level the prioritization of the personal might be a refreshing reminder that “work” should exist towards the enrichment of human existence, rather than the reverse. Or are you seriously suggesting that we all embrace a life of necessary “drudgery”?

    Last, the broad generalizations of the “Y Generation” tend to scare me off – both in a general sense (I prefer to talk about human beings as individuals rather than ants) and in that the lament over the wayward “new” generation is probably as old as society itself. That and the nostalgic harking towards a mythologized “great” generation makes the piece feel more regressive than emergant/revolutionary.

    Maybe I’m just saying that as, regardless of the definition, I am a Gen-Yer myself (born in 1985). But wikipedia has it that Gen Y refers to anyone born after 1974, by which standard you yourself would be a part of the very wayward youth you set out to criticize, no?

    Posted by bennettabroad | March 1, 2010, 11:38 am

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