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Redefining the Millennials: Lazy? Try enterprising, creative, resilient [The conversation]

November 18, 2011 |  9:14 pm

Millennial illustration
Millennials, of which I am a member, have gotten a bad rap. We've been accused of being lazy, self-indulgent, coddled, narcissistic and distracted by too much technology. And though we may possess some of those characteristics some of the time, the critics have largely missed the mark.

A new crop of articles should surely change that perspective. I hope. Many of us born between the late '70s and mid-'90s spent our childhoods training and preparing for successful careers. As the first half of our generation knows all too well, though, the real world hasn't been as kind to us as it was to our predecessors. But while the unemployment rate and the constant reminder that we're the first generation to have it worse than our parents are among today's dream-crushers, certainly we haven't been rendered paralyzed. Some would even argue that we're living in the golden age of creativity and the entrepreneur. Here's the latest conversation ...

Lazy? Hardly. Here's Catherine Rampell in the New York Times:

Generation Y -- or Millennials, the Facebook Generation or whatever you want to call today's cohort of young people -- has been accused of being the laziest generation ever. They feel entitled and are coddled, disrespectful, narcissistic and impatient, say authors of books like "The Dumbest Generation" and "Generation Me." […]

"I don't think this is a generation of slackers," said Carl Van Horn, a labor economist at Rutgers. "This image of the kid who goes off and skis in Colorado, I don't think that's the correct image. Today's young people are very focused on trying to work hard and to get ahead." […]

Perhaps most important, many of the behaviors that older generations interpret as laziness may actually enhance young people's productivity, say researchers who study Generation Y.

In fact, Millennial women are burning out by 30, writes Larissa Faw on Forbes, exhausted by the seemingly endless goal of "having it all."

It seems relaxation is something Millennial women have never experienced. One reason that women are burning out early in their careers is that they have simply reached their breaking point after spending their childhoods developing well-rounded resumes. "These women worked like crazy in school, and in college, and then they get into the workforce and they are exhausted," says Melanie Shreffler of the youth marketing blog Ypulse. […]

Many are turning to therapists and prescription medicines, as well as explore alternative remedies, including acupuncture, yoga, and even psychics.

Speaking of having it all: The micro-generation nestled between Gen X and Gen Y not only wants to have it all, but the feeling is exacerbated by opposing wills. Here's Slate’s Doree Shafrir pop cultural take:

But what seemed to be the best moniker for our micro-generation [anyone born between his inauguration in January 1977 and Reagan's in January 1981] was a Teen Vogue editor's suggestion:

"Generation Catalano." Jared Leto's Jordan Catalano was a main character in the 1994-95 ABC series My So-Called Life, a show that starred Claire Danes as Angela Chase, a high school sophomore struggling with the thing that teenagers will struggle with as long as there are high schools: who she is. "People are always saying you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster. Like you know what it is even,'" she says in a voice-over in a midseason episode. […]

Claire Danes' Angela -- and Heathers' Veronica Sawyer and Freaks and Geeks' Lindsay Weir -- also fall into a trope of television and film that's an especially apt representation of Generation Catalano (or at least those of us who were white and from the suburbs): the girl who doesn't know where exactly she fits in, because she's smart (full disclosure: the struggle Lindsay has over whether to stay on the Mathletes hit a little too close to home), wants to be popular, and has to leave her old, dorky friends behind.

And there is the fear that despite wanting to have it all, we'll actually end up with less than the generations before us. Here's Robert Hiltonsmith in the American Prospect on "Generation Y bother."

Why is this recession different from other sharp downturns? The standard economic indicators fail to tell the whole story. Yes, unemployment rates for young people remain at the record-high levels they hit at the Great Recession's peak in 2007, but this is typical for young workers, who tend to be the last group that recovers after a recession -- and tend to feel its effects far after the economy has rebounded. The young baby boomers who bore the brunt of the 1981-1982 recession had lower earnings even 15 years after the economy recovered, and during that downturn the economy only lost half as many jobs as during the Great Recession. For youth entering the workforce today, not [only] has the sour economy delayed their careers; they are entering a workforce that offers historically low wages and, unlike their parents, they're coming in with massive amounts of student-loan debt. […]

Millennials’ parents, the Baby Boomers, were able to buy their first homes and start their careers and families in their late teens and early 20s, right out of high school or college, with little or no debt. They had jobs with good benefits, and often had traditional pensions, which made saving for retirement easier. The jobs Millennials are taking today don't typically come with a traditional pension, forcing them to shoulder nearly the entire burden of saving for retirement themselves.

