Do we have a lost generation on our hands? The Plight of Generation Y

FOR Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor who wrote the best-selling book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the call to answer life’s ultimate question came early. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” But Frankl would have none of it. “Sir, if this is so,” he cried, jumping out of his chair, “then what can be the meaning of life?”

The teenage Frankl made this statement nearly a hundred years ago — but he had more in common with today’s young people than we might assume.

Today’s young adults born after 1980, known as Generation Y or the millennial generation, are the most educated generation in American history and, like the baby boomers, one of the largest. Yet since the Great Recession of 2008, they have been having a hard time. They are facing one of the worst job markets in decades. They are in debt. Many of them are unemployed. The income gap between old and young Americans is widening. To give you a sense of their lot, when you search “are millennials” in Google, the search options that come up include: “are millennials selfish,” “are millennials lazy,” and “are millennials narcissistic.”

Do we have a lost generation on our hands? In our classes, among our peers, and through our research, we are seeing that millennials are not so much a lost generation as a generation in flux. Chastened by these tough economic times, today’s young adults have been forced to rethink success so that it’s less about material prosperity and more about something else.

Generation Y or the millennial generation, are the most educated generation in American history and, like the baby boomers, one of the largest. Yet since the Great Recession of 2008, they have been having a hard time. They are facing one of the worst job markets in decades. They are in debt. Many of them are unemployed. 

And what is that something else? Many researchers believe that millennials are focusing more on happiness than prior generations, and that the younger ones in that age cohort are doing so even more than the older ones who did not take the brunt of the recession. Rather than chasing the money, they appear to want a career that makes them happy — a job that combines the perks of Google with the flexibility of a start-up.

But a closer look at the data paints a slightly different picture. Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning than by what some would call happiness. They report being less focused on financial success than they are on making a difference. A 2011 report commissioned by the Career Advisory Board and conducted by Harris Interactive, found that the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning. Though their managers, according to the study, continue to think that millennials are primarily motivated by money, nearly three-quarters of the young adults surveyed said that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”

MEANING, of course, is a mercurial concept. But it’s one that social scientists have made real progress understanding and measuring in recent years. Social psychologists define meaning as a cognitive and emotional assessment of the degree to which we feel our lives have purpose, value and impact. In our joint research, we are looking closely at what the building blocks of a meaningful life are. Although meaning is subjective — signifying different things to different people — a defining feature is connection to something bigger than the self. People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself. There is no one meaning of life, but rather, many sources of meaning that we all experience day to day, moment to moment, in the form of these connections.

It’s also important to understand what meaning is not. Having a sense of meaning is not the same as feeling happy. In a new longitudinal study done by one of us, Jennifer L. Aaker, with Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs and Emily N. Garbinsky, 397 Americans were followed over a monthlong period and asked the degree to which they considered their lives to be meaningful and happy, as well as beliefs and values they held, and what type of choices they had made in their lives.

Read the full article at NYtimes.com

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