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Generation Y: Children of Anxiety or Children of Affluence?

Are the children and young adults of Generation Y a group of self-obsessed whiners? Or are they a uniquely self-confident generation, perfectly poised to deal with global uncertainty?

Judith Warner, writing in this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine comes down firmly on the side of the Generation Y, also known as the Millennials. Taking a look at the critiques of kids born between 1982 and 2001 that deem the group a bunch of narcissistic crybabies lacking any form of work ethic, Warner begs to disagree. The Millennials are, she says, optimistic that they can transcend the economic straightjacket of our era and emerge triumphant. They turn down jobs that they believe are beneath their skill levels and refuse to work more than forty hours a week because they are astonishingly confident of their abilities, and are sure the world will eventually recognize them too.

Warner attributes this cohort’s “resilience” to the after affects of growing up in “the shadow of Columbine, 9/11 and, lately, widespread parental job losses. Maybe chronic unease has simply raised this generation’s tolerance level for stress, leaving it uniquely well equipped to deal with uncertainty,’ she writes.

I disagree.

Many a Millennial’s passionate belief in themselves can be attributed not to the uncertainty they grew up in, but to the financial brio that, until recently, marked the entirely of their lives. Call them Children of the Bull. After all, the lifespan of these tweens, teens and young adults coincided till very recently with the great 26- year bull market in stocks, the period from 1982 though 2007 where it seemed as though we had beaten back economic history, and were firmly on a path to permanent prosperity.

That world, as we all know too well, is now over. But in its glistening affluence, it gave birth to the so-called helicopter parent, the mom (and the occasional dad) who quit or scaled back on her work to shuttle their children from (paid) activity to (paid) activity, who read to their progeny as infants and dropped everything to tend to their adolescent angst, calling up teachers to complain about grades and completing their child’s homework assignments.

The San Francisco Weekly deemed it checkbook parenting, but it was more than that. Nothing was too good for the Children of the Bull, and everyone from jewelers to five-star hotels clamored for the business of their parents, offering up treasures ranging from emerald earings for little Emma to luxury tropical vacation camps for tiny Caleb. But all that money bought other things too, goodies that should not have been purchased so thoughtlessly. It paid for internships when children couldn’t obtain them on their own, and the bills of the high-end private college admissions counselors and tutoring services and, sometimes, admission to the elite schools themselves.

And, not surprisingly, the culture of money bought, for more than a few members of the Millennial generation, a belief that they didn’t need to accommodate themselves to adult life so much as that adult life had to change to meet their emotional and practical needs. After all, affluence was all they could recall and they acted accordingly, so certain of their ultimate success that they see little reason even now to compromise with those who would give them a paycheck.

While as a die-hard Gen X slacker myself, I fervently admire the Children of the Bull’s refusal to buckle down and serve The Man, any casual survey of economic data circa 2010 tells you that their burst of self-confidence is probably fueled not by their unique resilience but by the monetary energy received from one last desperate hit from the parental financial tit.  Job offers for recent college graduates have, after all, fallen by half since 2007, while the number of adult children moving back home is soaring.

However, it’s unlikely that Baby Boomer moms and dads are going to be able to provide continued cash cushions for their fledgling adult children for much longer. Many financial analysts contend that the retirement prospects of many helicopter parents is increasingly in jeopardy as the economic crisis that began in 2007 shows little sign of letting up, a fact that will likely lead over time to less practical read monetary — help from the ‘rents.

How the Children of the Bull will deal with making it on their own has yet to be determined.  But I’m betting they will handle it the same way as every generation before them:  they’ll give up on expecting employee paradise and get to work.

What do you think?

Photo: Faraz

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