Greed, Need, and the Participation Trophy: What it Means to be Generation Y – 19 January 2014
What’s the one thing that you hear most often from your grandparents, or great-grandparents, or other people you know who are around their age? If they’re talking to you about you, then hopefully something positive and loving. If their words are aimed at a party not present, like a celebrity you’re familiar with or a famous sports star, then it may likely be something like:
“He’s so soft!” Or:
“In my day, we didn’t have so much handed to us for so little…” Or even:
“Just look at this panty-waist. Somebody should super-glue a gun to his hands, drop him in a jungle, and pin a note to the front of his fatigues that says ‘Sack Up!’”
You get the idea. Some older people hate that we get participation trophies. They hate that we get certificates for perfect attendance even when we’re the dunce from hell. They hate that they were forced to sit back and watch as our parents raised us to be soufflés—drug-taking, smartphone-using, greedy, needy, soft soufflés.
But the question I’d like to pose is this: Just how right are our grandparents? When it comes right down to it, do we really have everything far too easy? And if so, what can we do to change this or, at the very least, keep from becoming our grandparents to our children, and grandchildren?
In 1991 William Strauss and Neil Howe, two intriguing authors-cum-demographers-cum-historians, wrote a mind-blowing book called Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (a mouthful!), based on their theory of generational cycling. In a nutshell there are four types of generation, each occurring consecutively once in a cycle. Every twenty to twenty-five years or so a generation of cohorts comes of age, and that generation shares characteristics of the relative generation in the previous cycle, based on general connections and background conditions that set the stage for that generation’s coming-of-age. Those background conditions (also called Turnings) have these awesome-sounding names:
A High is the First Turning, a period where the establishment holds sway and most of the people dance to its tune—conformity’s the name of the game here. The most recent High produced the Baby Boomer Generation, and lasted from 1946 to about 1963 or ’64. Think of Leave It to Beaver, and you’ll get the gist.
An Awakening is the Second Turning, a period of unrest when the establishment is questioned and individualism comes to the fore—spiritually, mentally, creatively. Square living becomes a social relic during an Awakening. The most recent spread from 1964 (campus unrest, civil rights protests) to 1981 (the start of Reagan’s first term in office) and kids born during this time are popularly termed Generation X. Are we seeing a pattern yet?
An Unraveling is the Third Turning, the exact opposite of the High that came before—the individual consciousness is society’s driving force and it’s the establishment that bows. Society literally unbinds itself from the pole of conformity and prefers individual accomplishment over groupthink. This is also an era when the personal (!) computer and the Internet begin to take off. During the last Unraveling (between 1982 and 2004) today’s Generation Y was born, and are currently running rampant on the college campus of today. Clemson is no exception.
The Fourth Turning, aptly named a Crisis, is the generation that is currently coming into being. According to Strauss and Howe those born in a Crisis go through the opposite of what generational cohorts did during the last Awakening—society sort of coalesces in on itself, and the upkeep of the hive is of greater value than that of a single drone.
Are you still with me? I suppose the important thing to take from the list above is the fact that generational cohorts come of age as the next generation is being born, so… that means that you, me, your girlfriend, and her brooding older brother—all of us are coming of age during the current Crisis. Civil disobedience plays itself out as we speak, on this forum or in that chatroom. Kids today take an interest in the direction America is heading and work to influence the nation’s path, rather than sit back and watch. Then they find others that have similar viewpoints and before you know it there are demos and Occupy movements springing up hither and yon.
While there are lots of kids that believe in what they do, for so many others it’s just a fad. Take for instance the wily hipster, running across the city in his flannel shirt and lens-less eyeglasses, using his trusty iPhone 5S to order ahead for his boss’ coffee—a half-caf espresso with just a dollop of foam and a generous dusting of nutmeg, perhaps. But keep in mind he’s doing this all so he can help overcome the greenhousing of our blue marble by interning at a magazine that only uses paper that’s at least sixty-percent brown grocery bag, and he tries ever so hard to leave a carbon footprint behind that’s no bigger than a camel’s.
And it’s probably because of this disconnect between ideal and what’s real that your grandpa calls you soft.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against hipsters. It’s just in the humorous example I posit above Gen Y’ers as a rule bite off more than they can chew. Sure, technological advancements like the smartphone and the one-cup personal (there’s that word again!) coffee maker make multitasking easier and more fulfilling when it’s done correctly, but it’s because of this increased ability to handle more at once that Generation Y cohorts feel… entitled to have so much more. And more is what we want, too.
While I was preparing to write this article I came across one written by Amy Langfield of CNBC, expounding on a study out of San Diego State University that says teenagers today are more likely to be materialistic and less likely to drive themselves to get what they want. Jean Twenge and Tim Kasser—two professors of psychology at SDSU and the authors of the study—have been collating and analyzing data that the University of Michigan has collected in a survey called “Monitoring the Future.”
Yeah, I hadn’t ever heard of this either.
Apparently, these surveys have been given to American high-school seniors every year since 1976 and they answer simple questions about where they think their post-high school lives will take them—questions concerning career choice, optimal amount of money made, those kinds of things. One of the questions asked on the survey is (presumably) “How hard do you think you should work?” At the time of the first survey about a quarter of high-school seniors said they didn’t want to work hard at all, and by 2007 the response had risen to almost forty percent, and had gotten more popular with every survey given between those years.
This article also brings up an interesting parallel with Gen Y’ers and the movie Wall Street, a film released in 1987 and one which introduced rising Gen X’ers to the Gekko-ism “greed is good.” As this movie was released just as some of the earliest Gen Y’ers were born it didn’t have a direct effect on their apparent lazing and spending habits, but their Baby Boomer and Gen X’er parents took it to heart, and (un)consciously foisted an Eighties sort of a materialistic sense of entitlement onto their kids.
Even so, there are several other reasons why this sense of needy greed pervades our generation. Many Gen Y’ers came of age or graduated college around the time of the global recession/crisis of 2008. For some time since many of us have been un- or underemployed, are still living at home, and are loathe to get married and start families because, as we see it, ‘If you’re not making six figures, you’re not making enough.’ Some people (i.e., grandfolks) see us as a Peter Pan figure, simply unwilling to grow the hell up. It makes sense, I suppose; sixty years ago most people our age would have been married, had a kid or five, and driven into work from their Leavittowns in their wide-body Packards every morning. Today, forget marriage—dating is a roulette wheel. We abhor children, and we wish we could whip Dodge Challengers through the streets of San Francisco.
So, how right are our grandparents? Do we have everything easier than they did? Hell yeah, we do. Do we have everything handed to us? Well, maybe not everything. Can we keep from becoming our grandparents one day? Probably not. I suppose in this case it’s far easier to agree to disagree.
But there is new ground that we, as Gen Y’ers, are breaking. We’ve made it okay and legal to marry a same-sex spouse, in some places. We’ve decriminalized non-life-threatening drugs, in some places. And once the old guard on Capitol Hill have run their course and are dead (the only way they can be barred from running the country again—God willing) we will have control of our nation’s destiny. Maybe we’ll soar higher than ever. Maybe we’ll run it into the ground, I don’t know. I’m not a psychic. But I do know that, slowly but surely, America will belong to Generation Y, and sooner rather than later.
So raise your head and that participation trophy you got for one day of pee-wee soccer as high as possible, ‘cause the world is yours, kid.