Thursday, September 19, 2013

Gen Ys: Selfishness or Self-discovery?

If you haven't read the blog post "Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy", I recommend it.  The blog tells the story of "Lucy" a Gen Y stick figure who constantly battles angst and disappointment because she hasn't managed to live up to her lofty dreams (which include a life of unicorns, rainbows, and flowers). 

The post is really funny but also hits a little too close to home. I've just been writing about the angst and disappointment of my 20s and thought, Crap! Am I Lucy?! So much for profound thoughts, maybe I just need to face the fact that I'm spoiled. Or as one anonymous commenter on my blog said -  I just have "white people problems."

I admit, I am spoiled, more than I even realize as I sit on my couch at 11am on a Tuesday sipping coffee and naval gazing during my "funemployment." But I'm not ready to start self-flagellation just yet. 

Our generation is definitely flawed, but I think our angst may be more profound than just the side-effect of a "self-esteem generation" or even, as critics of the Lucy blog argue, the result of trying to get a good job in a bad economy. 

I believe our angst is the product of deep soul-searching work, an important process that our parents are revisiting in their 50s.  We are just 25 years ahead of the game and can't yet afford the red convertible. 

So why in our quest to live out has my generation chosen to first look in?

The Lucy blog talks about the disparity between expectations and reality and sees this gap as the source of our unhappiness. We expect to find the perfect job made just for us while marrying the ideal spouse and being wildly successful building a company, inventing the next big app, or curing malaria. And we want to be like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and do it all now in our 20s.

I've definitely had my fair share of this unnecessary disappointment (mainly because my parents and grandparents have given me such big shoes to fill with their outstanding lives). But when I look to the source of my unhappiness, it's not this.

It's this: I'm 29 years old and I'm still struggling to know who I am and what it means to live a meaningful life.

Our generation, more than any before us, has been blessed and cursed with the gift of choice. This everyone knows. This is why we are considered spoiled. As a privileged woman with lots of education (though a quickly dwindling bank account) I have a buffet of career options available to me and lots of people along the way who've told me "reach for the stars, you can do anything you want." (Which is very nice, but not exactly true and a wee bit panic-inducing).

But there is another type of choice, a less obvious one, which may be a greater source of angst - the choice of who or what to show us how to live well. In the past, cultures and communities were so strong and all-encompassing that going through life was like moving along a formula. Norms, rituals, beliefs, values, and your place in society were clearly laid out and hard to change or dodge. 

But in our pluralistic, individualistic, ever changing society I now have to do the hard work of defining who I am and choosing how I will live, what I will do, where I will live, who I will help (and what's harder - who I won't help), and what I believe (to the extent that that is a choice). And I bet I have to do more of this hard work than either my parents or grandparents did at my age.

Don't get me wrong – do I wish I was born into a society that forced me to be a secretary or a nurse or that only gave me one worldview? No. I am grateful for my choice and for my exposure to so many rich possibilities. But is it hard to navigate them and to know myself in them? – Yes!

What I would say to the generations above us is don't belittle or cut short our angsty processing. Yes, at times we will sound ungrateful and we will complain. We will take our choice and our privilege for granted, and we need things like the Lucy blog to give us a dose of humble reality. 

But our processing is important and we need people like you to come alongside of us – not to give us simple solutions or to tell us it will all be ok, but to remind us that our work is hard but critical and to keep wrestling with life's choices and paradoxes. You can tell us who you are and what you've come to do and believe and that will give us a little light, but ultimately we have to find our own light, which we know is there but seems blocked by so much of our own confusion.

In her 50s my mom went back to square one wrestling with two main questions – Who am I? and Who is God? She also regretted that she had not had more of her own career, though she's happy with the great life she's had.

When I tell her about all of my questions and indecisions she tells me to be grateful for them because she wishes she had dealt with them at my age rather than later in life. Working through them now is no guarantee that I won't go through them again at age 50 or 60 or even 90, but I'm at least practicing.

The cost and gift of choice is a chance to know yourself. Although it can be messy, annoying, and sometimes self-serving, perhaps learning to know ourselves is both the flaw and gift of our generation.

We invite you, the generations who've come before us, to join us in this process. Hold our hands, shine your light, and give us company as we dangle in our choices and confusion. Perhaps then we will finally do what you've always told we could do - we will find our stars.