Ahhh Generation Y! Our best days start (and end) with Fruity Pebbles. Two 25 year old guys—LeBron “King” James and Mark “Thief” Zuckerberg—are the co-valedictorians of our class. We’re allergic to voicemail, addicted to texting, and checked Facebook twice in the time it took to read this sentence. And studios, if your action flicks don’t have at least three explosions, you’ll be lucky to get an illegal download from us guys. If that.
We were first dubbed “Generation Y” in a 1993 editorial to distinguish us from Generation X (born between 1972 and 1980). It’s only fitting the piece ran in an “Ad Age” publication, because we are the most marketed-to-and-researched generation of all time. The problem is “Generation Y” is a dreadful name: a) it’s not original, b) it’s not clever, and c) it’s dead wrong.
You see, we are nothing like our Generation X brethren. Generation X grew up on MTV and is a little darker. And can you really blame them? Their childhood coincided with their parents’ 1970s Me Decade hedonism. Their best video game was Atari (1977).
No, Generation Y admires its grandparents the most, a.k.a. The Greatest Generation. It’s not hard to see why. Our grandparents were born into the Roaring 1920s. They languished through the Great Depression before years of war overseas battling Jew-hating madmen. Sound vaguely familiar?
But there are two glaring differences:
1) Our grandparents were more hardcore. When my grandfather was my age, he survived a kamikaze attack in the South Pacific and spent three days on a lifeboat alone with a gashing neck. (I go to the gym Thursdays. Sometimes…)
Ornery critics sneer that us Generation Y’ers are soft. That we were pampered too much as kids. We’ve been called the “Trophy Kids” because we were raised hearing “no one loses”. The Clint Eastwoods of the world have a point. When I was six years, I went an entire soccer season without even touching the ball in a game—even though I was starting midfielder. Yet I still won a trophy for “Team Spirit”. At youth swim meets, the winner got the blue ribbon, but even the fat kid who finished two minutes later got a maroon-colored ribbon just for finishing. (Trust me, I’ve got at least three collecting dust in an attic somewhere thanks to the 25 meter butterfly.)
I can tell my Dad worries that we take HBO’s “Entourage” too seriously. That we think fame and money will just happen. The reality is we don’t look like Vince (even though we’re already better actors), and we are facing years of hard work and “learning the craft”.
2) We got the sweetest toys ever. Our grandparents’ blockbuster new game growing up was … Monopoly (1935). Meanwhile, Generation Y has enjoyed the fruits and Apple of the exponential part of the technology curve. We’ve gone from blowing on “Super Mario 2” Nintendo cartridges to make them to work, to “The Sims”, to “Avatar” in 15 years.
However, this is not to say we were spared by the retail-ideas-so-dumb-they-are-brilliant department. Our aunts and uncles had the Pet Rock. We have the Snuggie:
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt may have made the most prescient quote about our generation. The “Angels In The Outfield” kid turned brooding thespian noted, “This generation is going to blow away every generation ever. Because we're the first ones with the Internet.” And as Social media and wine expert Gary Vaynerchuk pointed out, “The Internet is 15 years old. It hasn't even had sex yet.” (Unless it is European.)
In translation, Mom, don’t even think about taking “World of Warcraft” away from us:
Generation Y is closing in on a quarter-century, and we’ve already seen our fair share of drama. Our “there is no Santa Claus” moment happened after Bill Clinton looked us in the eye and denied he had “sexual relations with that woman” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiIP_KDQmXs) Learning Mark McGwire’s 1998 record homerun chase was fueled not by hard work but steroids was our “there is no Tooth Fairy” epiphany. Columbine was our more fatal Kent State. September 11th, our Pearl Harbor. No WMD’s in Iraq was our generation’s Watergate. The ultimate tragedy is 4,402 (and counting) of America’s bravest didn’t die after Nixon’s cover-up.
We see Barack Obama as one of us. He’s the cool professor. Obama’s rousing rhetoric, not being George W. Bush, and social media prowess awakened Generation Y’s sleepy political activism during the 2008 presidential campaign. We joined his Facebook group, donated money, and showed up at the polls in record numbers.
Once Obama got elected, however, we hit the snooze button again:
We still love Obama but disillusionment is starting to creep in. Change may be coming, but it’s glacially slow. Remember the iconic “Hope” poster that was a clarion call for fresh thinking? It was donated to a museum by a pair of lobbyists.
Deep down, we’re starting to think we missed the peak of the American Empire by 40 years. We quietly fear Afghanistan, “the graveyard of Empires”, is our Vietnam. Domestically, 15 months of filibustering and partisan infighting over health care reform reminded us why we hated politics in the first place. We don’t understand why “don’t ask, don’t tell” is still an issue. And don’t even get us started on Arizona:
Grown-ups I talk to are befuddled as to why we aren’t angrier. My Dad emails me gloomy Wall Street Journal articles enumerating the mountains of debt his Baby Boomers are putting on our tab. My dad laments that unpaid interns are conquering the world. He’s not alone. Economists whisper that, thanks to the protracted Great Recession, we are showing the symptoms of another Lost Generation. My school Dean Glenn Hubbard worries about Generation Y’s perniciously high unemployment rates (over 16% for 24-year-olds). He fears for twenty-somethings two years out of work can become virtually a “life-sentence”.
Despite all of the turmoil, us Generation Y’ers are still a bubbly bunch. Maybe we’re naïve. Maybe YouTube keeps us happy. Or maybe it’s that the world has doubted American generations since our Founding Fathers. And never before has the world seen a generation with our tolerance, creativity, and innovation. It won’t be easy. But I have no doubt we have the vitality and ambition to become the Sweetest Generation. And perhaps one day our grandchildren will marvel at our achievements against tall odds. Even if they never get our love for the “Jersey Shore.”