In this week's edition of Toronto city magazine The Grid—which is quietly creating chatter amongst journo-types for placing a giant car advertisement on its cover—writer Jodie Shupac asks a simple question, and one that shadows perceptions of our generation: Are Millenials a generation defined by entitlement?
That story, titled "Dude, Where's My Pension Plan," details many of those perceptions: Within the media, the Montreal student protests have been erroneously painted as rich white kids demanding free education. (The reality: It's about a generation being saddled with debt.) To employers, we're flighty, over-educated and unwilling to stick it out at permanent jobs. (Shupac, for her part, correctly points out that we don't choose precarious work, or the reliance on part-time or contract work. It's a phenemenon I wrote about at length for Calgary alt-paper Fast Forward Weekly last year.) And to other generations, we're painted as flat-out lazy, expecting the comfortable lifestyles they had to earn.
Of course, such fingerpointing rarely takes the context—specifically, the economic conditions—in which we were exist. Here, Jobpostings writer Emily Minthorn digs deeper into the realities of being a Gen Y'er—and explores the future implication of what's being labelled as "the forgotten generation." -Mark Teo
You’re a millennial – or a Gen Y’er, or an echo boomer – if you were born between the early 80s and the end of the 20th century. Our parents were baby boomers and our babysitters were probably X’ers. We grew up using the Internet but can still hearken back to a time when it wasn’t ubiquitous; we’re also old enough to remember 9/11 and how it changed everything.
Other attributes pinned on us by numerous polls, surveys, and anecdotes? We all want to be rock stars of our respective fields, with the salaries to match, but we lack the requisite elbow grease to achieve those dreams. We’re insecure trophy kids who can’t take criticism or work independently. We’re narcissistic selfie-shootingInternet addicts. And above all, we’re taking way too long to grow up.
As if it weren’t enough of a downer to be the subject of so much unflattering chatter, we’re beginning our careers during the worst recession (are we allowed to call this a depression yet?) since the Dirty Thirties. Nowhere is joblessness more prevalent than in our own age group, with unemployment rates among 20-somethings twice those of older demographics, and worldwide youth unemployment totals topping 81 million in 2009 - the highest numbers ever seen. And while it’s frustrating in the short term to fruitlessly pound the pavement, resume in hand and freshly-minted credentials moldering away in a drawer somewhere, recent studies show that the fun's just begun.
When examining the lifelong earning potential of workers who began their careers during the economic downturn of the early 80s, one Yale study found that not only did that recession’s young job seekers start out earning less, but that they continued to experience a salary handicap decades into their working lives – amounting to a lifelong difference of about $100,000 between them and their more fortunate counterparts. They were also less likely to be working the jobs that suited their skills and training, and less able to advance to better opportunities, even after the economy improved. Other studies from economics departments across the continent clearly show that people with big employment gaps in their teens and 20s are more likely to develop lifelong problems with alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness – an outlook as depressing as our predicted paycheques.
So are we destined to become a "lost generation", floored by the one-two punch of our bad economy and worse personalities? A lot of people – from Hillary Clinton to the New York Times – have been saying so. But they’re wrong, mislead by one-dimensional stats and in want of a holistic view of all this intergenerational angst. In fact, it’s almost as if members of older generations are criticizing us for weathering the results of the social, economic, and environmental decisions that theymade.
First, a Brief History of the Late 20th Century, in which the class shall compare the socioeconomic conditions millennialsare graduating into with the world our predecessors had laid at their feet when they came of age. Take out your pencils.
Fresh out of WWII, our grandparents enjoyed cheap, plentiful suburban housing; inexpensive consumer goods, from cars to refrigerators to televisions; and secure, well-paying jobs. Our parents, the boomers, were in turn able to go to university in record numbers. They graduated largely debt-free, right into the waiting arms of the strongest economy North America has ever seen.
