Hold your head high ... but don't forget to mind your step. (Photo by my sister Beatrice)
When our boomer parents decided that we should never feel bad about ourselves, did they do us a disservice?
We, the youth of today, have been raised on a steady diet of self-esteem supplements and ‘you-can-do-it’ rhetoric.
Since childhood, we’ve been told that we need only believe in ourselves, like the-little-engine-that-could, in order to reach the top of any mountain. We’ve collected gold stickers and decorated name cards, watched feel-good movies and expressed ourselves in crayon. It was the stuff of dreams.
Now, several of us are twenty-something and trying to thrive in the real world–a world that doesn’t always cash the cheques of our childhood reveries. Many of us are seeing a divide between our dreams–the beautiful home, the great career, the meaningful relationship–and our nightmares–mounting debt, a competitive job market, a high divorce rate.
We are left negotiating between our brightest hopes and our biggest fears.
But before I get ahead of myself, I should outline who I mean by “we.” If you grew up in North America during the 80s and early 90s, you can count yourself in. We are Generation Y, also known as the echo-boom, iGeneration, and the millennials.
Although social trends are always complicated at the ground level, a growing body of research is making some interesting generalizations about our particular cluster. The very titles of several texts are suggestive of the way we’re being perceived: You Raised Them, Now Manage Them (Fortune Magazine), Ready or Not, Here Come the Net Kids (Workforce), Generation Y’s Goal? Wealth and Fame (USA Today).
The implicit message: brace yourself world; these kids are expecting you to provide the goods.
In the New Jersey Law Journal, Tricia Kasting says Gen Yers place heavy emphasis on our interpersonal connections, our achievements, and our need for constant stimulation. She describes us as ‘special’, in that we have been told that we are all our lives; ‘sheltered’, in that we have led relatively protected and highly structured lives; and ‘confident’, in that we expect good news and believe in ourselves.
Bruce Tulgan affirms Kasting’s statements in a more hard-hitting fashion. His organization, RainmakerThinking Inc., hinges on the understanding of young people and generational differences. According to him:
“Gen Y has been pampered, nurtured and programmed with a slew of activities since they were toddlers, meaning they are both high-performance and high-maintenance [...they are also] much less likely to respond to the traditional command-and-control type of management still popular in much of today’s workforce”.
High maintenance? Are we really?
high on life
Well, we are the children that challenge our parents, not accepting “because I said so” as a final answer. We are the students that question our teachers and have the audacity to barter for A’s. We are the new employees who push the limits of dress code, valuing our personal comfort over formality. What’s wrong with that? We’re just trying to speak our minds, love ourselves, do our own thang and pursue our dreams. We are young, ambitious and ready to collect. Right?
Well, whether or not all of this applies to you, the point is that it is much more widespread than ever before. Many claim the exception has become the rule. But how did it get this way?
Explaining the socio-cultural influences that shape entire generations is nothing if not daunting; however, I’d like to touch on two of the commonly cited forces: our educational system and our media influences.
Dr. Jean Twenge dedicates great portions of her 242-page book to discussing these factors; a book which is provocatively titled “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled-and More Miserable than Ever Before.”Although her data is mostly American, she states, “many of the changes here can be generalized [...] particularly [to] other Western Nations such as Canada…”.
Twenge asserts that our upbringing was not accidental. Beginning in 1980, “there was a pervasive, society-wide effort to increase children’s self-esteem. [Boomer Parents] apparently decided that children should always feel good about themselves.”
Such a focus gave way to a curriculum which placed unprecedented importance on self-esteem and self-expression — as opposed to stressing other principles like obedience, hard-work and respect for authority. Self esteem has become widely institutionalized, even mandated in school mission statements, thus moving it past something that is encouraged to something that is taught, ingrained and even required. I fell victim to one such requirement in seventh grade, when Mrs. Petrinov assigned a poem with only one stipulation; it had to begin, “Mirror mirror on the wall, I’m the greatest one of all.”
