Monday, 23 September 2013

Two reasons why that Gen Y article is stupid

A response to that Huffington Post article about Gen Y that’s going around - read it first or this won’t make sense.


Describing the emotional state of an entire generation, defined as the decade and a half between the late 70s and early 90s, is entirely futile. Talk about generalisations. The author is literally saying that millions upon millions of people (even if we assume he/she’s only talking about the “West” or even just America, which he/she doesn’t specify at all), who range in age from – say – 20 to 35, and who cross every conceivable demographic, all have a common experience of frustration, disappointment, excessive ambition, self-delusion and manipulation at the hands of technology and society.

Everyone knows generalisations are bad. But why? What’s wrong with just assuming that obviously the author is talking about just “protagonists and special yuppies” (WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!?!?!), so we don’t need to worry about pesky ethnic minorities, poor people, people who don’t live in cities and who dropped out of school, or even just those who have alternative lifestyles and upbringings? If we assume this, then surely the author is still making an interesting and valid point?

Not necessarily. Generalisations aren’t arbitrarily bad, they’re bad because they mislead and they marginalise. You can’t just take a massive group of individuals out of any context of time or place, and expect to come up with anything meaningful. Even if we allow all the lazy assumptions listed above, the so-called GYPSYs are extremely flawed as a concept. It’s not being pedantic to ask what exactly is a protagonist – or a special yuppie for that matter. They sound like middle-class urban white people, but how can we be sure? It’s important to know, because for the author’s argument to be of any use, we have to know the context in which it works. For example, did the GYPSYs feel the same way about their satisfaction in life in 2007 as they did in 2011? What about the ones who got started with their careers before the financial crisis as opposed to those who were still at uni or school? What about the GYPSYs whose parents were able to give them lucky breaks in good jobs starting age 22, as opposed to ones who began working at their local cafe when they were 16? I’d imagine these kinds of differences within the vast GYPSY mishmash are more interesting than anything that you could possibly say about the huge horrible group as whole.

One longitudinal study at the University of Michigan found that Gen Y was (loosely) much more concerned with money and much less with things like philosophy of life and improving the world, when compared to both Gen X and the baby boomers.[i] Surely this is the reverse of what we’d think from the delusional, be-yourself attitudes described by the HuffPo author. In the research of another sociologist, GYPSYs turn out to be optimistic, engaged and team players – all qualities that correlate strongly with happiness.[ii] More counterevidence can be found here. My point is not to disprove the argument with research, but merely to point out that if you write a piece that’s basically one massive generalisation with no statistical evidence, you have no ground to stand on when someone goes to the numbers and finds a different story.


Gen Y is not unhappy. On the contrary, I would argue that it’s the happiest generation that’s ever lived, with the possible exception of whatever we’re calling the generation that’s coming after (Z?). Gen Y is not self-deceived, envious of each other or frustrated, and most of all it is certainly not unrealistically ambitious. The very idea is laughable.

Of course, when I say these things, I’m engaging in exactly the generalisations I just moaned about. In what follows, I’m not actually trying to prove these points as facts, but rather show a different side to the story that further underlines how flimsy the original argument was and how foolish it is to generalise at all.

I’m merely speaking from experience, being as classic an example of a GYPSY as they come. Among my white, middle-class, extremely well-educated and privileged friendship group, there are many emotional problems. I would say cynicism and despair at the state of the world are fairly prevalent, but only in a fairly abstract kind of way. More of an issue is insecurity, both in terms of one’s material situation and also feelings/sense of self. Everyone is constantly worried about their future, where they’re going in life, about the fragility of their social world, the ever-present possibility of failure and so forth.

What they are not, is surprised. They are not in the least disappointed or frustrated that they aren’t doing fabulously well – disappointment would imply a prior expectation of doing well that simply doesn’t exist. When I was at uni, we spent practically all our free time talking about how screwed we were going to be when we left. Everyone knew the job market was horrifying - it was a constant source of woe and fear. Since leaving uni, basically all my friends have spent their time looking for jobs, mostly with little success. Eventually, most of them have got low-level, basic jobs that just about cover the rent. I myself have followed this pattern and been acutely conscious how similar my experience has been to that of everyone else. No one boasts on facebook about how great their life is. If anything, the experiences of my friends have made me value my very-slightly-superior-in-certain-respects situation more than I would have otherwise.

These days, no one expects to be successful. But we’re still by and large happy, precisely because we don’t expect it. Success is not something that motivates us or give us happiness - it’s reached the point where we’ve just given up on it. Instead, we derive happiness from the multitude of amazing cultural artefacts of the modern world. The internet - especially the social vistas it opens up. The best film, TV and music there’s ever been. An unimaginable plethora of brilliant and affordable hobbies and interests that have never been available before. Food. Memes. The wit and wisdom of Stephen Fry. Great social lives facilitated by easy transport links and communication technology. Travel abroad.

Your average GYPSY lives in a world where, after heading home from their unfulfilling day job, they can head out to whatever bar or restaurant they feel like, hang with friends discussing Mad Men, Made in Chelsea or each other’s love lives, encounter several illuminating or entertaining articles or videos on twitter, and chat by live video feed with family on the other side of the world, all before the evening gets started - and without blinking an eye. This is a world where boredom has been all but eliminated, where the possibilities for general daily enjoyment of oneself are insanely abundant and cheap, where (by historical standards) everyone is ludicrously happy all of the time (for more on this point, see Caitlin Moran).

It’s not a perfect world by any stretch, but its also not a world that’s conducive to unhappiness, especially not when you have pessimistic forecasts forced down your throat at every juncture (low expectations mean you’re always pleasantly surprised). And let’s be honest - our society is as madly pessimistic as it is madly happy. It’s not just the news media and the constant dinner table conversation about how everything’s going to pieces and there ARE NO JOBS EVER NOT A SINGLE JOB. Worse than this - it’s the way we constantly read how things are GETTING WORSE, how TECHNOLOGY is making society collapse, how WE ARE ALL MISERABLE. GYPSYs feel that if they’re not miserable, which they’re not, then they’re doing something wrong. I thought this would end when I left uni, but it hasn’t - there’s still a palpable peer pressure to appear to be more miserable than you are. If you tell people you’re happy, you somehow feel guilty, because how can you be happy while everyone else is OBVIOUSLY SO MISERABLE.

The HuffPo article, of course, is a perfect example of that. And it’s wonderfully ironic, because in its tone and style it’s obviously the work of someone who is extremely happy, and who subconsciously knows he/she is talking to equally happy people - it’s an article where someone has put in the love and dedication necessary for making cute drawings and graphs with unicorns, yet which is effectively saying EVERYTHING IS AWFUL. And the article is also a great example of the kind of thing in our modern world that GYPSYs encounter all the time - a fun thing on the internet which they love reading and that makes them happier.

So there we have it. The amazing state our world is in, where everyone is happy and we constantly talk about how unhappy we are - and where talking about how unhappy we are only makes us happier. You couldn’t make it up. Oh hi Lucy, I didn’t see you there BECAUSE YOU’RE THE FIGMENT OF OUR CULTURAL IMAGINATION.

[i] Healy, Michelle (2012-03-15). "Millennials might not be so special after all, study finds".USA Today. Retrieved 2012-05-07.
[ii] Furlong, Andy.(2013)Youth Studies: An Introduction. New York, NY: Routlege