A tide of judgmental ink has lately been splashed across Generation Y, and the verdict is unfavorable: these youngsters are lazy and self-involved. Time magazine called them “delusional” and Forbes points a finger at their “entitlement." Meanwhile, a Huffington Post story tells Generation Y they deserve their unhappiness and gets more than a million likes on Facebook. Across the nation, the commentators agree that these youngsters need to snap out of their selfishness and apply the same diligence older generations use to succeed.
The commentators have it wrong.
I work with Generation Y every day and I can tell you this is an inspired generation distinctive for its creativity in a challenging economy and its resilience on a changing globe. The students I see become entrepreneurs and problem solvers, Olympic athletes and community builders.
In "The Great Gatsby," author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator recalls his father’s advice: "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." The rush to criticize Generation Y emerges from blindness to their particular circumstances. I mean look at the world they have to deal with: federal shutdowns; a Great Recession; climate change; rising college costs and shrinking college aid; the demise of American manufacturing and the outsourcing of white-collar jobs; the end of corporate pensions and the beginning of municipal bankruptcies. New conditions call for new habits, and none of this recommends the clock-punching that served the baby boomers so well.
But instead of complaining or waxing fatalistic, the maligned Generation Y has invented itself as our country’s most creative, entrepreneurial engine. The Wall Street Journal says “they’re tech savvy, racially diverse, socially interconnected and collaborative,” which helps them “question the status quo and devise new ways of doing business." These are good qualities in a global economy and good qualities in a nation where very soon Generation Y will be more than 20 percent of the workforce. Where Forbes sees “entitlement and extreme laziness,” I see a passionate effort to reimagine work and an energetic engagement with the world.
Right here in Utah we can look at world champion ski jumper Lindsey Van — when the International Olympic Committee said women couldn’t jump in the 2012 Olympics, Van responded by lobbying for 2016 and donating bone marrow to a cancer patient in her spare time.
Consider skier Brody Leven, who graduated into a recession in 2010. Did he whine? No, he started his own blog, took his energy to the mountains and his enthusiasm to the Web and now the big ski companies call and ask if they can sponsor him.
Or away from the snow, there’s Alizabeth Potucek who ran our college’s organic garden, graduated last year and today works for the Peace Corps in Cameroon. And Meg Osswald, who cared about southern Utah enough not to take sides, works with ranchers and the state and began a career in natural resource law at Utah’s own Quinney College of Law.
Yes these are anecdotes, tiny examples, but so are the slanderous stick figures from The Huffington Post. It may be that each generation distrusts the next, and the malignant suspicion we see of Generation Y is born from that old rage. But I urge you to look closely at this new generation, and instead of seeing an impoverished version of an ideal past I think you’ll find the spirit of tomorrow’s success.
Jeffrey McCarthy is a professor of English and chairman of environmental studies at Westminster College.
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