Be Happy, Son: The Millenial Generation Is Not Screwed

5 years ago

We’d spent the day cleaning his room, sorting his belongings, and beginning the long slow journey toward separation. My son was heading off to college and I was trying to make peace with it. The “It” here being his future.

So when the daily mail brought a magazine with an article asking “Are the Millennials the Screwed Generation?”, it was hard to ignore. After we both read it, my son turned to me. “Do you think we’re screwed?”

The question weighed heavy in my heart. Calling this generation “screwed” was a new concept for me. We’ve been reading about how darn lazy and spoiled they are, about parents who helicopter and kids who just aren’t French enough. I know I’m guilty of overindulging my little angels. Hell, I even struggled over whether I should get a college laundry service for my son until my husband reminded me that we managed to go to college, do our laundry, and still graduate. Spoiled is something I can work with, but screwed? That’s out of my hands.

When our children are younger, we try so hard to control the environment of their lives. We micromanage their food, their school work, their activities, their friendships. We are their primary influence. Then as they get older, we morph from helicopter to hummingbird, darting back and forth around the outer rim of their existence, trying to deny it is their friends who have the biggest impact. As my son heads off beyond childhood and adolescence into adulthood, I realize his life will now be shaped by the larger events that mark his generation, not the immediate community of family and friends. So, the question remains, is my son (and his peers) screwed?

I’ve done a little research. Here’s what I’ve learned: Despite recent headlines calling them spoiled and screwed, Millennials may have something the generations before them could only dream of: Happiness.

Happiness is all the buzz these days. Leading universities are focusing research on understanding the essential elements of happiness. Even business schools have professors teaching their students to equate happiness with the bottom line. Meanwhile, authors like Gretchen Rubin are getting rich trying to manifest it into their own daily lives. There does seem to be general agreement on what makes for an overall sense of well-being (happiness, if you will). Modest expectations, a willingness to work hard, a sense of optimism, connectedness, and doing for others keep popping up as the keys to unlocking the Rubic’s Cube of happiness.

Free Four Teens Jumping in Parking Lot Creative Commons

If you ask most people these days, they’d say Boomers would seem to have a lock on happiness. They came of age just as our country entered decades of economic growth and prosperity and, as a result, they have lived the “American Dream” with all of the attendant material goods that fantasy can buy. They were able to attend college at previously unprecedented rates, entered the workforce without a glitch, bought homes and then second homes, and even managed to save for retirement.

And then the Great Recession hit and suddenly their bubble burst. A few lost their homes, others were forced to go back to work, and most saw their 401Ks take a beating. It was a cold splash of water on an otherwise champagne infused life. Of course, there are those who would argue it was their fault in the first place that they, and the rest of us, are in this situation. But, current difficulties aside, for much of their lives, Boomers wanted for nothing and still they weren’t happy. A 2008 (ie: pre-Great Recession) report from the Pew Research Center, noted, “When it comes to quality-of-life assessments, data suggest the Boomers generally have been downbeat, compared with other age groups, for the past two decades."

Apparently, some people just can’t get no satisfaction.

My cohort, Gen X, has been called the stretched generation. We want it “all,” but are stretched to the gills trying to have it “all.” Mostly, we are stretched between home and work with little time to focus beyond. The Longitudinal Study of American Youth -- which focuses on Gen X -- notes we are overwhelmed and, as a result, have turned inward emphasizing food, home, and family over the weightier issues of the day. Politics? The advancement of women and people of color? Climate change? Eh, we’ve got problems of our own. The result? We may have a general sense of satisfaction, but we suffer a nagging feeling that our inward focus has left others on the sidelines. If doing for others is the recipe for true happiness, we’ve failed by a long shot.

But this next generation, Generation Y? According to Pew, they bring the optimism and ambition of their grandparents, the self-reliance and family focus of their parents, with a commitment to collaboration and diversity like never seen before. They want to make a difference, together.

Here is how their collaboration will change our world and lead them to lives of great satisfaction, perhaps even happiness:

  • They are beginning their adult lives with relatively modest financial aspirations. Thanks to the Great Recession, they have come of age when all bets are off. Sure we’ve spoiled them, but they are getting that cold splash of water their grandparents and parents experienced at a much earlier stage in their lives. They can not assume they will lead a life better than their parents. In fact, most assume they won’t. Unlike their grandparents, they won’t be disappointed if it is all taken away; they assume it’s not there in the first place. Working for money is not the ticket to happiness. As a result, they are changing the very nature of the workplace. They expect flexibility and work/life balance and because they are the workers of the future, employers are going to be forced to deliver.
  • As for being lazy? That’s a myth. More young people are now in college than ever before. Think of how hard this generation has worked just to get there. As the documentary Race To Nowhere and educational experts such as Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege, can attest, the overworked student who is stretched between their myriad of commitments and their efforts to get the best grades possible, is certainly not lazy. Stress or no, that same drive and focus will serve them well as they build their careers. They know how to work hard and not give up until they achieve their goals.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, despite the economic downturn and its attendant complications for Millennials, “their level of optimism is undiminished from where it was in 2004.” Sure they are the most underemployed generation since 1948 (which can be partly accounted for since many of them are in college and graduate school), but they believe, in the long run, they will find a rewarding career and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get there. For some, this means taking a job that does not directly correlate to their intended career. For others, this can mean moving back home in order to save for the future. These seemingly indirect paths are emblematic of the generation that came of age during and after the Great Depression. Millennials aren’t lazy or unmotivated, they’re practical.
  • Technology allows Millennials to be connected in ways previous generations never thought possible. Between Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Skype, and that old stand-by, the phone, I know more about my son’s first days at college then my parents knew about my entire four years. And, my son tells me he is keeping up daily with his high school friends at different colleges around the country. This level of connectedness means our children are not feeling isolated as they launch on this new phase of their lives. This connectedness is part and parcel of their desire and commitment to collaborate. They will not make the same mistake my generation did of focusing on the “I." Digital and social media trains them to think in terms of “we”.
  • As for giving back? A 2012 study of over 6,000 Millennials revealed that 63% had volunteered for a nonprofit in 2011, 90% expected to do as much or more in 2012. And despite the fact that they have entered the job market at the worst time since the Depression, a breath-taking 75% had given a financial gift to a charity and 71% had raised money on behalf of nonprofits in 2011. These are not the actions of the spoiled or self-involved. 

All of this means Millennials have a rich foundation for achieving a lifetime underlined by happiness. However, it isn’t just how Millennials will weather the larger events that mark their time on this earth, it is also their legacy we must consider. The elements that make up the recipe for happiness are also the elements that make for an engaged, thoughtful, committed citizenry, something that will benefit not just them as individuals, but society as a whole.

And so my son, no, I do not think you are screwed. In fact, you might just end up being the luckiest generation of all. At the very least, we are certainly lucky to have you.

Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I am working on unlearning each and every day. How about you? Lisen

Photo Credit: pinksherbet.

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