Couple this kind of pedagogy with a media environment that doesn’t exactly encourage altruism and you get a potent blend.
Sut Jhally- Executive Director of the Media Education Foundation-asserts that we live in an individualistic consumer culture and, as such, the vast majority of messages we hear treat us as individuals living here right now. These messages require us to narrow our thought parameters and focus on our personal affairs–what some refer to as having market mentalities. This statement is not very avant-garde to a generation that has grown up with these kinds of messages. We are used to advertisers bypassing our parents and marketing to us directly.
What happens if we don’t get our way?
The flip side of being too high on ourselves when we succeed is that we are also too hard on ourselves when we fail.
But couldn’t one argue that knowing what we want, having a high self-esteem and focusing on ourselves are just our driving forces? If we’re so confident, won’t we do better in the long run?
Well, this is where we must factor in the other part of the equation. As Twenge notes, the flip side of being too high on ourselves when we succeed is that we are also too hard on ourselves when we fail. When things don’t go our way, we are disproportionately crushed. Our sense of resilience often suffers at the behest of our sense of entitlement.
Peter Silsbee, Vice President of research company Roper Starch, states, “These kids have extraordinarily high expectations. They are going to have some trouble with long, drawn-out apprentice periods”. This view is echoed by author Claire Raines who agrees that we are “showing up for work with pretty high and probably unrealistic expectations”. When we throw our graduation caps up into the air, a frustrating job hunt is probably not at the forefront of our minds. Many of us don’t even know what we want to do with our spiffy new diplomas. If we procrastinate on writing term papers, you can imagine how we postpone long-term planning. Writing for Fortune magazine, Nadira A. Hira states:
“Upon graduation, it turned out that a lot of Gen Yers hadn’t learned much about struggle or sacrifice. As the first of them began to graduate from college in the late 1990s, the average educational debt soared to over $19,000 for new grads, and many Yers went to the only place they knew they’d be safe: home”.
The implication: we are only ostensibly independent. Hira quotes Jeffrey Jensen in calling it “emerging adulthood.” No previous generations have been able to put off ‘growing up’ for as long as many of us have. Whereas most people used to get married in their very early twenties, they are now making such large commitments closer to their thirties. Jensen says we now look at our 20s very differently, as a time that is much more volatile and unstructured.
So, what about our hopes and dreams?
When the camera pans over entire line-ups of jubilant young faces, all convinced that they will be anything from Canada’s next top model to Trump’s newest apprentice, the reality is that most won’t be. If you separate the reality out from TV, you can expect that, at some point, you’ll be the one who was this close to the prize – but didn’t make it.
Of the latest 1,900 applicants to UofT’s law school, only 180 ended up in first-year placements. Most people with PhD’s in English and History struggle to find a University position, never mind obtain tenure. Harvard sends the bad news to 50% of applicants with outstanding SAT scores.
The result: many people, who are often qualified and deserving, do not obtain a seat in the grand game of musical chairs.
Ask yourself: do I expect a reserved seat at every one of life’s special ceremonies? If so, perhaps you should consider the words of Dr. Polly Young-Eisendrath, who asserts that:
“[in order to] develop into emotionally mature adults, we have to give up fantasies that once sustained us–such as, ‘There are perfect people in the world with absolute control of their lives and I will become one of them’”
Such emotional maturity may require us to walk the thin line between our dreams and our nightmares, and it’s fair to wonder how exactly we expect to do that without self-esteem.
The thing is, the point of this article isn’t to debunk the value of self-esteem per se; It is merely to suggest we reassess the type of self-entitled and sometimes rootless esteem that we’ve been raised with. I would argue that self-esteem is not a fixed, one-time achievement but an ongoing process of cultivation and moderation. As the popular Sunscreen song notes, “Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself, either. Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s.”
When we wake up as adults, we find a world in which we can still defiantly hope for the best while boldly preparing for the worst–all the while knowing that we’ll probably get something in between.
I originally published a version of this article in the March 2008 Issue of MacMedia Magazine