Y's at a Fork in the Road

A few weeks back, I wrote a snarky comment on my friend's blog post about Generation Y:

Mike, you're talking about a generation whose parents helicoptered around them, who got trophies for simply participating and not necessarily winning or excelling, and who (up until 12-24 months ago) thought that house prices and stock markets could only go up, and you're wondering why people feel entitled?

What I'm holding my breath on for Gen Y is whether they are going to be permanently scarred by grim employment prospects (like Japan's "lost generation"), or whether the experience gives them the right perspective to reform their entitled ways and be more like us cynical, workaholic, no-one-is-going-to-look-out-for-me-and-my-parents-are-divorcing-and-the-world-is-going-to-end-in-nuclear-holocaust-so-I-just-have-to-take-care-of-myself Gen X'ers.

Before you dismiss my rantings as ho-hum intergenerational trash-talking, note that a recent Business Week article picked up on these same themes. The article's premise is that the recession is giving young'uns unprecedented opportunity for responsibility and leadership, and profiles a handful of go-getters who are doing really cool stuff at a really young age as a result of the employment and economic wreckage.

The article sounds an ominous note, however, by suggesting that these success stories are not indicative of Gen Y, quoting a survey that found that while over half of Gen Yers surveyed felt their careers were in limbo, 93 percent were unlikely to push for more responsibilities. Common responses to dead-end jobs were to wait out the rough economy, go back to school, and "do what I'm told, nothing more, nothing less." I would be remiss if I did not chime in here to say that these responses are anathema to the typical Gen Xer, who sees opportunity in crisis and finds recessions the best time to launch one's own business.

Here's the money paragraph from the article, expressing far better than I did in my rant to my friend, but similar in substance:

For Generation Y, all this represents a dilemma. As a generation, it never suffered from lack of ambition. But to get the responsibilities they covet, millennials will need a new outlook on work. Often criticized for a sense of entitlement, members of this cohort will have to knuckle down and pay their dues. And though often seen as needing direction, they'll have to make do without hand-holding. Plus, the search for work-life balance that Gen Y considers a priority will be more elusive than ever.

Intergenerational sniping aside, I'm rooting for Gen Y to have it all: work-life balance AND wisdom from dues-paying and self-starting AND responsibility beyond their years. But to get there, these cats will have to make some tough choices. The irony for me is that the one-letter appellation this generation has taken on - Y - looks like a fork in the road. So which path will it be?
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