Friday, May 31, 2013

"Generation Me" Bears No Resemblance to the Awesome, Ambitious People I Know

I think all of this "Generation Me" stuff is a load of crap.

There's a lot written in the news lately about millenials, young people born roughly between 1980-2000.  We're spoiled, self-centered, and entitled to achievements we didn't earn because our touchy feely helicopter parents gave out too many participation ribbons to boost our self esteem.  We lack ambition, take too many "selfies" on our new fangled smart phones and don't care about anything but our own happiness.  And because we've been coddled so much, we have no sense of the emotional strength it takes to take responsibility for our lives.

Another guy who made a lot of selfies.  Ugh, what a poseur.
It's a seductive stereotype--and it describes few of the people I know.

Most of the young people I know are ambitious, passionate, and constantly hustling to manage their lives, family commitments, and dreams.  The millenials I know work multiple jobs, run nonprofits, derail college and career plans to care for aging relatives, start yoga businesses and organize theatre companies. For the past year and a half I have been involved on and off with the JStreet Young Professionals Network, whose drive and accomplishments intimidate the crap out of me.  The head of  JStreet's New York City Chapter is a twenty-something who also works full-time at a publishing house.  Half of the management team at my Trader Joe's are twenty somethings and they bust ass every evening at one of the busiest stores in the city.  I used to canvass in the rain and snow with a bunch of kids who braved extreme weather conditions (and extremely rude New Yorkers) to recruit child sponsors.  On the street some people would sneer that if we really cared about these issues we would be volunteering rather than accepting a salary, and I would reply that there were far less exhausting ways to make my rent.  I almost cried with amazement hearing one of my students this semester talk about her plans to become a doctor and use her knowledge to help others. 

A major criticism of millenials is that we are putting off adulthood sooner in a navel-gazing attempt to "find" ourselves.  Are some millienials putting off "adulthood" sooner?  Perhaps.  I had maybe two married friends last year and suddenly, I have four weddings this year for people ages 27-29.  Is it that millenials are more maturing slower?  Or is it perhaps because we watched our parents suffer through midlife crises and divorces and we want to get our professional and emotional shit worked out before we ask someone to sign up to deal with our baggage till death do us part?  It's telling that Prince William and Kate Middleton opted to wait until 28 to get married as opposed to the fairy tale wedding of the 21-year-old Princess Diana.  Perhaps another couple of years, you know, figuring out who she was would have made for a less anguished marriage.  We don't do all of this crap to simply "feel good" about ourselves.  We do it so we can be more functional, fulfilled members of society and hopefully avoid nervous breakdowns when we're 50.  

And perhaps THIS is the entitlement that makes previous generations uncomfortable:  the idea that the pursuit of happiness is just as important as life and liberty and that it's not mutually exclusive to making a living.  One of my favorite parts of Lean In was when Sandberg cautioned us to move away from thinking of careers as a ladder.  You can only move in one direction on it, and the problem with everyone only playing on a ladder is you are always staring up at someone else's butt.  Instead, Sandberg encourages us to think of our professional lives as a jungle gym.  On a jungle gym, there are numerous ways to play and not only that, but there's room for many to participate.  Not only can you move up you can also move from side to side--sometimes you even have to move down a bit in order to achieve a better opportunity. 

I think this image of the jungle gym is particularly important in how we look at transitional jobs.  It's tempting to look at a young people working in positions that don't utilize their degrees as living out a sad statistic of our flatlined economy, forever doomed to a life of customer service and diminished expectations.  At the same time, I know scores of people who use customer service jobs as a means to pursue their larger goals rather than commit to a 9 to 5 that may not serve hem well in the long run.  I take immense inspiration from my friends Colin and Annie, who I met while canvassing.  Last March, all three of us had burnt out and finally made the difficult decision to walk away from fundraising before we had other careers lined up. In the face of a terrible economy, this idea seemed like folly.  (It also didn't help that HBO's "Girls" debuted during this period, and now all of pop culture was discussing how screwed we were.)  Annie did some waitressing, and Colin waited on a job he had applied for some time before. And within a month, both Colin and Annie had landed fantastic jobs--Colin at the District Attorney's Office and Annie as a graphic designer.   Walking through Bryant Park soon after I got a call from Colin that he had proposed to Annie on a boat in Central Park.  Two weeks ago, I went to their wedding.  

I could list countless examples of friends living out similar trajectories--actors, writers, entrepreneurs.  All people somehow powering through despite the concern-trolling from the media.  The Atlantic ran a particularly sharp retort to the TIME piece, highlighting magazine covers from throughout the 20th century decrying the youth for being self-obessed underachievers.  Despite the panic, every subsequent group of young people managed to grow up enough to be able to recognize what's the matter with  the next crop.

The kids really will be all right.  Now get off our lawn.

No comments:

Post a Comment