Who We Are
Since the financial crisis rocked the country and the world, many pundits, politicians, and so-called experts have tried to peg Generation Y (mainly emerging from college and attempting to enter the workforce) as apathetic and demoralized. In their eyes, we would never be granted access to the “American Dream” we had been led to believe was ours.
Our aging, egocentric boomer parents had instilled in us the belief that we were special, smart, and unique, that we deserved the best adulthood had to offer because we were the best. Each and every one of us.
But as the consumerism and growth that marked the ‘90s came to a screeching halt, pronouncements about the “lost generation” began proliferating. We are to be the first generation that does not supersede our parents’ quality of living. We are inheriting a wrecked economy, a society characterized by the starkest income inequality and wealth disparity since the Great Depression, and soaring national debt. Unemployment rates are at record highs, and the U.S. government (stymied by congressional squabbling and corrupted by corporate personhood) no longer works for the majority of Americans.
So what happened after graduation and how did this national story affect us at the individual level? After packing up and moving out of whatever college towns had nurtured us for 4+ years, many/most/some of us went right back home to Mom and Dad’s house to consider our options. Some friends of mine who had studied business went to work in consulting, commanding huge starting salaries and undertaking nightmarish hours from the get-go. Some found work at start-ups writing code for websites and computer programs. However, many of those disinterested in the fields of finance and tech were forced to chart their own course.
Unpaid internships abound — opportunities to seize or time to waste depending on the attitude of the intern. One friend went to Africa to pursue development work. Others have jumped headlong into post-graduate studies, getting law degrees and Ph.D.s in physics and sociology.
Whatever squeezed options recent grads seem to be exploring, some researchers and academics are referring to the Millennial Generation in terms of “delayed transition.” Because of the current market climate, our growth will be stunted. Video-game playing and festival-going will stretch on into our 20s, as opposed to traditional adult milestones of entering the professional world and getting married. Increasing numbers of individuals with college degrees will succumb to service jobs, working at restaurants and cafes at minimum wage (just as we always did through high school and college). That diploma in your back pocket threatens to become a literal signifier — hanging on your childhood bedroom door, unused and collecting dust.
Or so the thinking goes.
Coming of age during such an economic downturn may have given others cause to pity recent graduates and aspiring young people. But a year after earning my degree, I have reason to think otherwise. Today’s youth are not lazy or discouraged, even though they have had (and will continue to have) their share of disappointments. The peak of corporate greed that brought down the economy also opened up the possibility for a new system, a system that will be organized in large part by those very young people inheriting today’s dim job prospects. Broad acceptance of liberal free-market capitalism as the engine of growth and equality for a booming middle class has been shattered. Two-party politics and current campaign finance laws (as interpreted by the Supreme Court) are no longer widely recognized as markers of a democracy shaped by the will of most Americans. The winds of change have shifted the dominant discourse in this country and young people will be the ones to come up with a new way forward.
I was working in New York City when Occupy Wall Street gripped the collective imagination of the nation. This movement, in discussing new regulatory bodies, new models of a working welfare state, new priorities for the government, opened up a revolutionary space. Twenty-somethings all around the country are engaging in the debate on what kind of society we want to live in and why the current trends do not reflect a future we want for our children. We are using new modes of social media to connect to our peers and engage an increasingly wider circle of people in this dialogue.
According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, millennials are confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat, and open to change. “Their entry into careers and first jobs has been badly set back by the Great Recession, but they are more upbeat than their elders about their own economic futures as well as the overall state of the nation.” It is also telling that according to the report, more so than other generations we believe government should do more to solve problems.
Millennials were among Obama’s strongest political supporters during 2008, backing him for president by more than a two-to-one ratio while older adults were giving just 50 percent of their votes to the Democratic nominee. This was the greatest disparity between younger and older voters recorded in four decades of election polling. But political fervor for Obama has chilled. Young people overcome with hope and optimism found a more centrist approach in place of the change we were led to believe in on the campaign trail.
