Do We Get Gen "Why"?
I was delighted to catch up recently with one of my teachers, and found her as passionate about educating children today as she was three decades ago, when I was in school. We had a great conversation, but I must admit to a sense of disquiet as I heard her opinions about the next generation.
Gen Y's desire to learn is lower than that of preceding generations; it doesn't have big dreams or huge aspirations; and the pursuit of instant gratification has compromised its values, she felt. Blaming parents who encourage children to take shortcuts, my teacher argued that this would result in low self-motivation, a lack of integrity, and societal distrust over the next two decades.
This conversation got me thinking. Does Gen Y run the risk, like every other generation, of being undervalued? Does it face the same problems that plagued the Baby Boomers for decades? I tweeted my teacher's opinions about Gen Y and started asking people these questions.
I have a nagging doubt that young people are misunderstood simply because they're very different from my generation. Gen Y's members listen to iPods, text their friends, and chat online even as they chase deadlines. Updating their Facebook statuses is as important to them as talking to family. But is that enough to conclude that Gen Y is uninspired or low on ambition?
Are we not missing the fact that Gen Y questions more than follows? It has grown up questioning its parents and is questioning employers now. Are we mistaking self-confidence for lack of intensity? I too worry about the fallout from taking short cuts, but that's the fault of parents—not children.
In Gen Y, we have a spunky group that can multi-task its way around linear definitions of success; a resilient bunch that won't allow archaic education systems to dampen its creativity and curiosity; a Google generation that understands the difference between information and education. Why aren't we thrilled about that?
If my conversations weren't enough cause for concern, I later read a New York Times report about U.S. schools experimenting with recess coaches, who take the few minutes of unstructured time between classes to foster social skills. That really worries me.
Like Generation "Why," I would question rather than answer. So let me ask you: Do we value enough the uniqueness of Gen Y, which has broken through the divide between online and offline societies? Why does their being so different threaten us? My hopes are still pinned on Gen Y, but tell me what you think.
This column originally ran on HBR.org.