The Millennial Problem
On the cusp of no longer being considered a millennial depending on whether you rely on Pew Research’s definition (1981-1996) or the Census Bureau’s (1982-2000), I’ve been called many names throughout the years by the association of my birth year—narcissistic, ambitious, coddled—the decision on the final characteristics of Gen Y is still awaiting the jury’s verdict.
A quick Google search of “Millennials” will tell you that I (or rather my parents) won the lottery by deciding to conceive me in 1996, creating a driven, ambitious child or made the absolute worst decision to add another body to the Population of Narcissists (a.k.a. Gen Y). While there is an ongoing debate on the validity of the phrase, the general message that those born between 1980-2000 are narcissistic has saturated popular culture.
Countless articles claim that our generation has an increased amount of individualism due to the rise of social media. However, I argue that we are a byproduct of our culture. Before Generation Y, there was a huge cultural change in the 1970s that shifted the focus from the community to the individual. This notion of self-focus became mainstream by the time the 1980s rolled around, leaving the next generation never to know a culture that did not prioritize putting yourself first.¹
Generation Y was born in the height of individualistic culture, with our upbringing filled with participation trophies, songs about loving yourself, and “You can be anything you want to be.” Before we could even formulate what we thought about ourselves, popular culture in conjunction with adult influence flooded us with confirmations of our independent and special characteristics to the point where our uniqueness became an innate understanding rather than an opinion. I had never really noticed it before, as most of us have not: like a fish swimming in the ocean, we don’t notice the water because it is all around us and has always been there.¹
We look to our careers to fulfill our emotional, spiritual, and financial needs; to check off passion, income, and purpose all in one area of our lives. Arguably, this makes sense since we allocate the majority of our lives to work; it is only natural that we would want this substantial amount of time to feel fulfilling. The problem that arises from having this aspiration is a crisis of unmet expectations.
As the last group of Generation Y enters the job market, many of us are discovering that our jobs are not as fulfilling and exciting as we had anticipated. In addition to the lack of emotional and spiritual satisfaction, the financial compensation from this less-than-satisfying job is not enough to counter increasing housing prices, the cost of insurance, and day-to-day living expenses.¹ Up until entering the job market, the vast majority of us have enjoyed an extraordinary amount of freedom to pursue our dreams and what makes us happy, which has led us to develop a desire to make an impactful difference with our uniqueness. However, when this want meets the need to make a living, we experience an adulthood shock. The reality that we imagined shaped by our unrealistic expectations never included compromise or sacrifice. When we feel as though we have to choose between having it all or not at all, we are left utterly lost and confused.
This dichotomy of wants leads us to experience inner turmoil; a war within ourselves where we are unable to decide on a victor and cannot accept a loser. We want to chase our passions and not be held back by societal expectations but expect that passion to pay the bills. We want to make a difference but need to do it in our own way. We want to live a fulfilling life by reaching our goals but are unwilling to compromise or sacrifice on how we planned on getting from Point A to Point B.
Raise the white flag and end the war by shifting your perspective. Do not turn your dreams and passions into an all-or-nothing scenario, but instead ask yourself: What is important to you? Where can we compromise? What is worth sacrificing? When are we comfortable making that sacrifice?
To achieve the reality that we desire, we must first lessen the gap between what we have and what we want. How can we build towards our dreams? What actionable steps can we take in the present towards our future? By doing so, we can acknowledge the validity of our values and behavior as a byproduct of our culture, while actively shifting our perspective to change how we choose to go about seeking fulfillment in our lives.
Creating building blocks to take steps towards your overall goal may not be what you had in mind―waitressing to supplement income while auditioning, taking a desk job while writing your novel at night, or keeping your 9-5 for a stable income even after gaining recognition in your desired field.
Who said that our dreams had to pay the bills? Or that our passion must lie solely in our job title? In this lifetime, we will take on and outgrow many identities, titles, and dreams. We will continue to change and transform into the next version of ourselves, so do not harden yourself to the possibilities that could allow you to reach your dreams just because it is not the way you imagined.
¹ Twenge, J. (2006). Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled―And More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.