Generation Screwed

05.13.12

Give Millennials a Break!

Despite popular portrayals, growing evidence suggests today’s 20-somethings are historically tolerant and innovative. As thousands more graduate, Hannah Seligson offers five reasons to be hopeful.

However much Girls might be a realistic portrayal of the lives of 20-something women living in Brooklyn, the buzzed-about HBO show makes me want to change the birthdate on my driver’s license to a year not in the 1980s. The four lead actresses, all of whom play characters born late in that decade, are walking, talking data points that represent the worst of the polling and analysis on this generation. Namely, that we are narcissistic, entitled, financial drains on our parents, unable to emancipate, and excessively solipsistic.

It’s a version of millennials—defined roughly as those born between 1980 and 2000 and who number more than 77 million—that has come to dominate the cultural, social, and workplace narrative about young people today. Now, as a new flock graduates and hawks their résumés to employers, they must contend with not only a lousy job market, but the stigma brought on by research that perpetually labels them Generation I, as a recent survey from job search site Adecco USA did. The telephone poll includes findings like: “Generation I wants what they want, and they may not be willing to settle for less.” Eight percent had a parent accompany them on a job interview. Don’t hate them yet? One in five would stay at a job they didn’t like for only three months before leaving. (The women’s blog Jezebel summed the report up with the headline “Millenials Are a Bunch of Entitled Trustafarians With Enabling Parents, Says Cranky Coot of a Survey”.)

So are millennials truly a lost generation that will be relegated to the annals of history as Generation Me? Perhaps. But there’s another storyline, one that gets buried under the slew of angst-y memoirs and navel-gazing television shows about the hardships of post-college life in upper-middle-class America.

As thousands graduate this month, take comfort: despite the propaganda, research also reveals that we’ve emerged as the most diverse, tolerant, pioneering, educated, and innovative generation in history. Here’s some good news.

(1) The kids are all right (and open-minded). Millennials might care a great deal about their own happiness, but they also care about other people’s well-being—considerably more than previous generations did. We are far less homophobic, sexist, and racist than our parents and grandparents. We are the generation that played a critical role in electing the first African-American president, and most of us believe gay marriage is a right that shouldn’t be denied to same-sex couples. Having grown up surrounded by so much racial diversity, those under 30 are emerging to be the most colorblind in U.S. history—nine in 10 18- to 29-year-olds say they approve of interracial dating and marriage, compared with 73 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds.

And nearly every type of problem that has plagued previous generations of young men is not as pronounced today: psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has found that alcohol use, crime, and unprotected sex among young men today has declined sharply in the past 30 years. And some of the leading intellectuals in the country are taking note. At a panel in Washington, D.C., last year, New York Times columnist David Brooks commented that “while he is down on just about everything else, the under-30 generation gives him hope.”

(2) Twenty-something women are good for the economy. This is the first generation in which women are just as likely as men to want that the top job at the office, which was not the case among female employees under the age of 29 as recently as 15 years ago. In fact, more young women than men today cite career high on their list of life priorities, according to a recent Pew study. It’s no shock then that single, childless women under 30 in many urban areas make more money, on average, than their male counterparts. As The Economist put it, “Women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants, China or India.” And women in their 20s and early 30s are poised to continue making an economic splash, even if they have to get some help from their parents to get on their feet.

(3) Life in the workplace is improving because of millennials. “Gen Y is going to change the world of work and revolutionize it,” Kirk Snyder, a professor of management at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, told me. Fortune 500 companies are increasingly emphasizing quality-of-life benefits, corporate social responsibility, and flexible work schedules to attract and retain young talent. Parental leave, part-time schedules, and teleworking are all trends that are gathering momentum. In fact, some media outlets are already heralding the obsolescence of the 9-to-5 workday, a result of this generation’s persistent lobbying efforts that work shouldn’t be confined to certain set hours—a good thing for working families. Workplace culture is changing as well, in ways that make the office a friendlier, more enjoyable place. As Baratunde Thurston, former director of digital at The Onion, put it, “I can’t wait for the middle-management level to die off and the next generation gets in there. Then we’ll have a revolution.” Some might say it’s already started.

(4) The pursuit of happiness and meaningful work is a sign of progress. For millions of 20-somethings, the desire to devote our lives to projects that are meaningful and exciting has grown from an adolescent whimsy into an inspiring credo. As a generation, we often do not merely seek the highest paycheck; we seek to solve the world’s problems, invent, and create. Put another way by Jason Rezpeka, vice president of public affairs at MTV, “There’s a growing hunger, particularly from millennials entering the workforce, to engage in meaningful work that doesn’t just make old, rich white guys richer.”

To that point, there’s a different ethos emerging from companies formed by members of this generation. As a New York Times article observed about young entrepreneurs, “Others see in them [20-somethings] a social conscience and maturity that set them apart from the high-tech gold diggers of the 1990s.” 

Indeed, we are trying to rethink how companies can be a source of good in the world and gravitating toward ones that make that a priority. Sixty-one percent of 18- to 26-year-olds polled in a 2011 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT survey said they would prefer to work for an employer that offers volunteer opportunities. And while most baby-boomer parents abandoned their hippie lifestyle for the boardroom and the burbs, their children’s passions may be less dreamy, but more practical and enduring. So even if we aren’t as rich as our parents, we have more paths to self-fulfillment, the ability to lead a wider-range lifestyle, and a deep desire to turn our personal interests into what we do for a living. A generous reading of this trend could point to the prediction that fewer of us will be miserable at work and in life.

(5) We want adulthood to be fun. In his commencement address to the Kenyon College class of 2005, the late writer David Foster Wallace said, “There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that no one talks about—boredom, routine, and petty frustrations.” To be more specific, the most terrifying version of adulthood looks something like: a sexless marriage, living in suburbia, becoming a car slave to your children, maxing out two credits cards to pay for your lifestyle, and feeling chained to a job you don’t like just so you can pay off your credit debt. Over the last seven years of reporting on millennials, I’ve noticed that members of my generation are trying to circumvent some of the boredom, routine, and petty frustrations that may have defined adulthood in the past. This isn’t to say that adulthood won’t ever be banal, but maybe our high expectations about life could inspire a version of adulthood that is less monotonous and tedious. And yes, that might mean quitting a job after three months.