Why Gen Y Really Is Special

Every generation likes to think they are unique -- but there's a case to be made, between shifting racial demographics, the economy, unprecedented access to technology and the loosening of the marriage timetable, that Gen. Y might actually be "special," for better and worse. Here's why.
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Every generation likes to think they are unique -- but there's a case to be made, between shifting racial demographics, the economy, unprecedented access to technology and the loosening of the marriage timetable, that Gen. Y might actually be "special," for better and worse. Here's why.

When Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, and the author of The Paradox of Choice, noticed that his students weren't completing the assignments he was giving them, he was puzzled. No other group of students in his thirty years of teaching at Swarthmore had trouble keeping up with the workload. "What was going on with these kids born in the 1980s?" he wondered. He concluded that their minds were buzzing with a cacophony of questions and choices about how to live their lives. "They are preoccupied, asking themselves, 'Should I get married or not? Should I get married later? Should I have kids first or a career first?'" Schwartz observed. "All of these are consuming questions, and they are going to answer these questions whether it means doing the work in my course or not and they should because these are consuming questions to answer." As a result, Schwartz said he started assigning 20 percent less work to these students. "I concluded that they are operating with an agenda of problems that were absent when I was in school," Schwartz told me.

Is that true? Does life today require more brainpower to navigate than it did in the past? Probably. For one thing, there are more options to weigh in everything from career to dating to cereal, spawning a whole genre of books tackling the subject of choice overload. Consider career paths as just one example. There are hundreds more job types today than there were when our parents were growing up. Thanks to technology, there are new-fangled positions like social media reporter, data detective, e-book creator and creative technologist -- and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

As for romance, our options have multiplied exponentially. It used to be you knew the people from your hometown and college. Now our dating pools consist of our friend's friend's friends whose profiles we comb through on Facebook and an ever-multiplying number of dating sites like OkCupid, which put millions of people at our fingertips. John Tierney, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote about how the ballooning of number of options results in decision fatigue. Having more choices is physically exhausting. The brain gets tired from having to pick between so many things. Just ask any 20-something.

On top of that, we're a generation tangled in anxiety about attaining economic security, finding love and reaching the markers of adulthood that came far more easily, and quickly, to our parents. In an era when our jobs are being shipped to Bangalore or being given to workers twice our age, we have to reinvent how to make our way in the world and how to adjust our measurement of what it means to be successful. For over a decade now, the concept of holding one job for fifty years and receiving a gold watch upon retiring has been a well-documented anachronism.

So, are we really all that different than our parents and grandparents? Yes and no. Every generation likes to think it is unique, but here are the facts that set us apart. There's student debt that our grandparents, thanks to the GI Bill (which provided a whole generation of returning World Word II veterans access to higher education through loans and grants), didn't have. There's the rise of entrepreneurship, a result of the web revolution, which has given anyone with an internet connection the potential to start an e-commerce business. Then there are massively shifting racial demographics brought on by, among other factors, the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 that resulted in large waves of immigration, particularly from Asian countries in the 1970s.

The median age of marriage is the highest it has ever been, reaching 32 in some urban areas. And with the delay in marriages comes rapidly evolving gender roles, as single, childless women spend their 20s advancing their careers and out-earning their male counterparts in many cities. Twenty-somethings, much to their credit, are designing a new framework for adulthood -- the desire for a fulfilling job, a meaningful life, and high expectations for just about everything. But this isn't because we are entitled. The striving and seeking is Darwinian. We've had to evolve like this in order to survive in the hyper-competitive world we grew up in. Just listen to how those over 40 compare themselves to us to get a taste for how competitive life is for those born in the 1980s. "I could screw around a lot in my 20s, and it was okay," Barbara Ray, who is 50 and was a 20-something in the 1980s, and author of Not Quite Adults, told me. "If you don't get on that treadmill, you are quickly left behind. I just see that the stakes have gotten higher and higher."

Then there's the economic landscape. Financial security and career stability are elusive, giving those who can get some help from their parents, either in terms of free rent or money for graduate school, a big leg up. Graduate education, which used to be considered the icing on the cake, is now almost mandatory, and the cost is appalling -- setting millions of young people back many thousands of dollars. So we'll pay off that debt working long hours in entry-level jobs, commuting to work from an apartment we pay an exorbitant sum to share with four other 20-somethings, or we'll forgo living on our own and opt instead to pay emotional rent living at home. By now we know the economic indicators aren't in our favor, and the challenge for us is to figure out how to do more with less at a time when we expect more from our lives.

And like previous generations that lived through the Great Depression and other major economic downturns, we are grappling with how to make our way in the world after the global economy took its biggest hit in fifty years. Thankfully, we do have certain advantages, like being digital natives. That is to say, young people today grow up with technology, and often understand it intuitively. "It's the first time ever that young people have more experience with technology. Just look at the fact that nine-year-olds program the VCR for their grandmothers," pointed out Lindsey Pollak, 36, the national spokesperson for LinkedIn and author of Getting from College to Career

But even with our technology advantage, "adulthood is a taller order these days," says Brent Donnellan, a professor of psychology Michigan State psychology who studies the transition to adulthood. "When we look at surveys on what this generation values, we see that they want a lot. Other generations didn't want everything."

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