Gen Y: Eternal Optimists… But for How Long?

Gen Yers are masters of the high-low phenomenon, balancing designer jeans with Target tunics, living in a tiny studio tricked out with the latest flatscreen and surround sound. We’re stubbornly independent in deciding what is valuable to us, and what we couldn’t care less about.  Cheerful about our choices, we see our dreams and life ahead, but something’s gone wrong… oh yeah. That economy thing.

How can we apply that idea of value – not  cost – to the future, and stay the “eternally optimistic” generation?


New York magazine did some fantastic research on Gen Y of the sort I wish we saw more of: Meaty, reflective of not only personal passions but worldviews and experiences.

“This is a reflexively optimistic cadre of graduates, feeling, if anything, existentially freed up by this era of radical change,” wrote Emily Nussbaum in her lead-in to the article “Class of ’09: What the graduates of ten schools think about the crazy world they just inherited,” (June 15 – 22, 2009 issue of New York magazine).

Other factoids:

  • 91% said they think the country will be better off in 5 yearsgradpic2
  • 95% said their lives will be better in 5 years
  • 38% (majority) said the recession will last one to two years
  • 88% said they do not blame the previous generation for the recession

Perky People

Apparently, those surveyed still have a pretty sparkly outlook on life, but I have to wonder what it’s a product of? A childhood and adolescence full of excess, self-esteem building and adult guidance? The fact that many Gen Yers, without homes to pay for (or living under Boomer parents’ roofs) or children to support are relatively affluent?

Many young people are immune to the market’s ups and downs, simply because they aren’t investing yet. If you have no money to speak of in the market, you can’t lose, and that retirement fund has plenty of time to fatten up.

Bitter and Burnt Out

I hate to be the dark side, but hey, I have been out of full time work for more than three months now, and that’s hard to take for a summa cum laude college grad. When will the bitterness of the times hit Gen Y? I know I’m struggling to see the bright side, and I don’t think I’m alone. Though we’re still optimistic, that outlook isn’t without serious concerns about our future.

Jobs are a huge issue. First, it was job losses for younger professionals who didn’t have the experience to stand up to the rounds of cuts most companies have made. But now, I see another dynamic: At companies who laid off the highest earners and put more pressure on Gen Yers to be the workhorses of a firm, my peers are burning out, big time. We’re a generation famously concerned about balance, so this is not a good thing, on either end of the spectrum.

Housing is the next big issue, for pretty much everyone, I realize. Older Gen Yers in their middle to upper 20’s are especially concerned as they enter the early stages of parenthood. Tax credits for first-time homebuyers are crucial to getting Millenials into housing, but buying is still a risk. Even with fed dollars, why put yourself in the hole, when renting could be a safer option? I was hoping to start a family myself in the next few (4 to 5) years, but I won’t do it without a home to raise them in. To me, a home is a house – I know some will disagree, but that’s just me. I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford a home like the one I envisioned just a couple of years ago – based on faulty assumptions of easy mortgages, I realize.

Lastly, we think about debt, especially from higher education pursuits. None of my high school peers in 2001-2002 were thinking about college with the mindset of, “Will the debt I’m going into be worth it?” Of course it was. College was the second high school – it’s just what upper-to-middle class kids, and the hardest workers from the underprivileged socioeconomic who got scholarships, did.

Now, colleges have to really prove their value proposition. If that liberal arts degree can’t get you a job, and it costs triple or quadruple that of an associate degree in a trade or specific field, why would Gen Yers go into debt for the quintessential “college experience?” School debt may not be that “ok debt” of years gone by for much longer.

Credit card overspending and lack of financial savvy in Gen Y has also contributed to the debt issue. Any 20-ish person can name at least a friend or two still paying off the early years of excess charged on freely available MasterCards, passed out on campus in exchange for an awesome XXL rough cotton Tshirt that said “Wazzup?!”

Scared but Still Sunny

None of these worries are unique to Gen Y, but each is serious. The bailed-out world we’re going to inherit is going to cost – a lot. But more importantly, what is the real value of the change that the Obama generation is proposing? Is that more important than the price tag?

For me, I realize it’s just a rough spot, not a permanent problem. I have a degree, with less debt than most. I have a stable family to support me in tough times. Education is a good thing, regardless of debt incurred to get it, and Gen Yers are still pursuing learning in record numbers. Other economic crises of the past, including the dot-com bubble, managed to recover. The news looks a little brighter every day.

The American Dream was never about money – it was about living a happy, productive life based on individual choices and freedom. The recession will make Gen Y smarter, less careless and more likely to continue what we do best: Living a life based on value, not cost.


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