These fears are echoed in Noreen Malone's brilliant New York magazine article, "The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright," which really gets to the heart of how Millennials are navigating -- and surviving -- the disappointment by recalibrating their expectations, holding on to their sense of optimism and possibly turning this era into the golden age of creativity. (Believe it or not, this is a short excerpt from the piece, which is really worth reading in its entirety.)

Our generation is the product of two long-term social experiments conducted by our parents. The first sought to create little hyperachievers encouraged to explore our interests and talents, so long as that could be spun for maximum effect on a college application. (I would like to take this forum to at last admit that my co-secretaryship of the math club had nothing to do with any passion for numbers and much to do with the extra-credit points.) In the second experiment, which was a reaction to their own distant moms and dads, our parents tried to see how much self-confidence they could pack into us, like so many overstuffed microfiber love seats, and accordingly we were awarded clip-art Certificates of Participation just for showing up. [...]

"All the articles in the newspaper say that investing in an IRA now means I'll have hundreds of thousands of extra dollars down the road, so I should just scrimp and save," [Lael Goodman] says. "But I can't scrimp and save because I'm doing that just to afford housing and groceries. So I'm screwed now, unable to enjoy young adulthood in the way that I feel I was promised, and screwed for the future.” […]

If you look at the people on the left who have painted the darkest picture of what the economic downturn means, they're a generation ahead: Matt Taibbi, for one, or Ken Layne, the publisher of Wonkette, whose ironized blog prose mixes strangely with his incredibly bleak reading of the economy and culture. (Layne told me, in an e-mail of ambiguous sincerity, that the main advice he would give a recent graduate was to own only what would fit in a backpack and keep a current passport always on hand.) They are unabashedly, feverishly upset. Their words practically sweat clammily. Our generation tends to prefer our dystopian news -- delivered with the impish smile of a Jon Stewart. (I turn the channel when it's time for scowling, ranting Lewis Black.) Reared to sponge up positive reinforcement that requires only a positive attitude as a buy-in, we are just not that into anger. […]

I'm one of those young people always calling themselves lucky: I've been employed throughout the downturn, in the industry that I wanted to work in. But at my old job, there were several rounds of layoffs. The first robbed me of my cubicle mate, the last (which came after I'd left) hit veteran colleagues at the top of their games. Watching that, I decided to never count on career stability and have tried to be less defined by my work. Some of my friends have recalibrated as well. "I look at the people in positions of authority in my office and see the stress and pressure they are under," says one. She has lowered the bar beyond which satisfaction supposedly waits. "It makes me think, Well, maybe I don't have to be in charge. Maybe I’ll be okay with just keeping afloat rather than making a splash." […]

It's part of the American way to get a lot of self-worth from your job. Meanwhile, one of the reasons there aren't enough of those jobs out there is that America no longer makes enough stuff. Young people feel that void, intrinsically. Making stuff is what got us smiles from our parents and top billing in refrigerator art galleries. And since we are, as a generation, more addicted to positive reinforcement than any before us, and because we have learned firsthand the futility of finding that affirmation through our employers, we have returned to our stuff-making ways, via pursuits easily mocked: the modern-day pickling, the obsessive Etsying, the flower-arranging classes, the knitting resurgence, the Kickstarter funds for art projects of no potential commercial value. The millions upon millions who upload footage of themselves singing or dancing or talking about the news to YouTube. Of course, funny videos and adorable hand-sewn ikat pillows aren't the only kind of stuff that people are making as a way of coping with harsh economic realities -- meth, for instance, comes to mind. But putting aside those darker enterprises, this is a golden age for creativity and knowledge for their own sakes. Our pastimes have become our expressions of mastery, a substitute for the all-consuming career.

And many of the Millenials are turning that creative spirit into entrepreneurial opportunities, writes William Deresiewicz in the New York Times, which dubs us "Generation Sell."

The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman. Consider the other side of the equation, the Millennials’ characteristic social form. Here's what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kickstarter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet.

Today's ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it's the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration -- music, food, good works, what have you -- is expressed in those terms. […]

Because this isn't only them. The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity.) Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.

AND that, I think, is the real meaning of the Millennial affect -- which is, like the entrepreneurial ideal, essentially everyone's now. Today's polite, pleasant personality is, above all, a commercial personality. It is the salesman's smile and hearty handshake, because the customer is always right and you should always keep the customer happy. If you want to get ahead, said Benjamin Franklin, the original business guru, make yourself pleasing to others.


The millennial generation test

Poverty and the pursuit of happiness

Osama bin Laden's death: The millennials have a moment

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Illustration by Daniel Fishel / For The Times

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