Meet the Millennials: Our most educated generation faces a most challenging time

October 30, 2010 | By Bob Young

Jason Yu is hiding out from the Great Recession, first at his parents' Woodinville house, then at Stanford University.

Yu started prepping for the SATs in fifth grade. He graduated from the University of Washington with a 3.7 GPA, a bachelor's degree in applied math, and a touch of anxiety.

Skeptical about the kind of work he could get this year, Yu moved home for five months before shoving off to graduate school in Palo Alto.

"I felt like I could get a $35,000- or $40,000-a-year job," says Yu, 22. "But after working so hard I felt I could strive for something more."

Yu's attitude is not uncommon among 20-somethings in the so-called Millennial Generation.

They expect to get jobs befitting their hard work and talent, says Susan Terry, director of the UW's Career Center.

Ushered in with the first Baby on Board signs in the early 1980s, Millennials were cocooned, coddled and chauffeured by over-protective parents, correcting for the hyper-individualist, anti-child times they grew up in.

Think about pop culture of the 1960s and '70s, says Neil Howe, a historian, demographer and author of six books about Millennials. Children were evil in movies such as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen. The frontiers of science focused on contraception. Birth rates plummeted.

Then came the soft-focus dawn of the "era of worthy children." Next thing you know, movies were about Three Men and a Baby. The percentage of fathers present at the birth of their children climbed from 20 percent in the late 1970s to 85 percent today. Every kid got a trophy. Some planned their resumes, as Howe says, before they got their braces off.

Then the recession laid waste to best-laid plans. More than a third of 18-to-29-year-olds are now unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, up significantly from a decade ago.

About one in eight over age 22 have "boomeranged" back to a parent, reports the Pew Research Center.

Along with these sobering numbers comes a popular storyline: Fragile, over-programmed Millennials are ill-equipped for adversity, with their constant calls to mom, need for Facebook breaks and great expectations.

But Millennials are often misunderstood, says Howe.

Look at LeBron James, the 25-year-old NBA star and his prime-time, mega-hyped announcement that he was leaving his hometown team in Cleveland to join buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

Hoop legend Michael Jordan said he couldn't imagine doing the same; he'd try to dunk on rivals Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, not join them.

But James' decision was classic Millennial, says University of Washington professor David Domke, and he's not talking about James' look-at-me antics.

Millennials grew up watching Barney and Friends and basking in the electronic group hugs of social networking. They're very team-oriented. It's no surprise, Domke says, to see James "getting his band together" in the quest to win a championship. (Remember, Millennials launched the Spice Girls, whose debut single bounced to the refrain "If you wanna be my lover, you gottta get with my friends.")

Underestimate them at your peril, says Howe, who has advised organizations from Nike and Ford to the U.S. Army and Harvard University. They are the biggest, most tech-savvy and likely to be the most-educated generation in American history.

"Companies that succeed will embrace them," says Boeing recruiter A.J. Dale.

If the 16 Millennials we talked to are any indication, they're not so much "spoiled" and "fragile" as "optimistic" and "persevering."

Every generation declares war on its parents, Igor Stravinsky once said.

Obviously, Igor never met Millennials, who are known for trusting, texting and "friending" their parents. But his point is well-taken. To understand a generation, you need to know who came before.

First, a disclaimer. Howe acknowledges that dividing lines are inexact. It's hard to say with certainty that every 28-year-old is a Millennial and every 29-year-old is a Gen-Xer. But research from Pew and Gallup polls to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show how key events and common characteristics link generational cohorts, creating a collective identity for them.

While they differ slightly on the years that frame recent generations, Howe and the Pew center agree on the basic personalities that define them.

Probably no generation has received as much fanfare as the GI Generation, or Greatest Generation. Born before 1925, they saved the world from Hitler in World War II. With a strong sense of team play, they promoted peer solidarity through unions (whose U.S. membership peaked in 1948) and new government social programs.

They were followed by the ultra-conformist Silent Generation (born 1925 to 1942), who gave us solid, though gray "organization men." The Silents went home to manicured suburbs that seemed to stifle egos but promoted stable, long-term careers and friendly reliability.

The Silents gave rise to the boisterous individualism of Baby Boomers (1943-1960), named for the spike in birth rates that began after World War II. Focused on inner vision, Boomers questioned authority, trusted no one over 30, and crowded into "culture careers," such as teaching and journalism. They're proud of their work ethic and need to infuse careers with mission and meaning.

