The Way We Live Now

May 28, 2010 | By Judith Warner

For the past few years, it’s been open season on Generation Y — also known as the Millennials, echo boomers or, less flatteringly, Generation Me. Once described by the trend-watchers Neil Howe and William Strauss as “the next great generation” — optimistic, idealistic and destined to do good — Millennials, born between 1982 and 2002, have been depicted more recently by employers, professors and earnestly concerned mental-health experts as entitled whiners who have been spoiled by parents who overstoked their self-esteem, teachers who granted undeserved A’s and sports coaches who bestowed trophies on any player who showed up.

As they’ve entered adulthood, they have inspired a number of books on how unmanageable they are in the workplace, with their ubiquitous iPods, flip-flops and inability to take criticism. Stories abound about them as college students, requiring 24/7 e-mail access to professors and running to Mom and Dad for help with papers or to contest a bad grade. A consensus has emerged that, psychologically, they’re a generation of basket cases: profoundly narcissistic and deprived of a sense of agency by their anxiously overinvolved parents — in short, a “nation of wimps,” as Hara Estroff Marano, the Psychology Today editor at large, has put it.

The behavior of many of this year’s college seniors might further fuel this story line. They are graduating into a labor market decimated by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate for early 20-somethings is close to 20 percent. Increased applications to grad school have turned that option of sitting out the recession into a reach. Even going into teaching — hyped a year ago as the most acceptable Plan B for high achievers turned off by (or turned away from) Wall Street — has become much tougher, as school districts have been devastated by budget cuts. Yet despite the fact that the new graduates are in no position to pose conditions for employers, many are increasingly declaring themselves unwilling to work more than 40 hours a week. Graduates are turning down job offers in high numbers — essentially opting to move back home with their parents if the work offered doesn’t match their self-assessed market value.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which every year surveys thousands of college graduates about their job prospects and work attitudes, fully 41 percent of job seekers this year turned down offers — the exact percentage that did so in 2007, when the economy was booming. And though less than a quarter of seniors who applied for work had postgraduation job offers in hand by late April (compared with 52 percent in 2007), many are still approaching work with attitudes suited for a full-employment economy.

“Almost universally they want to find a job that’s not just a job but an expression of their identity, a form of self-fulfillment,” says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a Clark University psychology professor who interviewed hundreds of young people across the economic spectrum for his book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties.

Not only do they believe these perfect jobs exist, but today’s recent graduates also think they’re good enough to get them. “They see themselves as really well prepared and supremely good candidates for the job market,” says Edwin Koc, director of research for the National Association of Colleges and Employers. “Over 90 percent think they have a perfect résumé. The percentage who think they will have a job in hand three months after graduation is now 57 percent. They’re still supremely confident in themselves.”

For critics, this is irrational exuberance, an example of group psychosis, proof that this generation is headed for a major crash. “It’s not confidence; it’s overconfidence,” Jean Twenge, a professor in the department of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me, told me recently. “And when it reaches that level, it’s problematic.”

But at a time when so many of their elders are struggling emotionally to keep their heads above water — dealing with layoffs or the fear of layoffs, feeling the walls closing in around them as whole professions contract in new and unanticipated ways — the children, you have to consider, might be on to something. I interviewed nine students recommended to me by college professors and officials, yielding a picture of emerging adults with a striking ability to keep self-doubt — and deep discouragement — at bay. Many were jobless, others were dissatisfied with their work or graduate-school choices, yet they didn’t blame themselves if life failed to meet their expectations. They didn’t call into question their choices or competencies. It was as if all the cries of “Good job!” they heard as children armed them against the repeated blows of frustration and rejection now coming their way.

“They’re extraordinarily optimistic that life will work out for them,” Arnett says. “Everybody thinks bright days are ahead and eventually they will find that terrific job.”

These emerging adults may be off-putting to a worried 40-something — their sense of entitlement and their lack of humility are somewhat hard to take — but they’re not necessarily maladapted. On the contrary, with their seemingly inexhaustible well of positive self-regard, their refusal to have their horizons be defined by the limitations of our era, they just may bear witness to the precise sort of resilience that all parents, educators and pop psychologists now say they view as proof of a successful upbringing.

It may be that this resilience — this annoying yet admirable ability to stay positive in depressing and frightening times — has nothing to do with the parents. Perhaps it’s a result, as some longtime observers of this generation have suggested, of growing up in an era of almost unremitting ambient anxiety: school years spent in the shadow of Columbine, 9/11 and, lately, widespread parental job losses. Maybe chronic unease has simply raised this generation’s tolerance level for stress, leaving it uniquely well equipped to deal with uncertainty.

Or maybe having a bulked-up ego really does serve as a buffer to adversity. Just like the self-esteem gurus always said that it would.