Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Delusional Thinking About Generation Y

A recent article at The Huffington Post titled Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy has been stirring up controversy lately. In the article, the claim is made that Millennials are displeased with their lot in life not because they've been dealt a bad hand economically or personally, but because they are convinced they're special, they're overly ambitious, and they're delusional. If you think this summation of the article is even slightly inaccurate, read it for yourself. There have already been some great responses, but there are a few additional points I'd like to make.

I was born in 1985, so by most estimates I am among Generation Y, but just on the cusp of it to where I was also once included among Generation X. In the Huff-Po article, they define Generation Y as those born from the late 70s to the mid 90s, which overlaps ambiguously with other definitions of Generation X as extending to the early 80s, as well as other definitions of Generation Y which claim a starting range as late as 1983. There are problems with lumping all different types of people, from different environments, into such vague categories to begin with, but this is one major reason I hate generational labels. The lie to such labels is that they imply that practically all men of the Greatest Generation were honorable men, or that practically every one of the Baby Boomers experimented with drugs and had lots and lots of unprotected sex. We class things by labels because of trends and stereotypes, but when we begin to use those labels to further said stereotypes, we venture past the domains of history and anthropology and into the domain of prejudice.

I could provide anecdotes about myself and my experiences with the work force, but I see them as being irrelevant to the gist of what is objectionable about this article. It's not saying that there aren't some hard-working, happy people among Generation Y. It's not even saying that there aren't some Generation Yers who get the unlucky end of the stick through no fault of their own. But what it is strongly suggesting is that there is a general problem of entitlement among this current generation of youngsters. I'll be the first to admit that I've worked alongside plenty of guys and girls in my age group who are incredibly lazy, incredibly hostile to others, and incredibly selfish. Then again, I think we've all also worked with people like that who belong to older generations. Anecdotes will only get us so far.

It's interesting, though, that the author of the Huff-Po article doesn't even bother with anecdotes or any kind of evidence for that matter. Many of his claims simply go unsourced and unchallenged. The crux of his article is simply an assertion. He specifies a subgroup (?) of Generation Y to which he gives the acronym GYPSY, for Generation Y Protagonists and Special Yuppies. Sounds convoluted, sure, but the intent is obviously not descriptive as much as it is derogatory. GYPSYs, he argues, think they're super special, they're overly ambitious, and they're pretty darn delusional. Now, as the question mark implies, exactly how much of Gen. Y do these GYPSYs occupy? The author says "a large portion". Well, what is a large portion? 90%? 70%? 51%? Unsurprisingly, no evidence is produced for the GYPSY delineation. Also, unsurprising is that there is no substantiation for how, why, or if in fact GYPSYs do consider themselves more special or are more ambitious than older folks. The most the author provides is a study by Paul Harvey.

I've only read the abstract and some discussions of Harvey's study, because it's unfortunately not available for free online, despite my best efforts to obtain it. However, the abstract and title say nothing at all about Gen. Y or about younger participants. What the study investigated, according to its own authors, was "two behavioral outcomes of entitlement — political behavior and co-worker abuse — and the mediating role of job-related frustration." It sounds like claims about Gen. Y are merely based on a statistical correlation, and this is confirmed in another article about the study, claiming that Harvey's data shows Gen. Y participants scoring 25% higher on measures of entitlement than those aged 40-60, and being twice as likely to rank in the top 20% of entitlement as those 40-60.

The real question is what the entitlement measures are that Harvey and others are using, and what factors might lie behind these figures that are often nakedly thrown around. There is research, like that by Paula McDonald, showing that younger workers are unfairly dismissed more often than older workers. McDonald has some intriguing things to say about the perception of Gen. Y held by many employers:
These young people don't match the Generation Y stereotype of savvy career-builders. They are perceived as being disloyal job-hoppers, but that is an unfair accusation because young workers often have to cope with insecure work environments, low wages and anti-social working hours.
Some employers exploit the vulnerability of young employees and capitalise on their inexperience, limited representation and relative difficulty in seeking legal advice. Some also treat young workers as disposable, especially in this sample who are generally low skilled and who work in precarious, casual positions. These workers are often treated more unfairly because they are more easily replaced, compared to highly skilled workers who are more difficult to replace.
Sadly, I can relate to much of what Ms. McDonald mentions. I have gone through a number of brief stints at jobs for various reasons. Some were admittedly my own fault, or my own decision to quit, but others were not. I worked for a company that regularly over-hires when they open new stores, and being unaware of that at the time, I took their offer and then had the frustrating experience of rapidly losing hours after we opened the store. I have been harassed by co-workers before, cheated out of money, and dismissed over taking two legitimate sick days in a 6 month period. I'm smart enough not to include all these stints on my resume because I imagine how they would look to an employer in this age when employers treat your application purely as a document that should benefit them, rather than putting a face with the document and seeing its origins in an actual person. But I don't expect everyone in my age group does this.