Generation X (1961-'81) survived rampant divorce, latch-key childhoods, devil-child movies and the sexual minefield of AIDS. Criticized as slackers who thought "Reality Bites," they were hardened by grunge and hip-hop to become workplace "free agents" who embraced risks. They excelled as entrepreneurs.

Which brings us to the Millennials, who were born as abortion and divorce rates ebbed, and grew up with attachment parenting and politicians who defined issues in terms of their effects on children. With "helicopter moms" hovering over them, they were sheltered and risk-averse. (Under Millennials, 14 of the CDC's 15 youth-risk indicators including sexual activity, drug use and attempted suicide have declined. Only obesity has increased.)

Called Generation Y and Echo Boomers, the labels didn't quite work for Howe. He coined the term "Millennial" for those who came of age at the time of a rare event, the turning of a millennium.

Millennials are defined, he says, by seven core traits: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured and achieving.

More broadly, Pew notes they are the first "always-connected" generation, far more likely to create a profile on a social-networking site (75 percent) than to get tattooed (40 percent).

Domke, 43, used to be one of those annoyed by the Millennials' obsession with social media, smart phones and texting. But he came to understand that just as Boomers were shaped by TV, the Millennials are defined by their use of personal technology. "They interact with the world, they don't just receive it."

"This is a can-do generation," adds Domke, voted the UW Class of 2008's favorite professor. "These students want to be great. They're searching for a way to be what I call 'epic.' " That explains, in part, their overwhelming support (66 percent) for Barack Obama in the 2008 election.

Many people agree that Millennials work hard and excel at multi-tasking. But they do have some issues besides being dependent on spell-check and unable to differentiate between the words "loose" and "lose."

"They could perhaps be seen as a little needy," says Boeing's Dale, a Gen-Xer fluent in Lady Gaga. Some need to improve their emotional intelligence, she says, and aren't great at reading nonverbal cues, perhaps a product of their immersion in video games.

Because they're also lacking in "soft" work skills such as proper dress and manners, Boeing offers training in business and dining etiquette. Dale tells of the Millennials who come in and IM (that's Millennial for sending an instant message) an executive they've never met. Managers have to explain to them that may not be the best first step to take with the big wigs.

And while they have a strong work ethic, the UW's Terry says, they've been told time and again how gifted they are and tend to expect more of an immediate return on their efforts. This comes across particularly to Boomer co-workers as a sense of entitlement.

In her 2006 book, Generation Me, psychology professor Jean Twenge labeled them the most narcissistic bunch in modern history. Wall Street Journal editors call them Generation E, for "entitled."

Jason Yu says he doesn't feel entitled; his decision to forgo a $35,000 salary is strategic.

"I'm not convinced I can get a good job with just a bachelor's," says Yu, who would like to work as a management consultant. He considers grad school a "solid plan" and thinks he saved his parents money by doing undergrad work at UW instead of a private college.

And to be clear: If he can't get into a desirable career after Stanford, he'll view a "crappy job as better than no job."

For those already out in the job market, the results are decidedly mixed.

"I always worked hard for my trophies," says Nichole Cunningham, who started interning with the Everett AquaSox at 15 and over the next six years performed almost every job for the team, including dressing as mascot.

Cunningham graduated early, with honors, from Washington State University. She moved back to her mom's and dove into a temp job for a software company. That turned full-time, and three years later she was still living with her mom ("my best friend"), texting her daily. Like 83 percent of Millennials, Cunningham sleeps within reach of her cell phone, which doubles as her alarm clock.

She felt trapped, at times, in a job that paid less than she wanted. But she was eager to learn new skills like e-mail marketing. As for the low pay, she did something about it, supplementing her income with about $10,000 a year in weekend gigs she picked up, mostly from Craigslist. She took part in focus groups, greeted people at promotional events, tested software, even spoke pirate as a "Morganette" for Captain Morgan's rum.

Cunningham, 26, landed a new job in online marketing, with a substantial raise, and moved into her own apartment. She's saved enough for a down payment on a house.

"I plan on retiring early," she says. "I wasn't going to let the economy affect me."

Shaid Marley, also 26, has figured out her ideal job: park ranger. But in this economy, with only an associate degree in criminal justice, she sees her chances as "slim and none."

