The 21st

The Kids Aren’t Alright, and That’s Not Wrong

This generation’s expectations aren’t ridiculous. Really.

An article published about two years ago, Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy, has been floating around again, arguing that the new generation is delusional about living in the real world, more often seeking “a fulfilling career” rather than a “secure” one, convinced that they’re special, and holding onto unrealistic expectations for what they can accomplish and how they will be recognized. This last bit is the main thrust of the article: our expectations are too high.

We have to look at the equation the article shows: happiness = reality – expectations, specifically reality. Surely expectations may have changed, but so has reality. Perhaps not the fundamentals, but these nonetheless important things. Just in the past couple of centuries, we have eliminated most of the humanity’s early generations’ concerns: that is, acquiring adequate food, developing the ability to live in settlements, and we can even fly and go to space now.

This counts for something, right?

All this to say: we have eliminated basic needs, so it’s natural to dream a little bigger. If we’re speaking of Americans, the first generation of politically-recognized Americans focused on working and building wealth, just like most people today, but they wouldn’t think about traveling 30 miles from outside their own town. Reality changed. Most Americans traverse the continent at least once in their lives, and many have been all over the world. Now people in other parts of the world are getting that opportunity, too; we’re seeing that in middle-income countries like China who see their citizens’ wealth steadily rising.

You see the part about the “log” scale…

Part of this is a transition from materialistic thinking–why work harder for more things, when we can have experiences, so the adage goes. It’s not unreasonable to think this way. We’ve satisfied many material needs, primarily food, to a lesser extent health, and made huge strides in transportation.

Part of the older generation’s judgment–and that of anyone in the younger generation inclined to believe them–is derived from the thought, Well, isn’t this good enough for you? It is, and you should be prepared to work very, very hard for it! But maybe we should ask whether it is good enough. Even with the huge improvements in our world, we need to be dissatisfied with what we have. We need to be dissatisfied with an exploding population, much of which is poor. We need to be dissatisfied with a world where even if we can afford a car, we end up polluting the planet. We need to be dissatisfied with a world in which even while peace exists in the developed world, war and violence continue in its poorer pockets.

Let’s not forget all these people are even more dissatisfied.

And those are just the big things. We need to question whether living in a McMansion is really the pinnacle of human achievement, and especially when the pursuit of such things led the world economy to crash. We need to question the importance of obsessively pursuing marriage when scandals like Ashley Madison show how broken it is. We need to question the importance of scoring a larger paycheck when our family can sustain all its needs and when we’ve discovered that more things don’t make us happy. We still need to work hard, perhaps harder than we did before. But in this world, we can’t work harder to keep things the same. Living as we have before–buying a house, having children, finding a hobby–has been the standard to follow, but it’s not wrong to ask whether there is something more. To pursue fulfillment.

And let’s not forget that reality has changed. It may not be so easy to own a house anymore. Finding what is considered a traditional career may be downright impossible for many. But as they say, times change. Adaptability is key, and a key component of adaptability is to change your expectations. Using this definition, I suspect that we can keep “happiness” at the same level as both reality and expectations adjust.

Personally, I’ve had a tough time transitioning from college to the work world. My expectations were indeed high. But I’m not sure I had to bring them down. I had to hunker down, engage more, and work harder. And true, it did take a shift in perception to get to a place of greater satisfaction. But that doesn’t lower my expectations for the future, if I stay adaptable and am willing to keep working hard.

Are there things wrong with this generation? Absolutely. Absolutely, and I’m sure as time goes on, it’ll be evident what those things are. But it’s not unreasonable to seek what they seek. It may just be a step in evolution.

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