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Is Gen Y Becoming the New "Lost Generation?"

Economic prospects for millennials look dim

Is today's youth, or Gen Y or millennials as they are sometimes referred to, becoming the new "Lost Generation," with high hopes and little prospects?

The “Lost Generation,” a term thought to be coined by Gertrude Stein, was the generation that came of age during WWI, and referred to young people whose prospects in life looked dim. The term was also used to refer to the generation of unemployed youth in the Great Depression. If that term can be applicable to today’s Generation Y, it’s in reference to their high aspirations yet what some would say are their dismal economic prospects. At the same time, it’s clear Gen Y has a very different set of values for work and life in general, compared to the Baby Boomers.

Let’s take a look at the social commentary about Gen Y.

Todd G. Buchholz and Victoria Buchholz, writing in The New York Times, argue “sometime in the past 30 years, someone has hit the brakes and Americans—particularly young Americans—have become risk-aversive and sedentary.”

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University of New Hampshire management professor Paul Harvey concluded from his research that Gen Y is characterized by a “very inflated sense of self” that leads to “unrealistic expectations” and “chronic disappointment.” This view was echoed by a study by Stacy Campbell of Kennesaw State University who says that when it comes to work, Gen Y wants high salaries and lots of leisure time.

In 2008, the renowned TV news program, 60 Minutes ran a story about Gen Y  in the workplace and proclaimed that a "new breed of American worker is about to attack everything you hold sacred." The program described millennials as cynical, unaccustomed to hard work and having fragile egos because their childhoods filled with trophies and adulation didn't prepare them for the cold realities of work.

Bruce Tulgan, the founder of Rainmaker Thinking and an expert on Generation Y, says that "they are a pampered and nurtured generation, being both high performance and high maintenance, with a very high sense of self-worth . Tulgan calls them "Generation X on steroids."

Robin Marantz Henig observed in The New York Times Magazine that Gen Y has pushed back each of the five milestones of adulthood: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having children.

The Pew Research Center’s new survey, Young, Underemployed and Optimistic, gives us a great insight into Gen Y’s situation. The reported showed, among other things:

  • Among 25-29 year olds, 34% have moved back home with their parents;
  • Only 12% of whites between 18-34 believe owning a home is one of the most important things in life.

According to a University of Michigan study of 13,737 college students in the U.S. by Sarah Konrath and her associates at the Institute for Social Research, young people today, compared to college students in the late 1970's are "40% lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago." The researchers examined 72 studies of students with a mean age of 20 from 1979 to 2000, all of whom had taken the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index test, which looks at empathetic concern, an emotional response to distress to others and perspective taking or the ability to imagine another person's perspective--often expressed as "being in other person's shoes."

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, who examines Generation Y in her book, Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--And More Miserable Than Ever Before argues that younger people are more self-assured than their parents, but they also are more depressed. She bases her argument on 14 years of research including 12 studies on generational differences based on data from 1.3 million young Americans, comparing the results of personality tests given to baby boomers when they were under age 30 to those of the Gen-Me or Gen Y cohort today.

Twenge says that Generation Y can be called “Generation Me” because they've been taught to put themselves first. Unlike Baby Boomers, Gen Y didn't have to march in a protest or attend a group session to realize that their own needs and desires were paramount. Reliable birth control, legalized abortion and a cultural shift toward parenthood as a choice made Gen Y the most wanted generation of children in history. Television, movies and school programs have told them they were special from toddlerhood to high school and they believe with a self-confidence that is impressive. Gen Y, unlike the Baby Boomers, are not self-absorbed, they're self-important. They take it for granted that they're special, independent, and don't need to reflect on it.

Twenge says that this is a result of the misplaced emphasis on the self-esteem movement of the last few decades. Twenge says in her book, Gen Yers "speak the language of the self as their native tongue. The individual has always come first, and feeling good about yourself has always been a primary virtue. Generation Me’s expectations are highly optimistic: They expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities like housing and health care have skyrocketed in price. This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities." Twenge cites the work of Joan Chiarmonte, head of the Roper Youth Reportwho says for young people today, the "gap between what they have and what they want has never been greater."

Is this rather negative assessment reminiscent of the past? In 1967, Time Magazine ran an article bout the "hippies," (Baby Boomers) stating "to their deeply worried parents  throughout the country, they seem more like dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics." In the 1920's the Dallas Morning News described youth of the day as not caring about people, not "having any sense of shame , honor or duty." These visits to the past may be a wise warning for social scientists to not use scientific research to fuel unfounded stereotypes  of young people.

We know from many studies and experts that Gen Y has grown up naturally collaborative, talented and open-minded, flexible and they thrive on social media, all characteristics well suited to the new economy. Gen Y demands only that the workplace reflect their values--personal growth; work that is meaningful and family first. Gen Y loves their parents, according to Rebecca Ryan author of Live First, Work Second.Gen Y prefers to work in teams not by themselves and they hate conflict. Gen Y are not complainers, nor act like victims. They are hard workers and want to have work that is challenging. The 2006 Cone Millennial Case Study concluded that a large majority of Gen Y want to work for companies that care about and contribute to society, and would refuse to work for an irresponsible company.

