Much has been said, and coined, lately about my generation — the so-called Millenials, Generation Y, Generation Next, the Boomerang Generation, the MTV Generation, or, my personal favorite, the Trophy Kids.
As summer began, the Wall Street Journal bemoaned our generation's bleak job prospects in a woeful "Lament for the Class of 2010." In February, Pew Research Center released a 149-page report tracking the lifestyles, habits, characteristics and aspirations of our generation, concluding that we are "confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat" and that we treat our "multi-tasking hand-held gadgets almost like a body part."
The New York Times has been particularly ambitious. Just the other week, its magazine produced a 10-page dissertation on 20-somethings and our ability, in all our boomeranging glory, to pioneer a new life stage known as "emerging adulthood." In July, a front-page story told the plight of 24-year-old Scott Nicholson, a 2008 graduate of Colgate University who lives with his parents because he has yet to find a job. (Fourteen percent of Millennials are looking for, but can't find, work; another 23 percent aren't seeking jobs.)
These stories highlight a disturbing trend: Despite being on track to become the most-educated generation in American history, we are unemployed at levels largely unseen in decades. Pundits have pontificated at length about the causes and effects of this malaise. Unfortunately, most are non-Millenials, and therefore arguably unprepared to explain this fundamental generational shift. So here's a take from someone born in the '80s...
My generation is in the midst of a classic battle between expectations and reality. Our parents and grandparents came of age when a stable job and a weekly paycheck were merely a means to an end. It didn't matter what the job was, as long as it paid the bills and afforded a desired lifestyle. That was attained through hard work, perseverance and education.
As the years passed, those expectations and dreams increased. By the time we were born, the expectation was that this "job" wouldn't merely be a means to an end, but an end in and of itself. Time inflated expectations.
Earlier this summer, Tomi-Ann Roberts, professor of psychology at Colorado College, gave a thought-provoking baccalaureate address to CC's class of 2010. She examined a theory of happiness put forth by psychologist William James. According to James, Roberts explained, our happiness is a balance in a fraction where successes are the numerator over the denominator of pretensions or aspirations. Such a fraction may be increased by diminishing the denominator as well as by increasing the numerator. To give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to have them gratified.
In other words, Roberts paraphrased, we should try lowering our expectations.
Unfortunately, that's remarkably difficult after years of going the other way.
Our well-intentioned but programmatic parents gave us the answers to an equation that's no longer valid. They told us if we worked hard in school, got into a good college and graduated, the world would be our oyster.
It is not. That equation ended at commencement and the unstable post-graduate years represent a challenge we're not programmed to face, bad economy or not. After fulfilling the required roles of our youth with excellence (and many trophies), we have no idea how to define ourselves beyond them.
As a result, my generation is left coping with unrealized expectations and unfulfilled dreams. We're grappling with an age-old question best articulated by quasi-Millennial John Mayer (Playboy PR debacle notwithstanding):
I rent a room and I / fill the spaces with / wood in places to / make it feel like home / but all I feel's alone. / It might be a quarter-life crisis / or just the stirring in my soul. / Either way, I wonder sometimes / about the outcome / of a still verdict-less life. / Am I living it right? / Am I living it right?
Am I living it right? Unfortunately, for that question, there are no trophies, and thus, perhaps, our quandary.
Kristin Lynch is a local writer and closet John Mayer fan. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.