Does Gen Y Have A Problem?


(Photo credit: ralph and jenny)

My friend sent me an article from the Harvard Business Review blog yesterday that defines the problem facing Generation Y in three words: “Follow your passion.”

It’s a variation on a well-worn argument — basically we’ve been told our whole lives to set huge expectations for ourselves and pursue our dreams, and then we received a rude awakening when we grew up, graduated college with tons of debt and moved back into our parents’ house with very little hope of a comfortable independence right away or a stable well-paying job where we can actually do what we love — both things that seemed to be promised when we were starting out.

Cal Newport, the author of the article and a professor at Georgetown University, writes that the problem is just that, the misplaced expectations that “following your passion” will automatically — and immediately — lead to success.

Good point. But to the adage “follow your passion,” I’d like to add a few more well-meaning pieces of advice that I heard over and over again growing up:

“The sky is the limit.”

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

“Never settle for anything less than the best.”

It’s not that this isn’t good advice. I love that I didn’t grow up with a cap on my dreams. It’s just that they only tell half of the story.

What I’ve come to realize too late is that we’ve been fed a paradox. Our parents, teachers, coaches and counselors told us to “go for it,” but they also gave us some other, albeit less-emphatic, advice.

For every time I’ve heard “The sky is the limit,” I’ve also heard the phrase, “Think before you act” or “Be realistic.”

To counteract “Follow your dreams,” there’s “Be responsible.”

And the one that really gets me is “It’s ok not to know what you want to do or who you want to be.” Because from the moment we learned to talk, we had to find answers to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and no matter how much times have changed, success is still at least partially defined by having a steady job and starting your own home.

All our lives, we’ve received mixed signals about what our priorities should be — doing what we love or achieving stability??

I am not saying anyone is to blame. There is nothing wrong with being encouraged to follow your passion or create a life that you actually enjoy. (My biggest fear is spending the rest of my life at my desk working a humdrum 9-to-5 job for the sake of stability.) And I’m sure it’s possible to reconcile the two ideas. But I’m sick of being called “entitled” or “restless” or “immature” because I don’t have it all figured out.

From after-school activities to volunteer work to college to internships, we’ve seemingly invested more in our future than any previous generation, but the rules changed suddenly. It’s OK that we’re freaking confused.

What our critics seem to forget is that many of us were also taught another value: hard work. I’ll never forget the quote my sixth grade teacher taught me – “Perseverance is the difference between failure and success.” Throughout the constant struggle to figure out who I want to be or what my true passion is, I’ve never forgotten that I won’t get there by sitting at home and waiting for it to fall into my lap.

And if my friends are any indication, the same goes for tons of other Gen Yers out there.



  1. Alphonsus Jr.
    October 12, 2012 / 1:52 am

    “It’s not that this isn’t good advice.”

    Sadly, it’s actually toxic advice.

    1) We’re finite creatures. The sky is most definitely not the limit. Our limits are thoroughly terrestrial.

    2) Usually what we dream is precisely what we can’t do. I dream of becoming a concert pianist. But I’m 40 years old, and with little piano training. Concert pianists start very young. They must. It’s too late for me. Such examples could be vastly multiplied. Thus the importance of early training.

    3) It’s often best to settle for something short of the best, because the best is out of reach for the moment. We may one day be able to attain the best, but only by settling for something short of the best along the way.

    Reject Oprahism.

    • October 12, 2012 / 11:20 am

      Thanks for your comment Aplohnsus Jr.
      You make valid points. Perhaps the problem is our insistence on distilling wisdom into cute, marketable phrases that don’t look at the big picture.
      However, I would argue that there is some benefit to encouraging kids to dream and strive beyond what seems immediately possible. There are numerous examples in history of people doing things that others might have said were beyond their limits. And space travel, for one, proves that our limits are not “thoroughly terrestrial.” I think it’s fine to tell kids to dream big, as long as that’s coupled with an honest, responsible discussion about what it will take to achieve those dreams and the admission that even with ridiculous amounts of hard work, you won’t always get there right away or in the way that you imagined.

  2. October 10, 2012 / 10:59 am

    Can you be the voice of our generation?

    I think if you are to truly follow your passion, sometimes you have to work twice as hard as when just working a job to make ends meet.

    • October 10, 2012 / 11:11 am

      Jana, I think more than anyone you’ve proven that. But no one told us this when we were kids. And also, very few people writing about Gen Y seem to acknowledge those of us who are actually putting real effort into doing something we love, while being responsible.

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