Why is GenY Unhappy? “Special” Is Not the Problem. In Fact, It Might Be The Solution

posted October 11, 2013

I just finished re-reading WaitButWhy’s latest post called “Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy.” In it the author posits that young people today (born between the late 70s and the mid 90s) are unrealistically ambitious, were raised with extraordinary expectations, and spend too much time in the virtual world and not enough in the real one. They were told all their young lives that they could do anything they liked and that they were the most wonderful creatures on earth. Most damningly, the author says, they were told: you are special.

These expectations were born from their parents’ beliefs that the world would be the proverbial oyster for their children, born from said parents’ pleasure in giving them the world; born from the encouragement that flowed their way from their very first baby steps and indoctrination by Fred Rogers (“You Are Special”) to their conflict-free recesses and supportive RAs, Deans of Students and Career Counselors. But these expectations, which gave them fantastic self-esteem, left them, post-college, wide open to profound disappointment. A career is not something one creates in a few hours, or even over the course of an especially inspiring summer camp season. A career is wrought over many years, many professional relationships, sometimes multiple locations, and (in my opinion) through many defeats and rejections and failures.

I liked this post a lot, and I have some quibbles. I liked the final advice the author gives these youngsters, which is to:
1) “Stay wildly ambitious.” For ambition is certainly what’s needed in any case, in any time, given any (or no) amount of talent.
2) “Stop thinking that you’re special. You can become special by working really hard for a long time.” I agree that it’s through working hard that one develops one’s specialness; but it’s through believing one is special in the first place that one has the impetus to take the pretty ballsy actions necessary to do anything out of the ordinary.
3) “Ignore everyone else.” Don’t look at your friends on FaceBook and compare their glamorous, pre-packaged outsides to your own gelatinous insides.

Like “Lucy,” the author’s sad stick-figure twentysomething, I have known that awful feeling of despair when the world failed to recognize the specialness my parents my parents kept insisting I exuded. Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was being absolutely miserable for most of my grammar school and junior high career where many (okay, most) of my peers and teachers failed to see my wonderfulness and brilliance. The struggling I did during those years to establish myself to myself may have saved me from a twenties rife with the kind of disappointment WaitButWhy sees in twenty-somethings today. The disparity between what my parents had instilled in me and the reality of the way the world treated me was so painful that I had to rectify it. I could have lost my illusions and accepted myself as just another bozo on the bus, or I could choose to see myself as the star of my own life story—the underdog pushing up from the bottom to shock and surprise everyone! Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman! Rocky in Rocky! Pretty much everyone in any movie ever made! Most days, I still choose to believe in my Secret Life of Me. Is this a bad thing? Am I delusional? Maybe. But so far, it’s worked for me. And I would wager it’s worked for most people who have ridden the waves of ambition to create a means of living on their own terms, and not the obsolete system the Greatest Generation came into after the war.

I am not Gen Y––I’m a Gen Xer raised by a boomer mom. She was young when she had me, and she was definitely drinking the same Kool Aid that produced the kids who believed that their purpose in life was to find a fulfilling rather than a secure career, and she definitely told me, every other sentence, how special and wonderful and brilliant I was. Based on my delusions of being special, I did something crazy a couple of years out of college. I started a rock band and traveled around the country trying to get famous. I took my wild ambition, I worked very hard (together with my band mates) compiling my 10,000 hours of mastery, and somehow, it worked. True, I didn’t get famous enough to have a dance move named after me, or to start a college fund for my kid based on one hit song, but I did get famous enough to build a career. After ten years on the road and about as many CDs, a reputable publisher who had never seen a line of prose I’d written offered me a book deal. She just loved my songs and took a chance on me. Not really knowing how to write a novel, I was undaunted. Why? Because I had been told my whole life that I was wonderful, brilliant, that the world was my oyster, and that I was special. I must have annoyed the hell out of my editors (who, being benign boomers, were very patient with me), but I did learn how to write a novel, and went on to write more. During this time period, I found a house I loved, though it was out of my price range. Undaunted, I looked around and decided I could make the mortgage by offering writing groups––something I had no prior experience of doing––but because I believed I was wonderful, brilliant, that the world was my oyster, and that I was special, I succeeded. It turned out that my work in a band had prepared me well to work with groups. I fell in love with the work, quickly adding retreats and teleclasses to my repertoire. One day a friend suggested that I become a life coach. Believing I had something to offer––because I believed I was wonderful, brilliant, that the world was my oyster, and that I was special–– I applied to a program (run by the similarly sure-of-herself Martha Beck) and within a period of six months, I had a full roster of clients. I continued to tour and make CDs because the dictum in my head that I was wonderful, brilliant, world/oyster, etc. was louder than society’s notion that aging female singer-songwriters were obsolete.

You have to believe in yourself, with a ferocious, unshakable loyalty, if you want to make it in today’s economy, where creative entrepreneurs are able to make a decent living, often a far better living than what their parents made. When I say “far better,” I don’t mean as full of pensions and health insurance and retirement accounts (not to mention new cars every five years or two-week vacations to dude ranches), but more full of––yes––fulfillment. And while I disagree with WaitButWhy’s suggestion that we lower expectations on our specialness, I agree wholeheartedly with the premise that we need to lower our expectations when it comes to material goods and lifestyle choices. If you want to build the life of your dreams around doing what you love, the money will certainly follow, but it might not be as much money as you think it should be. In my experience, if we can work with reality on this one, honestly assessing what it’s worth to us to have a life where no one is our boss, where we live by our wits, where what we earn is the product of our own minds and hands, most of us would chose freedom over wide screen TVs.

As a mother of kids under the age of ten, I am aware that the pendulum has swung away from “You’re wonderful, brilliant, special, the world is your oyster” to the current “Oh, look, you just mastered Beethoven’s Minuet in G on the violin. How does that feel?” The current thinking is against overpraising for many of the same reasons WaitButWhy highlights: it feels crappy to be told how great we are when we don’t feel great inside. And it feels even crappier to tap dance to great applause in the family living room only to find ourselves laughed into oblivion at the local talent show when we discover that actually, compared to most of the population, we have two left feet. I get this. But I can’t help myself. When my kids do something––anything––my instinct is to praise. Poor them. Perhaps I am making up for the treatment my own mother got from her Greatest Generation mother, which was often a severe critique of my mother’s interpretive dances.

The story isn’t over for Generation Y. Pretty much every generation feels despondent in their twenties. I’d argue that we’re supposed to feel unhappy in our twenties. One needs a portion of harsh disappointment and failure to thrive. So they are getting theirs now, during this meager economic time, during this season of late-adolescence. I am willing to bet that they end up saving the farm, saving themselves, saving the world, proving to us all that they are the special generation they’ve always known they were.

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