Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What's good about Generation Y?

By Jeremy Adam Smith

To judge by the state of public discourse and media coverage, old people really hate Generation Y — that is, those born after 1978 or so. I was born in 1970, but this hostility toward the younger generation has always struck me as misguided, and at times even slightly crazed.

San Diego State psychologist Jean M. Twenge calls kids these days "Generation Me" and has made a career warning us of their alleged narcissism and entitlement. A raft of books and articles have indulged in moral panic over so-called "hookup culture," which is how Baby Boomers imagine kids these days have sex. There are also gender-specific worries about Gen Y men, who apparently want to play video games and watch porn all day.

But that doesn't describe any of the Cal students I encounter. I mean, I'm sure there's narcissism and entitlement (which I'd characterize as American problems not specific to one age group), reckless sex (yeah, Boomers, like that never happened in the Sixties), and more screen time than is healthy--but does any of that define a generation? Is it so easy to forget the tens of thousands of Millennials who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan or taken to the streets for the Occupy movement or worked for the election of President Obama? Youth violence has actually been declining for decades, and it's not hard to see in the social scientific averages many other positive trends.

When we at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center asked three scholars to explore the other side of Gen Y, all their contributions identified one major circumstance that older generations simply forget in their criticisms of today's young adults: an increasingly unstable and unreliable economy.

Chief among the accusations hurled at Gen Y is that they are taking too long to become fully adult, in the sense of getting married, buying homes, and settling into careers. In "What Gen Y Needs from Parents," developmental psychologist Diana Divecha (and mother of two Gen Y daughters) argues that there are some very good reasons why today's young adults are taking so long to launch — and that as a result of these circumstances, parental support is becoming normal and even necessary:

My children’s generation is reaching financial independence later—thanks largely to a struggling economy, unstable employment, high housing costs, and low wages—delaying full adult responsibilities into their late 20s and even early 30s.

Because of this trend, some scholars have begun calling the period when one is 18-25 years of age “emerging adulthood”; others are calling 18-34 years “early adulthood.” But whatever the label, it’s clear that many consider this age group not fully independent. This leads parents to question their role in offering further support — or not — during this crucial period.

Parents of UC Berkeley students will find Diana's article to be absolutely essential reading. But what can we tell their bosses? Doesn't Gen Y's sense of entitlement drive them to skip around from job to job and try to circumvent traditional dues-paying? In "Can Gen Y Fix our Schools?" our education director, Vicki Zakrzewski, acknowledges that Gen Y teachers are leaving the profession in droves — a fact often held up as a result of their short attention spans and sense of entitlement.

But Vicki points out the obvious: Schools today are just not good places to work. Young teachers are faced with annual budget cuts and chronic instability -- in some districts, young teachers are laid off at the end of every year as a precautionary measure in case the budget isn't there to keep them -- and it is hard for all but the most committed to not look for other opportunities. Moreover, many of the non-monetary needs of Gen Y--for more collaboration and more recognition of accomplishment--are actually long-overdue school reforms. Reviewing the research, Vicki argues that meeting the needs of young teachers would make schools better, not worse.

In her key contribution, "What's Good about Generation Y?", Canadian sociologist Karen Foster points out that there are very substantial methodological and conceptual problems with the generational research. Existing studies fail to account for the ways in which people change as they grow, or for how pathways to adulthood have changed over time; fail to account for how concepts like "community," "sexuality," "environment," and "politics" evolve in response to changing social, technological, and economic circumstances; fail to look at the world through the eyes of Gen Y, instead evaluating them against the Baby Boomers as a kind of baseline. Finally, they depend upon completely artificial ways of slicing time, when comparing people of different age groups. She writes:

This is partly why, in my own research, I’ve argued that “generation” is a matter of ideas rather than a category of people. And those ideas grow in response to the state of the economy, the spread of technologies, and the contradictions of politics — as well as the zeitgeist of the day, the spirit of the times.

So what positive ideas does “Generation Y” stand for? It turns out that 20- and 30-somethings are looking for more than just a job. They want work that is meaningful and consistent with their socially and environmentally responsible values. They’re disaffected, to be sure, but that disaffection conceals a drive toward more caring, compassionate relationships and away from materialism. And in these ways, they’re not so very different from Boomers and Generation X.

I hope you'll read Karen's terrific essay, and consider sharing your own experience or information as a comment on the site. We are sponsoring a Twitter chat with other Gen Y researchers and commentators--including those who have a more pessimistic view--on Tuesday at 4 pm PST / 7 pm EST. Look for the #GenYChat hashtag, and bring your questions!