Economics – Demography – Generation Y May Long For The Unicorn In The Garden, But It Hasn’t Been There For Most Of The Younger Generations Since The 1980s – 15 September 2013

This has been making the rounds among a number of friends of mine on Facebook, and I feel like I need to get my two cents in on this as well.

Yesterday, I made a comment about the generationally-based arguments people are making about liberal/left-wing voting patterns likely to emerge given the rather rotten economic fortunes being experienced by the next demographic group reaching adulthood, typically referred to as the “Millennials”. The subject of this blog article, “Generation Y”, is a group sandwiched in between that group and the demographic category to which I belong, “Generation X”. (According to most descriptions, that is. Generation X is usually taken to begin at the end of the “baby boom”, which finished in 1964, the year before I was born…so I’m one of the first X-ers, if that’s right. The problem with demography is that people like to define categories in different ways, of course. The “Generation Y” group is usually described as having been born from the 1970s or so through to the 1990s or so, and so they dovetail with the currently rising “Millennials”, who cover from the 1990s or so onwards. Exact definitions of these categories may vary.)

A lot of the story described in this blog post is commensurate with my own experiences. I had grandparents whose stories principally involved what they did to stay afloat during times of depression and war, and parents who never really seemed to have any stories about trying to keep afloat but who had plenty of stories of voluntary activism regarding civil and equal rights and protecting the environment.

Where my personal story differs from what’s described here is that though I inherited “rising expectations” from my parents, when those expectations were undercut (as they were, for me, right out of high school, during Reagan’s recession), I came to have a much greater appreciation for the perspective of the generation of my grandparents, who struggled daily against the demands of a great depression and a world war. I can’t say my “expectations” have ever really been high since those experiences of the early 1980s. Indeed, I’ve been “settling” for most of that time, rather than expecting that one day the world would see how “special” I am and reward me accordingly.

This is not to say that I rejected the concerns about civil and equal rights or protecting the environment that were so important to my parents, but it is to say that I developed a biting cynicism about what is involved in that kind of activism. To put it another way, it’s a lot easier to engage in voluntary activism when you’re not worried about where your next meal is coming from. It’s harder to try to stay true to that stuff when you’re worried the economy has no job for you, and that people will punish you in the pocketbook for opening your trap. One might still speak out, of course, but it is most definitely not an easy thing to do when you are aware there can be serious consequences for it.

Possibly the reason my perceptions are different than those of “Generation Y” is that my peer group graduated from high school during the Reagan recession, not the Reagan recovery that followed (mostly because of the Fed’s monetarist controls finally kicking in, rather than the supply-side voodoo doctrines of Reagan’s economic gurus, but I digress). I continued to doubt that the economy had a job for me, much less the perfect job (see the movie “Reality Bites” for the attitude typical of those my age), while numerous Generation Y types seemed to genuinely believe that the world was going to be their oyster and that there would soon be a unicorn in their garden, eating a lily gravely (q.v. James Thurber’s “The Unicorn in the Garden” for that ref, folks).

In short, many X-ers, myself included, get the current generation, as our first job experiences were awful and the world was pretty obviously not our oyster; for that reason, blog articles like this may rub us the wrong way.

The economic data from the 1990s indicates that, while there was another recession under Bush I, followed by another recovery under Clinton, wages for most American workers flatlined during this period. So, while Generation Y’s members had jobs for the most parts, they were jobs that led nowhere. This would indeed be disconcerting to those raised to have higher expectations, to be sure.

It is, however, the new reality. Working hard keeps you afloat, it doesn’t make you better off. In other words, we’re living in our grandparents’ world, not our parents’ world. No unicorns to be found in the vicinity.

Why _I_ am unhappy (when I am, which is not always) has less to do with my high expectations and more to do with my structural awareness – specifically, my awareness that we once again live in a class-bound society (thanks to Ronald Reagan’s supply-side voodoo doctrines, which came back to bite us collectively in the keister). It’s less that I haven’t got my unicorn yet, and more that we live in a society where hard work generally does not pay off – for the “special” ones or anyone else.

Anyway, this blog post is an interesting read, but unless more than just demography is considered, it’s unlikely to lead us to a full conclusion. The surrounding reality of the economy matters as well.

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