Generation Y, calibrating success in a post-recession economy: not so groovy

Generation Y, calibrating success in a post-recession economy: not so groovy

By: Danielle Bowler*

The pilot episode of  popular television show, “Girls”, opens with the lead character, Hannah Horvath out to dinner with her parents, Tad and Loreen, and receiving the kind of news that any recently graduated twenty-something dreads:

Tad:    Hannah, your mother and I have been talking, and we feel that it may be  time, how  can  I  phrase this, well we see how well you’re  doing  at  work,  and you really seem to  be  figuring what it is that you want. But it may be time for one final push.

Hannah:    What is a final push?

Loreen:    We’re not going to be supporting you any longer.

Tad:       See, I wasn’t going to phrase it like that, Loreen-the way you phrased it.

Hannah:     But I have no job!

Loreen:       No, you have an internship that you say is going to turn into a job. You graduated from  college two years  ago, we’ve been  supporting you for two years, and that’s enough.

Hannah:    Do you know how crazy the economy is right now? I mean all of my friends get help from their   parents.

Tad:       We are sympathetic to that.

Hannah:     But I’m your only child, it’s not like I’m draining all of your resources. I mean, this feels very arbitrary.

Loreen:       You don’t know anything about our finances. We’re professors, Hannah, professors. We can’t keep  bankrolling your groovy lifestyle.

“Girls”, written, directed and starred-in by twenty-something Lena Dunham, catalogues the lives of recently graduated women living in New York, trying to figure out for themselves, their place in the world, and in the job sector. Whilst the show has been both praised for its stark realism, the often commented upon “true to life” bad sex, and depictions of “normal” bodies onscreen, it has also received numerous critiques for its failure to depict intersectional struggles and lack of black voices. Nevertheless, it depicts the challenges, humiliations, triumphs, and turbulence of Generation Y: struggling with career choices, and trying to be successful in the “real world”. Dunham has emerged as pop culture’s new feminist icon that has captured the zeitgeist so much that she has been hailed as “the voice of a generation”, the voice of Gen Y.

A  few weeks ago, a popular post found its way around social media sites that resonates with Hannah’s conversation with her parents. It was shared primarily on Twitter and Facebook, and on popular digital sites “The Huffington Post” and “Gawker”. Titled “Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy”, the anonymously written piece argues that “millenials”, as those born between the “late 1970s and mid-1990s” have been called, have unrealistic expectations of success and entitlement issues, having been continually fed the idea that they are “special” and have limitless possibilities since birth. For the writer, Gen Y yuppies think “they are the main character of a very special story”, possessing a different outlook on their career prospects than their grandparents, who went through the Great Depression and World War II, and were thus focused on “economic security, and “practical secure careers”, and their parents who were part of the baby boom generation, and found themselves in an economic boom and, unexpectedly, did better than their parents. The Gen Ys, on the other hand, are accused of having a “specially protagonist identity”, being “wildly ambitious”, and even “delusional” about their job prospects.

The piece quickly spawned a retort, “F*** you, I’m Gen Y and I don’t feel special or entitled, I’m just broke”. Both posts attempt to understand the complex challenges faced by “Generation Y”, a generation that has to calibrate success very differently from previous generations, and that faces a vastly different, constantly changing world. In both pieces, the arguments are interesting, but are not as mutually exclusive as the authors would assume them to be. What these posts, and the conversation from “Girls” have in common is an attempt to understand and capture the lives twenty-somethings face, in a continuously shifting and tenuous post-recession global economy, working in unpaid (or badly paid) internships, and facing the loss of parental support, all while having scholarships and loans to pay off and trying to make the transition from student to “fully functioning adult”.

As a so-called “Gen Y”, I read both arguments with interest, given that I am in transition phase: trying to get my first “real” job, going to countless interviews, receiving some offers, yet wondering “what am I doing wrong?”, “are my expectations too high?”, “do I think that I’m too special in this job environment?”, “what can I do, do I need to study something else?”.

Gen Y: Is their plight really understood?

Generation Y, living in the digital era with an ever-expanding social footprint, have been called “a notoriously flighty, flaky bunch” , accused of political apathy, and critiqued for an obsession with popular culture, fashion and other apparently “meaningless things”. Social commentators, academics, and analysts have attempted to pin down the loosely defined group, and understand what makes them tick, but the truth is, “so-called millenials” are vastly different, the group is too vaguely grouped as those born in the 1970s are completely different from their 1990s counterparts, and the term is vaguely defined . In an age where everyone’s “consciousness is streaming on the internet”, to quote pop music innovator, the job market is an expanding, adapting and tricky space to be in. On the one hand, there are jobs that seek youth, usually in the social media, marketing, advertising and the digital spaces, yet almost all jobs require between one and five years of experience from their applicants.

Faced with this, the twenty-something wonders, “how am I meant to have that experience, I just spent 7 years getting a Masters degree, so that you’d let me through the door!”. While the anonymous writer of the article argues that Gen Ys don’t understand that “Great careers take years of blood, sweat and tears to build”, many do acknowledge this, but the issue is even getting through the door to start gaining the experience to start working on that career. Paul Harvey, a University of New Hampshire professor and GYPSY expert, argues that “Gen Y has “unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback,” and “an inflated view of oneself.” However, this is a generalisation, and especially one that does not seek to understand the economic and social, and digital environment the Gen Y finds themselves in. One has to especially wonder what kind of data is collected in these kinds of studies, and whether it is relevant to situations from Cairo to Johannesburg, Lagos to London.


There’s a great deal of pressure to succeed, where that success is measured in numerous different ways, from “living your dream” to being able to pay rent and buy a car, pay off your student debt, have disposable income, or be working in a fulfilling career. This pressure comes from many sides, and Gen Ys are often the ones putting the most pressure on themselves. But as millenials, we are a vastly heterogeneous group – a fact that any analyst needs to take into account when trying to understand the inner workings of a Gen Y. As Weinstein argues: “These are weirdly contrived generational categories, too weird for such black-and-white reasoning. I’ve always thought myself more tail-end-of-Gen-X in temperament, age, and outlook. But ’77-’79 is a sociologically ambiguous no-man’s land, and we typically get lumped in with the millennials, especially when it comes to money matters”. Yes, we want success, but that is for more than just the “groovy lifestyle” that Loreen Horvath thinks she’s funding for Hannah. That so-called groovy lifestyle often includes spending a half your salary on rent, trying to be innovative about transport in countries without comprehensive subway systems, or submitting numerous CVs without any responses, while your money is running out. Yes, we do want fulfilling careers, but the notion of job security is vastly different as careers are not traditionally practical anymore, or secure in this globally shifting, insecure, economy.

As Weinstein argues: “As a rule, our parents did end up much more dedicated to their careers than we have. But as a rule, they were laid off less. They didn’t intern or work as independent contractors…And they saved more because” the costs of living was not as high. And yes, we are wildly ambitious, but trust, but there’s nothing that humbles that ambition more than sitting on the floor of your shared-flat, eating two minute noodles for the seventh time in one week, wondering how you can make your last R100 last until the end of the month. Pretty groovy, right?

*Danielle Bowler is a Masters student at the Political and International Studies department, Rhodes University, Grahamstown – South Africa. 

Picture: Danielle Bowler

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