Although most young people who supported Obama now believe that he has (so far) failed to change the way Washington works, this does not mean that our political engagement is flagging. Rather, the nature of youth political participation may continue to shift towards the streets, blogs, and other modes of grassroots organizing. Disheartened by the Democrats, tired of the cowering liberals who have failed to put up a fight against the moneyed interests and D.C. insiders, American young people are seeking new ways to express our political demands.
Although the future is uncertain and many 20-somethings are out of work, we are not disheartened. As the current order continues to crumble under the weight of the Great Recession, I see this moment as one of infinite possibility. Although we can’t start from scratch, we have a unique opportunity to question what kind of society we want to build and translate new ideas into meaningful action.
About Suzie Dershowitz: After eight years living in California, I am back on the East coast, currently working as a public policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in Washington, D.C. I studied political science at UC Berkeley and still miss the rich culture and rolling hills of the Bay Area. I love travel, film festivals, and good sushi. I still look up to my big sister and I am passionate about social justice issues.
Taylor Trudon: Generation Traits Are a Result of Environment
We are Generation Y and we are also shallow, money hungry, fame-seeking, unemployed, loan-indebted students. But before you jump down my throat, know that these are the words of the world’s premier media outlets and news sources—not me. As a journalism student who just spent her summer in New York City (arguably the most expensive city in the country) interning (for free) at one of the nation’s most iconic magazines so I can maybe find a job next year in this unstable economy, I find this constant cloud of negativity not only unsettling, but also inaccurate.
The Huffington Post recently published an article entitled “The Lost Generation: 8 Reasons Why America’s Youth Are Falling Behind,” where the first reason listed is increased tuition at public universities. The list continues on to highlight the top issues most affecting our generation today, which includes students taking on an increasing number of unpaid internships (check), a struggle to pay off student debt (check) and then graduating college only to find that no one is hiring (check).
As if we weren’t aware of this already, in addition to coping with a slew of educational and economic problems, according to the New York Times, researchers found data suggesting, “college students today had significantly less ‘empathetic concern’ than students of the 1980s.” In case you missed that, this means we’re insensitive too.
But while this information may come as a surprise to some, the following statistics did not: a 2007 USA Today article revealed that 81-percent of 18- to 25-year-olds surveyed in a Pew Research Center poll admitted that “getting rich is their generation’s most important or second-most-important life goal, with 51-percent saying said the same about being famous.” To me, this is neither shocking nor necessarily wrong.
We are products of our environment. We are facing one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression. Having a college diploma isn’t enough to land you a job. The numbers tell us that we’re going to be drowning in debt when we graduate, but if we want a chance at standing out in a competitive job market, we’re supposed to spend our summers doing unpaid internships where we inevitably rack up more debt and spend money we don’t have. Of course we want to make money—who else is going to pay our car payments, student loans and apartment bills? We’re facing an incredible amount of pressure before we even set foot into the Real Word, but rather than getting any credit for our accomplishments, we’re getting slapped with labels such as Generation Debt, Generation Me and the Peter Pan Generation. We’re being told we’re doomed for failure before we even get a shot at success.
Gen-Y, we don’t get the credit we deserve. Don’t allow negative naysayers to forget that we set a new standard for equality when we stood up to Proposition 8 this summer. We changed history overnight when we elected the first African-American president to take office. We irrevocably changed the face of technology forever when a Harvard student created Facebook in his dorm room and giving us a new means of human interaction. So while we may be money hungry, selfish and can’t get a job to save our lives, we’re also innovative, smart, opinionated activists, which speaks volumes more. We’re awesome and shouldn’t accept anything less.
It’s difficult to classify a generation, but it’s ultimately up to us how we choose to define ourselves. When I look at our generation, I see promise. We’re not just reality TV-obsessed young adults who care more about what happened on Jersey Shore last night than in the White House. Unlike some future generations, we are going to be able to write a handwritten letter in cursive and Tweet about the latest political triumph as it happens.
