Everybody in the nation is suddenly transfixed by “the younger generation” and the difficulty they are having on their long, seemingly languid journey to mature adulthood. Think Matthew McConaughey in the movie “Failure to Launch.” So why should we care?
In a recent article in The New York Times, journalist Robin Marantz Henig sought to answer the question “What is it about 20-somethings? Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up.”
She found that it isn’t everybody’s imagination. Sociologists agree that it is taking longer to reach the five traditional milestones that define the transition to adulthood: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child. One study concluded that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early ’70s. Today, even if some traditional milestones are never reached, one thing is clear: Getting to what we would generally call adulthood is happening later than ever.
So who cares? Well, for one, the executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association. Since I have been in this post, we have worked hard to do a better job of recruiting 20-something alumni into the ranks of the Alumni Association. Although our own surveys show that the greatest affection, loyalty, and interest in our alma mater are strongest among our younger cohorts of alumni (as opposed to middle age and older cohorts), their membership rates are the lowest. How do we get them to act on their feelings and join in greater numbers?
And what do we do with the newer cohorts of Gen Y—those born between 1977 and 1995—who continue to flood into college at unprecedented rates? (Keep in mind that the new Penn State freshmen we are welcoming to our campuses this fall were born in 1992.)
Basically, we try to understand them, appreciate them, and figure out what motivates them. In fact, this very challenge—“Become more student-oriented and engage younger alumni in the Penn State Alumni Association”—has, since 2005, been one of the priorities of our strategic plan.
From all I’ve seen, heard, read and studied, I’m optimistic, not pessimistic. Actually, I stand in awe of the rising generation and everything they have had to deal with and will have to deal with in the years to come.
I tend to look at the underlying structure of things. And when you look at “kids today,” as opposed to the kid I was 40 years ago, that structure is vastly different.
Kids today come out of broken homes and broken families, with the divorce rate now exceeding 50 percent. I came from an intact family, with the marriage lasting 65 years until the death of my father earlier this year.
When it comes to higher education, kids today face extraordinary costs. The average debt for a Penn State graduate is $28,000. I was able to pay my way through Penn State with the money I made playing in a rock band. (Of course, I remember paying about $325 per term in tuition).
Since so many jobs have disappeared in small towns, our graduates now flock to the big cities—Washington, D.C.; New York; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Houston; Austin—where the cost of living is astoundingly high. Of course, many of them—some studies estimate as high as 65 percent—return home to live for a time with mom and/or dad.
And, perhaps even more insidious, the range of stimuli and choice Gen Y has to deal with is overwhelming. People my age remember that, in our youth, it took a simple phone call to get phone service installed. Today, you can spend days trying to figure out the best phone and calling plan from an ever-expanding universe of choices. While this is not necessarily bad, it is more time-consuming and, ultimately, taxing.
In fact, Barry Schwartz, a sociologist at Swarthmore, contends that our everyday decisions—whether ordering a cup of coffee or applying to college—have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice we face at every turn. Schwartz maintains that we are past the tipping point where too much choice—and too much time and energy devoted to mainly trivial decisions—has become detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being.
This too is a structural change that Gen Y must sort out. I believe they deal with unending choice better than my generation, but it nonetheless exacts a toll.
In large part because of these structural changes (and many more too numerous to mention) Gen Y has developed different habits, expectations, attitudes and world views. In his book Y-Size Your Business: How Gen Y Employees Can Save You Money and Grow Your Business, author Jason Ryan Dorsey outlines 10 defining characteristics for how Gen Y thinks and acts at work.
- No expectation of lifetime employment. Gen Y expects to change employers constantly throughout their working life. In fact, staying too long in one job looks to them as if your career has stalled out.
- A feeling of entitlement along with big expectations. This is due mainly to Baby Boomer parents who have shielded and protected their Gen Y kids, making them reliant and dependent with little sense of how the world actually works.
- A hunger for instant gratification and tangible outcomes. Patience and long attention spans are antiquated virtues.
- A new relationship with technology and communication. Lest you think that Gen Y is “tech-savvy,” they’re not, Dorsey says. They are “tech-dependent,” however.
- A higher toleration for diversity of all kinds. This is a good thing.
- A desire to be their own boss. Gen Y is highly entrepreneurial and determined to control their own schedules and destiny. This also is a good thing.
- Gen Y decides to stay—or not—on their first day of work. Hmmmm. Better make it welcoming and interesting. Decidedly, not like my first day on my first job.
- A need for ongoing feedback. Preferably positive.
- A lack of real-world expertise. They are entering the workforce later in life with very little practical work experience of any sort, thanks to overprotective moms and/or dads.
- A habit of putting lifestyle ahead of work. They place great value, and hone their identities, on what they do and who they are outside of work. For a Boomer like me, life is driven by career. Little else outside the office matters quite as much.
Though Dorsey writes for employers of the rising generation, his observations are equally valid for those of us who work with students and young alumni. The same qualities and dynamics apply. The trick for us is to turn them to our advantage in engaging Gen Yers with our alma mater and the Penn State Alumni Association.
For the Future,
Roger L. Williams ’73, ’75g, ’88g