The New America Foundation report, Yes We Can: The Emergence of Millennials As A Political Foundation, concludes, “Millennials have brought with them a very different set of attitudes and behaviors than the youth who preceded them: a confidence and conventionality, a preference for group consensus, an aversion to personal risk, and a self-image as special and worthy of protection.” The report goes on to predict that Gen Y will over their lifetime greatly strengthen the connection between citizen and community, between ordinary people and public institutions at all levels of government, and when they assume national leadership, they will forge a new social contract.

Gen Y sees what is known as the American Dream or middle class dream as less about money and more about living a fulfilling, meaningful life. When asked in the 2011 MetLife Study of the American Dream what was more important to them, 33% said “close family and friends,” compared to only 23% who said “having a roof over your head.” In the same study 66% of Gen Y said they can’t rely on government for their financial security and only 34% said they were confident they can rely on themselves to provide for their families.

Generation Y's search for meaning makes support for volunteering among the benefits it values most. More than half of workers in their 20’s prefer employment at companies that provide volunteer opportunities. Old assumptions about what employees value in the workplace don't always apply with Gen Y.  Friendship is such a strong motivator for them that Gen Y workers will choose a job just to be with their friends. It feels normal for Gen Y employees to check in by BlackBerry all weekend as long as they have flexibility during the week. Sun Microsystem's telecommuting program, for example, has kicked into high gear in response to Generation Y's demands. Today more than half of Sun's employees work remotely.

A poll for Sun Life Financial Canada found 90% of people aged 18-24 reported feeling excessive stress because of economic instability and underemployment.

In an article in the Bloomberg News, Elliot Blair Smith contends “Generation Y professionals entering the U.S. workforce are finding careers that were once gateways to high pay and upwardly mobile lives turning into detours and dead ends.” The average incomes for individuals aged 25-34 have fallen 8% since 2007.

Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University professor and senior research fellow argues “This generation will be on the lower path of income for probably all of their life—and at least the next 10 years.” Michael Greenstone, who was the Chief Economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisors in 2009-10 says the shift to a downwardly mobile society may be lasting. As Bloomberg News reported, middle-income jobs are disappearing for young professionals. For example, the number of financial counselors and loan officers aged 25-34 has dropped 40% since 2007, and the number of hours worked by young legal associates in law firms is declining.

According to research conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics:

  • Only 46% of Gen Y said they expect to be better off than their parents;
  • Nearly 45% of Gen Y classify their financial situation as “bad;”
  • 45% of current Gen Y undergrads question their ability to stay in school because of financial difficulties.

According to The Wall Street Journal, almost 300,000 Americans with college degrees were working in minimum wage jobs, which constitutes 70% more than 10 years ago.  Nearly 50% of the college graduate in the class of 2010 are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Recently McDonalds issued a recruitment advertisement asking for applicants to have college degrees.

No group in America has been hit harder during recent tough economic times than young adults. Millions of them are graduating from college with virtually no money, lots of debt and very dim employment prospects. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, the national rate of unemployment for Americans 25 and younger is almost 19%. According to the Pew Research center, approximately 37% of the Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have either been unemployed or underemployed at some point during the recession. The Pew Center also reported that only 61% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are covered by some kind of health plan.

Joanne Sujansky, of the Pittsburgh-based consulting firm Key Group, has studied employment trends for almost three decades, and has concluded that many millennials are in fact turning their collective backs on traditional corporate careers, choosing to become entrepreneurs instead. One report in the Boston Globe indicated that between 30-40% of graduates from a selection of top schools, including Harvard and Carnegie-Mellon, are by-passing corporate America and starting their own businesses.Entrepereneurs between 18 and 24 are now starting up businesses faster than their counterparts in the 35-44 age range.

Sharon Jayson, writing in U.S.A Today, says that Gen Y is "taking to heart a desire for the kind of work-life balance their parents didn't have. They see being their own boss as a way to resolve the conflict." Ellen Kosseck, a Michigan State University professor and expert on workplace trends, argues that Gen Y "views work as part of life, but don't live to work," like Baby Boomers. David Stillman, author of When Generations Collide, says that Gen Y "has the group think mentality," and may go into business with their friends. And according to a Pew Research Center poll, Americans aged 18 and over who are entrepreneurs are more satisfied with their salaries, jobs and levels of stress than those employed by corporations.

Donna Fenn, author of Upstarts! How Gen Y Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit from Their Success, Gen Y "may be well on its way to becoming the most entrepreneurial generation in the nation's history." Fenn argues that the advantage Gen Y has over previous generations is being steeped in the use of technology in business, particularly social media. Elizabeth Ross Kanter, writing in the Harvard Business Review, says that partly due to the recession, freelance work is on the rise. Kanter labels the new economy needs Jobs 2.0, the entrepreneurial element to match the new economy. She describes Jobs 2.0 as having 3 components: fast-changing information; association or the power of networks; and the commitment to lifelong learning.

So a couple of things are clear. First, Gen Y has a significantly different attitude toward work and life in general than the current dominant Baby Boom generation; and second, the current ongoing difficult economic times are placing the economic and social welfare of Gen Y in jeopardy, something that is not of their doing. We can only hope Gen Y will not be recorded in history as another “Lost Generation.”

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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