When Asking Y, Do We Ask the Right Questions?

11/29/2012 12:10 EST | Updated 01/29/2013 05:12 EST

In light of Huffington Post Canada's ongoing series on, ahem, the trials and tribulations of Generation Y, those, roughly speaking, currently aged 18-30, we have a very advantageous opportunity to move forward given some unwelcoming statistics.

And yet, many analyses seem to merely entrap themselves in the dichotomy between labelling young people as "lazy" or as lacking "perspective" on the one hand, and on the other hand, (more admirably but still problematically) claiming that young people simply have an opportunity to reshape the world in which they live by, for example, engaging in new forms of innovation and entrepreneurship.

The only problem? Such a dichotomy stifles us more than anything. Although both perspectives premise themselves on plausibility, the former trivializes and the latter objectifies (at least the latter one strives for a more optimistic outlook). As a result, and also because they are merely opposite ends on the same spectrum, as both a society and a generation we cannot really get anywhere -- we remain stuck on that spectrum.

If the same charges are laid every two decades or so against the new generation, and if the same typical responses are constantly rehashed to compel the younger generation to adapt, then really nothing new changes at all. In analyzing a column that addressed the bleak economic prospects for young people in the U.S., former LA Times editor Tim Cavanaugh thought it amusing that it was his generation, Generation X, that was told throughout their youth that they in fact would be the first generation in U.S. history to earn less income than the previous generation. "I suspect if I had a time machine," Cavanaugh continues, "I could find newspapers in the 1960s saying the same thing of the baby boom generation."

What I must emphasize is the imperative that I think we all ought to tackle, that is, the need to initiate the kind of dialogue that gets us thinking about ways out of this debilitating cycle. I do not want to suggest that Generation Y's situation is not unique; in fact, for the very reason that it is unique is what will allow us to start articulating these kinds of dialogues.

What do we know about Generation Y's situation? We know that young people are suffering from both high unemployment and underemployment rates -- whereby not only are some finding it tough to land a job at all, but many are having to settle for low-paying jobs for which they are overqualified -- and historically high costs of education that burden them with almost unheard-of debt levels. Economist David Macdonald rightly expands upon these points, outlining how Generation Y has more systematic barriers than their predecessors to things like saving for retirement, a mortgage, and paying off debt.


The Canadian Millennial: Survey Says

Presumably, given the assumption that young people's subsequent stress over the situation derives from a selfish sense of entitlement, the arguments that they are lazy or lack a sense of perspective are designed to encourage them to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and start taking responsibility for their actions, thus preparing them to effectively take on the real world, so to speak. However, if the opportunities exist for young people to succeed but not enough of them are taking advantage of those opportunities, why are we not also asking "What does this say about our society that creates these opportunities?" instead of only asking "What does this say about young people?"

The other argument in the dichotomy leaves us in the same helpless position. If the previous arguments are designed to encourage us, with whatever good intentions, to get active and conform to, or maybe even alter, the world around us, making the case that young people are active, and that it is all a matter of them seizing hold of their convictions to "brainstorm," "collaborate," and "create more entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships," also supposes that young people can make something of themselves by altering the world around them.

At the end of the day, all of these views, in their own way, compel young people to engage with the world -- but there needs to be a distinction between content and form. As young people, we can either decide to conform to or alter the content of our society, or we can go a step further and assume the courage to discuss ways in which the form of our society may be what is holding us back. Or else, we will be the ones writing in 20 years the same thing former LA Times editor Tim Cavanaugh is writing in 2012, as the next generation of kids has it even worse than us (and can you imagine even worse student debt?).

The form of our society is one founded on many contradictions. One could hazard that in this information age, never has knowledge been so easily accessible and in such vast quantity, yet overwhelmed by it all, Generation Y is all but programmed to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. Better yet is this example: it is true that youth have abundant opportunities for success, but they also have more systematic barriers than ever before to pursue such opportunities. It would be prudent of us then to seize hold of Macdonald's overview and parse through its implications, namely, the consequences a society creates as it individualizes and privatizes risk.

Encouraging young people to get a grip, go it alone, and seize hold of the opportunities before them will inevitably leave many people behind in the dust -- and it certainly does nothing to shed light on the form of our society that makes it less of a society at all, and more of a collection of individuals increasingly burdened with the sense that retirement, a mortgage, and tuition are nobody's problems but their own.

Influential Millennials

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