Gen Y Stares at the Mirror

I realize with my latest story, another one focusing on the experiences and in some ways plight of members of “Generation Y,” those of us born between 1975 and 1985 (give or take), that I have spent a good part of the last year reflecting on my age cohort.

I don’t think this is uncommon or it is coincidental with me turning 37 this year. Indeed, there is a lot of reflecting that could not be done prior to reaching the second half of my thirties, simply because I didn’t have enough context to understand my past experiences and what they mean. For instance, the nostalgia that afflicts people around my age is something that has more to do with a crisis of meaning than a mere yearning for the “good ‘ol days.” Many generational groups look back on the past fondly, but I do think my generation is unique in its nostalgia due to what we are nostalgic about, which is media and toys, rather than people and places.

There’s not much to reflect on when you’re twenty-one and you ask yourself, “how did I get here?” First, you haven’t been alive very long, so the past is small and easy to contextualize. Second, you haven’t lived long enough to see the true consequences of what you have done or what was done to you.

So many people around my age are bitter, often deeply bitter, about the wasted experiences of their youth. We were all told more or less the same thing: go to college, get a degree, acquire happiness. When you are twenty-one, the myth is still real. When you’re in your late thirties, the illusion of it is not only obvious, but angering.

Since 2000 we have seen the career opportunities for college grads mostly evaporate, to be replaced by a gig economy that demands everyone be infinitely mobile and willing to work for next to nothing. And many of us took on large amounts of debt to be granted these “opportunities.” At the same time, those who didn’t pursue “higher education” were equally shut-out by a withering manufacturing job market and the corporatization of honorable crafts like farming.

My generation is full of people left in a perpetual child-state.

We were under-parented, abandoned to long hours of public school, organized sports, and daycare, so many of us went out into the world lacking the wisdom of our forbears. And so we made stupid, childish decisions, many of them life-altering, and nobody told us “no.”

Most of our attachments growing up were to objects and entertainment, because our families were separated from each other and our neighbors didn’t share our values. As adults past school, we had no tangible bindings to other people, so we drifted, gathering what temporary friends we could. Those we end up with just have the same entertainment interests as us.

How many of your friends would back you up in a fight?

We were cut loose in one of the worst economic situations of recent memory, where we couldn’t seem to get past entry-level jobs, and the jobs we were promised all required “experience” nobody would give us. That is, if we happened to be wise enough to get a college degree in a specific technical field. Otherwise, there was really nothing to grab out in the world. We never got to really build our careers.

Our boomer parents, for all their faults, didn’t inflict this on us out of malice. They didn’t purposefully give us bad advice that retarded our personal and economic growth. They simply didn’t consider that the arrangement of things would change, and certainly didn’t think things would change so rapidly and so significantly. They really wanted to give us the best, and in many ways, they did. Our generation grew up with the best toys to ever exist, many of which I held onto so my own son could play with them since, more true now than ever, they really don’t make them like they used to.

We’re victims of circumstance, more than anything, but even as I say this, we are wealthy, surrounded by gadgets and trinkets galore. Yes, we have many things, but many of us don’t have the things that matter over the long-term. Our expensive phones – often non-optional depending on our job situation – will be broken or obsolete in a few years. Real property eludes us while we try to pay down massive debts from our youth.

We’re trapped in giant mortgages that we can’t pay down, if we are lucky enough to get one. The prospect of passing down a home to our children is a pipe-dream for most, and we don’t expect to get much from our parents. The boomers, the wealthiest generation of all time, will leave nothing but piles of national debt to their grandchildren when they pass into the next life.

And so the material focus is on the worthless because that’s all Gen Y can afford.

At the same time, the trinkets are methadone for a soul deprived of a meaningful existence. Yes, our parents gave us incredible things – or things they thought incredible – but those things are not meaningful and satisfying. Rather, the purchase of the next Brand X toy for the collection is just a small dopamine hit to fill the spiritual void left by lack of religion, lack of family, and lack of community.

The most spoiled generation acts, oddly enough, like spoiled children, and, like spoiled children, they are not happy.

I reflect on this and write to you, not to do more pouting, for indeed I am blessed beyond what I deserve and many of these afflictions don’t apply to me, but to offer this perspective so that those who are younger can act with wisdom, and so that those of my age group can understand how we got where we are, and thus avoid making our children into reflections of ourselves.

I don’t offer solutions, because those are too complicated, and those should come after reflection. We have to each ask ourselves: why are things less than we expected?

If you want more stories relevant to Generation Y, you can read these two, and read my book from last year, Eyes in the Walls:

4 Comments

  1. Gen Y came of age right at the end of an unprecedented era of prosperity. What we’re seeing is largely a correction to a pre-20th century standard of living. One of the greatest disservices the Boomers did us–again, unwittingly–was instilling the idea that living like pharaohs was normal instead of a historic anomaly.

    Learning to live with fewer trinkets will be hard for many people, but it will do them spiritual good in the long run.

    • When you have lots of things, the things themselves become less precious, unless you want to sit like Smaug upon a pile of treasure that you don’t enjoy, yet you feel the loss of even a single brass ring.

  2. The part that hurts the worst for Gen Y is what they can’t fix no matter what they do. Getting over materialism is difficult, but it can be done. What you can’t do is form a community with those who don’t want form a community. The alienation issue is the hardest obstacle to climb.

    Two years ago I attended a funeral to a middle-aged woman whose son (who died a few years prior) was friends with many of those around my age when we were younger. The funeral service was near empty, and no one my age attended. It was a contrast when we were younger and she held gatherings that had dozens of people my age attending. That’s when I realized at some point that old community just died.

    What did it get replaced with? I don’t know but I sure see a lot of nothing from them on social media. Times are going to get rough.

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