By Yes, Virginia • April 17, 2008•Other Issues
The New York Times’ Lisa Belkin—she who graced us with the oversimplifying phrase “opt-out”—is a good writer, and she frequently touches on subjects that I find personally compelling. This is largely because she’s one of the few mainstream media writers writing about the working life struggles that I face or will face, and which I spend a lot of time thinking about. (Why she has been cosigned to the Styles Section, rather than, say, the Business Section, and what message that sends about the valuation of issues relating to working women and men vis-à-vis their personal lives, is worth a whole other post.) Still, while I appreciate that she is talking about various issues that I think are extremely important, I always feel as though her articles leave me feeling unhappy or unsatisfied because she has left out important points or only presented a narrow side of the story.
Today’s column, Prepping Children for the 9 to 5, is no exception. In it, she talks about the effect that parents can have on their children’s attitudes and expectations about work. For the record: this is a great topic, and one that is probably deserving of much more study and discussion. I’m sure that if you scratched the surface a little, most people will reveal that their thoughts, expectations, and aspirations about work are heavily influenced by their parents’ experiences, and their interpretation of their parents’ experiences. I, for example, realized very early how frustrating it was for my mother to give up her career to stay home with me and my two brothers, even though she made this choice willingly and wanted, at some level, to be a SAHM.
But where Belkin lost me is when the article took a turn and indicted an entire generation—my generation, Generation Y—for being self-absorbed, unwilling to work hard, and easily dissuaded. The anecdotes used are particularly telling: one is about consultant running into a friend who quit his job because it interfered with his social life and he had to work weekends. The other is a quote from another consultant, who said “This generation has been spoon-fed self-esteem cereal for the past 22 years. They’ve been told it’s all about them—what they want, what they are passionate about, what they find fulfilling.” And while Belkin does allow that the “sharply different attitude toward work” of Gen Y is “probably their parents’ doing,” there is not much else to counter this image of Gen Y-ers as fragile, self-centered creatures who will quit or give up at the slightest sign of difficulty.
[More after the jump]
And this infuriates me. I’ve been hearing a lot about generational differences in the past year or so, and on some level it seems to be the new trendy way to evaluate work-life tensions. But these conversations always seems to devolve into ridiculous stereotypes about Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y, with the latter prominently featured in the role of, frankly, spoiled brats. This always kills me, and maybe it’s just the stress of this time of year (I’m manically trying to finish up my last semester of law school), but I protest. I know that I worked harder than my Baby Boomer parents ever did when they were my age, and harder than my Gen X husband did. In my job after college, I put in an average of at least 70 hours a week, was there late most nights, and spent the majority of my weekend bent over a copy machine churning out discovery. Did I love it? No. But did I understand that the work needed to be done, and it was my job to do it, and if that meant giving up my free time, so be it? You betcha. More to the point: did I work more than most of the Gen X lawyers I was doing said discovery for? Absolutely. In this past year, I’ve been editor-in-chief of my journal, in a new and demanding appellate clinic at school, planned a wedding in three months, and will be graduating eight months pregnant. Not exactly the typical 3L year, which is to say, kicking back and enjoying myself.
There are many other examples from my own life or my friends’ life, and I feel as though there’s a whole side to Gen Y that is being conveniently ignored in this popular pastime of dumping on us. There’s been no effort to connect all those equally one-sided stories about ridiculous overachievers (the ones that appear during college admission time) and these blame-Gen-Y stories, even though they are about the same group of people.
I wish that there was some acknowledgment that you cannot paint millions of people with the same brush just because they are within the same ten or fifteen year age span, and that there are plenty of us Gen Yers out there working our tails off. Yes, many of us may have different attitudes about work, but I don’t think those attitudes are that we expect everything to come easily and on a silver platter. We may have drawn the conclusion that work is one of many parts of our lives, and push back on the notion that more hours in the office is better (perhaps learning the lessons of our forbearers). But there should be some recognition that we are working hard, we are dealing with adversity, and the rules of the game has changed, largely for the worse (for example, in the mid-1990s, billable expectations were significantly lower than they are today).
A few years ago, it was Gen Xers who were being (mis)labeled as slacker good-for-nothings (remember “Reality Bites”?), so I find it particularly ironic that they are now pointing the finger at us. Perhaps Gen Y just needs some time to get into the work force and do our thing for a while. But for those of us who have already been out there working: judge us by our actions, not by some silly notion of what twentysomethings are generally like. We don’t expect special treatment, and we don’t want you to hold our hands, but we do want a fair shake and a chance to prove ourselves.