Research like Ms. McDonald's raises the question of what direction the correlation goes. Are younger people more likely to feel entitled than their peers because they have terribly high self-esteem, or does employment treat them in ways that force a sort of bolstering of their self-esteem, which takes on a sense of entitlement? Psychologists have seen the same effect in other circumstances - challenging someone's religious beliefs, or political beliefs, will often result in what are called dissonance reducing strategies. Rather than letting ourselves be beat down or curtail to the first criticisms we receive, we want to defend ourselves and reaffirm our beliefs about ourselves, and this is not always a bad thing. If there is this popular perception of Generation Yers as being over-zealous, arrogant hotshots, and this perception influences how employers treat younger employees, it would make sense that many young people react in ways aimed at reducing the dissonance of being treated so unfairly. Of course, to others, this may appear to only confirm their stereotypes.

What about the older generations, why wouldn't they react as strongly? Certainly some of them do, but I think some of the stereotypes here can also be true. There is more a sense of collectivism among older generations, and an increasing sense of individualism among younger people, even in countries like China. It's not a stretch to imagine that a greater focus on team-playing means one is less likely to be discriminated against by employers than those of a more individualistic bent, and one may even shake off such discrimination more, in the interests of solidarity. There are upsides of both perspectives, I would argue, but also downsides. Employers do need employees that get along well with others, but in our increasingly technological and specialized world, it's become ever more important to recognize the unique abilities of individuals. Towing the line for its own sake is no longer an acceptable policy, and if Gen. Yers are reacting negatively to this sort of foolish standard in the work force, who can blame them?

One other major problem I have with the Huff-Po article, and with Harvey's study, is that they don't consider the role of economic factors. Let's ignore the wealth of data on the enormous increases in college tuition, rental rates and housing, and medical expenses in the US, as well as lagging wages, unemployment, and unforgiving hours in contrast to the rest of the world. Perhaps Generation Y is unhappy not because we think we're special, or because we have unrealistic expectations, but because the very same people who once told us we are special and encouraged us to follow our dreams are now telling us to stop whining and learn to be content with the mess we've been left. We're paying more for education that is less likely to land us steady jobs than it was for our parents, we're enduring rental and medical costs that are higher than they were for our parents, and the work force is not only unable to keep up with these rising expenses, but even discriminates against us at times and takes advantage of the less knowledgeable among us.

Fortunately, we are living in the information age, where these problems are broadcast all over television and the internet. We are painfully aware of the bigger picture because it is constantly repeated by the media, since fear sells. It isn't that any one of us has drawn the short stick, it's that things are not generally going well. Yes, there are young people like Mark Zuckerberg who have been lucky enough to strike it rich at the end of all their hard work, but it's just as unfair to judge our generation by them as it would be to judge older generations by figures like John Rockefeller, Howard Hughes, or Bill Gates. Perhaps Generation Y is unhappy because we are more aware of our situation than previous generations have been, thanks to the prevalence of information now. It's easy to hope for the future when you're unaware of what future projections show. But when those projections are confronting you 24 hours a day on every major media outlet, it can be difficult to find that glimmer of hope on the horizon.

At the end of the article on Huff-Po, the author gives three bits of advice, including the following gem:
Stop thinking that you're special. The fact is, right now, you're not special. You're another completely inexperienced young person who doesn't have all that much to offer yet. You can become special by working really hard for a long time.
Entitlement is necessary to action. If the Allied forces had not felt entitled to live in a world free of the genocidal tyranny of Nazism, we would not know that generation as the Greatest Generation. If civil rights activists had not felt entitled to live in a society where all people are treated as equals, we would not know their generation as the generation that ended segregation. Complacency is the antithesis of action. It's not arrogant or unrealistic to feel entitled to earn more for less work, to get more time off and more benefits. Did the industrialists denounce similar concerns voiced by the early unions about working conditions? Upton Sinclair certainly stirred the hornets nest with The Jungle, yet who today would call his concerns arrogant or unrealistic? True, the danger and corruption found in the work force now is a different breed, for the most part, but it is still undoubtedly there.

The irony of the quote above is the last sentence. What is it about working "really hard for a long time" that confers specialness on someone? Isn't the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results? It seems like a fine line between being special and being insane, then. Maybe we ought to survey older folks and ask them if they feel like their years of back-breaking toil have made them any more special than getting married did, or having children, or helping others, or finding those little things in life that give it a unique kind of meaning, like discovering a joy for art, music, literature, science, etc. The con is that throwing oneself into a job for years of your life does not make you special. Rather, it's what you set your mind to that matters, and if wanting a better way of living makes Generation Y seem delusional, then I will happily count myself a member.