Her parents raised her to expect nothing to come easy. While other kids at Hazen High in Renton wore $200 jeans they'd soon outgrow, she mowed lawns to pay for her $500 car. "Being from a lower-middle-class family, I had to work for everything I've gotten," she says outside a job fair at Qwest Field on a brilliantly sunny day. "I will do anything. I will flip burgers, work in a hotel."

Marley had just quit her customer-service job in Bellingham to live with her boyfriend in Renton, a move that leaves her a little nervous. She's got a car loan, student loan and credit-card debt. Her best lead two weeks after the job fair is waitressing at Applebee's.

But she's excited to start a step-by-step plan. She'll learn medical transcription so she can work flexible hours at home. Then, it's back to school for a bachelor's in forestry and conservation. That, she figures, will open doors in parks and recreation. "I have high hopes," she says.

Erik Fuchs just wants to get back to where he was, financially speaking.

Fuchs, 26, had gone a year without work in his hometown of Fresno, Calif. So he packed up his pickup and moved into his aunt's one-bedroom apartment in Edmonds, sleeping on her living-room floor. He was ready to sling his tool belt over his shoulder, if need be, and go stand outside Home Depot.

It's quite a turnaround. Fuchs started working at 13, building fences on weekends with his father. Fresh out of high school he landed a coveted gig as a union electrical apprentice at $20 at hour. He moved on to wiring schools, airports and streetlights up and down the San Joaquin Valley.

As the recession deepened he went without work for months. His father died. His girlfriend suffered a miscarriage, and they broke up. Fuchs wanted to break out of Fresno and his depression.

He doesn't want to be a drain on his aunt and uncle. But he doesn't want to jump at Jack-in-the-Box just yet. "If it gets to the point where I can't buy my own bar of soap," he says of his last unemployment checks, then he'll take any kind of work.

The recession has been hard on men, who've suffered most of the job losses, particularly those in construction and manufacturing. Studies show that persistent problems have haunted young people who enter the workforce in recessions or depressions, according to The Atlantic. They've earned less and have more problems with drinking and depression.

All 16 of the Millennials we interviewed are feeling some pressure, probably no one more than Surafel Wodojo, 20.

There's the weight of a sibling rivalry with his sister, an electrical engineer at Boeing. There's the financial squeeze of college, even with six roommates and a part-time job. And there's the added responsibility he feels as an immigrant.

"You've got the whole village to make proud back in Ethiopia," where he and his parents emigrated from in 1997.

Wodojo feels ashamed to ask his parents for help or even eat their food. "I've gone through so many emotions," he says. "Why is God putting me in this situation? What did we do to deserve this?"

He stooped to something he never thought he'd do. "I applied at Jack-in-the-Box," he says. "They didn't even hire me."

A junior, Wodojo plays on the soccer team at Pacific Lutheran University and still dreams of making it a career. But right now he's thinking about taking a year off to pay down his student loans. "I have so much debt to my name," he says.

Somehow the Millennials remain quite confident.

"I've always been blessed," says Marley. "I'll work hard."

Even though he believes the middle class is shrinking, Fuchs still thinks he'll do better than his parents.

Wodojo is probably the most optimistic of all. "That's why you come to America," he says.

He has too many ideas to be kept down by the recession, he says. "I know I'm going to be successful. It's more about timing for me. I just want to get past this rough patch, get my degree and get out into the world."

Some worry that the Millennials' trademark confidence is setting them up for a hard fall. Time magazine editor Nancy Gibbs reminds us what Aristotle said: "Youth is easily deceived because it is so hopeful."

But count Gibbs as another with faith in the Millennials. She believes they "know something we don't about the inventions that will emerge from their networked brains, the solutions that might arise from a generation so determined to bridge gaps and work as a team."

The kids will be all right, Howe agrees. "The optimist usually ends up achieving better results than the pessimist."

Sure enough, Fuchs scored a job assembling light-rail cars in Mukilteo at $15 an hour. He was also cooking at a restaurant three nights a week, trying to save enough money to fly back to Fresno, fill a rental truck with his stored furniture and bring it to an apartment he hopes to rent.

The light-rail job is scheduled to last just a year. But for now, Fuchs is relieved – ” though exhausted. "I like building things and sweating," he says. "I'm beat, man. I'm beat."