Gen Y: Healthy egotists or selfish parasites?
Okay, I admit it — I don’t have kids, and I don’t know if I’d feel differently if I did. And I am about to imitate one of those fogey types that I hate — the types that start sentences with “In my day…” or “When I was your age….”
But man, the New York Times piece on the way young folks have been sailing through the recession made me gag. No jobs available? No sweat, move back with mom and dad. Jobs available, but don’t pay what you think you’re worth? No sweat, move back with mom and dad. Jobs available, but don’t offer the fun or intellectual challenge you deserve? No sweat, move back with mom and dad.
Talk about a disappointment. Remember, this generation once embodied the Great White — and black, and hispanic, and Asian — Hope.
Once described by the trend-watchers Neil Howe and William Strauss as “the next great generation” — optimistic, idealistic and destined to do good — millennials, born between 1982 and 2002, have been depicted more recently by employers, professors and earnestly concerned mental-health experts as entitled whiners who have been spoiled by parents who overstoked their self-esteem, teachers who granted undeserved A’s and coaches who bestowed trophies on any player who showed up.
As they’ve entered adulthood, they have inspired a number of books on how unmanageable they are in the workplace, with their ubiquitous iPods, flip-flops and inability to take criticism. Stories abound about them as college students, requiring 24/7 e-mail access to professors and running to Mom and Dad for help with papers or to contest a bad grade. A consensus has emerged that, psychologically, they’re a generation of basket cases: profoundly narcissistic and deprived of a sense of agency by their anxiously overinvolved parents — in short, a “nation of wimps,” as Hara Estroff Marano, the Psychology Today editor at large, has put it.
The piece goes on to expound. Even though the millennials outnumber jobs by a huge amount, they still turn up their noses if the jobs require too much of their time (no way they’d make it as olden-day law firm associates!) or pay too little (or, in the Times’ priceless terminology, don’t “match their self-assessed market value” or do not represent “an expression of their identity, a form of self-fulfillment”). Instead, they’ll just sponge off their parents for a few years — or decades — longer.
The Times piece quotes many “experts” on how this narcissism is in fact well-adjusted adaptive behavior. Yeah, well, the Times by definition has to offer balance and equivocation. I can be more direct: I think these kids are ghastly, and I blame the parents. And offer my parents as true counterpoint (I warned you I was going to do this…)
Anyone think I really wanted to spend my college summers in the typing pool of a management consulting firm? Or that my idea of a good time at Cornell was helping to write user manuals for the Office of Computer Science?
I had no choice. Why? My parents had laid down the law — City College was a stellar institution in my day, and free to boot. If I wanted to go to an out-of-town college, well, fine — except I was paying for it myself.
They were brilliant. They wanted me to understand that things weren’t mine for the taking, that if I wanted something badly I had to work for it. But they also didn’t want to look in the mirror and see cheap martinets looking back at them.
So they kept scrupulous records of how much my education cost me, and secretly matched me dollar for dollar. The day I graduated, they presented me with a bankbook for exactly half of what Cornell had cost and said “Go buy yourself a car.”
I tell that story for a bunch of reasons. First, of course, is I’m so proud of my folks for thinking of this — and of me for sticking it out. But just as important — lots of parents today let kids lay guilt trips on them, “You have so much money, why are you too cheap to share it with me?” or better still, “You spent all that time working when you should have been playing with me, now at least let me share in the fruits of your labor.” Parents who do what my parents did don’t feel guilty, because they know they are, in fact, going to give the money to the kids. But they don’t let the kids develop that disgusting sense of entitlement that makes them pariahs in the job market.