Gen-Y, we’re Generation Innovation. To the critics, look out: we might just surprise you.
This post originally appeared in the UConn “Daily Campus.”
About Taylor Trudon: Taylor Trudon is an editor living in New York City. She enjoys watching reruns of “The O.C.” (R.I.P. Marissa Cooper), keeping up with the Kardashians and plotting the break-up between Mandy Moore and Ryan Adams.
Lila Kalick: The Fleecing of Generation Y
A couple years back, studying in my school’s graduate library with a group of finals-stressed friends, I was confronted by a strange exam question for my poli sci course.
The prompt for my take-home final provided two choices. The ‘fun’ option invited the test taker to write a ‘history of America’s future’ while elaborating on the central concepts we learned throughout the semester.
For some reason I got really into the assignment. Adopting the sage tone I noticed narrating many of my history textbooks, I wrote about things in the past tense that had yet to take place and probably never would.
I was having so much fun shaping America’s fictitious future that I had to stop and read it aloud to a friend — just to make sure it didn’t sound like a complete joke.
My exam painted the picture of a bright and rosy American future:
Starting in 2008, Obama would promote policies that reversed the disintegration of American domestic industry and rebuilt the social safety net with a series of new programs that surpassed even that of the New Deal era. At the same time, the U.S. would be reinvigorated by a renewed sense of patriotism, through the emphasis of its shared experience of the recession.
That was almost two years ago. Everywhere you looked back then, my generation was still riding the wave of fist-pumping enthusiasm that resulted from Barack Obama’s election to the White House in 2008. Yes we did.
My own enthusiasm at the time colored my vision of America’s future and personal outlook at the prospects for my generation.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking and reading as much as I can about my generation.
With regret, I’ve got to say that every major article I’ve encountered reads like a colossal downer — the record turnout among youth to elect President Obama overshadowed by our entry into the jobless wasteland of America’s economy.
The bulk of the articles, which pull no punches when it comes to the morbidity of our circumstances, doom millennials to a slew of crappy fates.
Harvard University labor economist Lawrence Katz predicted that we could become “a lost generation.” Kate Zernike, in her article “Generation OMG,” boils Generation Y down to “The Recession Kids,” who, like the Silent Generation of the 1950s, may very well spend our time and energy searching in vain for stability in a world of economic entropy.
Even the earth-shaking article for the New York Times Magazine, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?,” underscored how the fallout from the economy has negatively impacted us… sending us slowly spiraling down some sort of new Revolutionary Road.
After doing a little more digging, I realized something. Most of the stuff floating around in the ether about who millennials are, what we will become, our wants, needs, and desires, is the byproduct of older generations’ curiosity, concern and fear for our future. We’ve been letting boomers and Gen Xers write the history of our future and there isn’t anything funny about it.
Of course it would be hard for anyone to put a finger on the pulse of what defines our generation, especially when that generation is just beginning to come of age.
However, what is worth investigating, and what we can observe with more certainty than the future, is our present.
We Gen-Yers have already developed some pretty unique behaviors, many worth considering:
Why, for instance, has FOMO (fear of missing out) become such a big deal for millennials? In what ways could it be characteristic of our generational cohort’s outlook on life?
What about our relationship with patriotism? Why are so many American millennials focused on both local and global movements, but fall short in terms of our declared love for the Red, White and Blue? Does this attitude vary across regional, racial and socio-economic lines?
And what about the idea that we are a risk averse, achievement-oriented generation? Is this combo of contradictory characteristics the genesis of all our generational neurosis and behaviors?
These are important questions that have answers in the present. Investigating them will hopefully yield the kind of on the ground insights that the public won’t get by watching as the boomers relegate us into a big blob of petulant crybabies who want to wear shorts to work and don’t feel we need to “pay our dues.”
This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
About Lila Kalick: Lila Kalick has a penchant for deep conversation and gluten-free pizza. In her free time, she enjoys watching episodes of “Downton Abbey,” reading extensive histories of the world wars, and busting a serious move on the dance floor.