Back in the real world, it’s the year we make contact: 2010. Changes in public policy, from how we fund schools to how much we let them charge us to learn, have seen tuition increase exponentially since our parents’ day. This past August, the Wall Street Journal reported that stateside, national student debt now outweighs national credit card debt. Many of the good jobs – secure positions with room for advancement – that powered our predecessors straight out of university into marriages and mortgages have disappeared entirely. The jobs we canget rarely pay enough to make rent, let alone fund a house with a white picket fence and 2.5 kids. The five commonly accepted standards of adulthood accomplished – a completed education, a career, financial independence, a committed relationship, a family – seem hopelessly out of reach for most of us.
But are we even reaching for the same goals? Going through the motions, ticking items off a to-do list we didn’t even write may no longer make sense to this, the best educated generation the world has ever seen. Yes, we’re smart and have the paperwork (and loan payments) to prove it. In fact, we have all kinds of warm fuzzy qualities.
When asked by the Pew Research Centre to rank our priorities in life, we consistently put happiness and love ahead of money on our list, and name our parents as the figures in our lives we respect and admire most. While many older supervisors complain that we can’t work alone, we wonder why anyone would want to. Generationally speaking, millennials love working in teams, building consensus, and coming to group decisions. We get to see this aspect of our personalities reflected back at us in figures that rank 20-somethings as the most civic-minded age group of all (Millennials Rising: the Next Great Generation, 2000, Strauss & Howe). We volunteer and vote in record-breaking numbers, in stark contrast with the polarized boomers and apathetic X’ers before us. These stats show that family and stability are certainly important to us, and that our high expectations of life dodrive us to excel – just not in the ways previous generations did.
Is there really so much wrong with this new normal? Our wages are indeed lower (one in five of us live at or below the poverty threshold), our marriages later (the average age of our first marriage is about five years after that of our parents’ generation), our careers less of a predictable climb up a corporate ladder (we’re notorious job-hoppers), but when asked, we say we’re okay. Perhaps the level of affluence and success experienced by our parents, teachers, and bosses was just a pig in the python, an unrealistic standard to hold over a generation that recognizes the world has moved on from “Greed is Good” in many ways. We know our planet is smaller than ever – we’re the most wired group of people around, constantly connected across countries and continents, and we’re the most well-traveled demographic too. And, when describing both the companies we’d want to work for, and the companies we’d prefer to buy from, eight out of ten millennials rank corporate social and environmental responsibility at the very top of our list of concerns. For all our foibles, today’s "emerging adults"– as it’s become trendy to call us – seem poised for success in a brave new world.
“To some generations, much is given. Of other generations, much is expected,” said Franklin D Roosevelt to our grandparents on the eve of WWII. Their challenge to face was a war: a bloody, horrific trial where the stakes were high and results were black and white. For us, faced with a reboot of the world economy and a dark ecological reality, the challenges are less cut and dried. Yet very high expectations – the ones our parents have of us, the ones we have of ourselves – may turn out to be the very things that keep us on track. While it’s probably naïveto think we’ll all be making $70,000 by the time we’re 30 – as several studies embarrassingly show us to predict for ourselves – it’s a sure bet that we’ll be kicking butt in other ways. We’ll be entering the new economy unhindered by mortgages or families, well-traveled and culturally savvy, used to working together to get things done, armed with the technology we’ve grown up with and helped develop, and accustomed to living within our means (as youth of a depression historically are).
Millennials consistently poll as the most optimistic people on the planet, which is kind of incredible given the eventful history of our short lives. We came of age in interesting times, and we’ve enjoyed a unique vantage point from which to ponder the value of the North American Dream. We spent our early childhoods consuming media produced for us by anti-establishment boomers and cynical X’ers, imbuing us with healthy skepticism from an early age. We read about Harry Potter and other young witches and wizards, working together to teach corrupt adults how to behave properly; we watched as Neo woke up and discovered the Real World behind the illusion that had been pulled over his eyes by a cold, industrial system. It’s not that our generation is refusing to get real, or grow up. We just looked around us, smiled, and realized we had better things to do.