The Millennial Generation Test

March 2, 2009 | By Gregory Rodriguez

Many generations test their mettle in a crisis that defines them through the ages. The "Greatest Generation" had World War II. The Baby Boomers had Vietnam. Now the Millennial Generation -- the computer-savvy, coddled and cocky children of the 1980s -- may find that the current financial crisis is their crucible. If they survive it.

Variously dubbed "Generation Me," "Generation Y" or the "Everyone Gets an Award Generation," today's twentysomethings are to the Boomers what the Japanese are to electronics. If the Baby Boomers invented me-first hyper-individualism, then the Millennials have perfected it. Indeed, Millennials are the children of the Boomers, the product of family planing and the cult of self-esteem. They are hellbent on making it by their own rules.

A lot of those who are studying Millennials have identified this "we'll do it our way" tendency as a sign of entitlement and weakness; by this logic, this won't be the greatest generation, just the whiniest and the neediest. But in my experience -- I'm Generation X with the Ys on my heels -- and in the studies of another set of observers, all that confidence instills in them just what their folks hoped it would: resilience. OK, arrogance and resilience

Not long ago, the economy seemed poised not only to embrace the millennials but to start taking orders from them. A survey by Jobfox, an Internet job site, found that Millennials prefer setting their own work hours, being treated as equals and, because they understand that sooner or later everything becomes obsolete, constantly learning new skills.

"Businesses," said Jobfox Chief Executive Rob McGovern last fall, "must learn new ways to incorporate Gen Y views. ... The companies that succeed ... will be the ones that can most inspire Generation Y. This is the most educated and technologically savvy generation ever."

But that was before the financial crisis. The recession is hitting younger job-seekers hard. There are fewer jobs available, and many older workers are either trying to delay retirement or reenter the job market.

"If [Millennials] don't adjust to reality, many are going to end up with a lot of disappointment," said Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled --and More Miserable Than Ever Before. "But that would be true even if they had realistic expectations, which they don't."

The thing is, they do have the smarts and the confidence to adjust to reality, even if they retain those high expectations. I talked to a handful in an informal survey of the first wave of Millennials who are out of college and trying to make it now.

Lily Granville, 22, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Northwestern University last spring, has already lost her first job at a hedge fund in Chicago. The setback, however, hasn't altered her essentially optimistic Millennial worldview as much as it has reinforced it. "My generation didn't have a ton of faith in the solvency and permanence of institutions as it was," she said. "I think the recession will make us ... improve our skill sets. We'll have to be more self-sufficient."

Kristina Holliman, a 23-year-old UCLA graduate who is employed, admits that the recession is "discouraging." But here's that resilience, shining through: "I think it just makes you realize that it's going to be a little harder," she told me. 

But what if it's a lot harder and the recession is protracted?

UC Irvine researcher Ellen Greenberger is the lead author of a recent study that found that a third of college students thought they deserved a B just for attending lectures, and that 40% said they deserved a B just for completing the required reading. She worries that this generation will be deeply embittered. 

"The insults of this recession might be seen as a personal affront to their high expectations," she said. 

But Morley Winograd, coauthor of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics, has no such concerns. "This is not an embittered and cynical generation," he said. "Although they did tend to be protected as children, they were also taught to compete and to perform. This will only make them more determined."

It's much too early to know exactly how this recession will shape the Millennials. But as a not-so-proud member of the slacker generation, I'm confident these upstarts will find their way. After all, if life is going to beat you down eventually, you might as well go in with high expectations and your head held high. As the going gets tough, I'd rather this new generation be arrogant than insecure.