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The World According to Y: Inside the New Adult Generation

The World According to Y: Inside the New Adult Generation

by Rebecca Huntley

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Fresh insight into the "troublesome" Generation Y—the children of baby boomers—is offered in this personal, witty, and thought-provoking analysis. This fascinating volume investigates Gen-Yers' attitudes about sex, relationships, marriage, friendship, consumerism, celebrity, body image, work, politics, and religion. Also


Fresh insight into the "troublesome" Generation Y—the children of baby boomers—is offered in this personal, witty, and thought-provoking analysis. This fascinating volume investigates Gen-Yers' attitudes about sex, relationships, marriage, friendship, consumerism, celebrity, body image, work, politics, and religion. Also addressed is how the generation defines happiness, and what it envisions for the future.

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"Exposes the foibles and interprets the at times apparently scattered behavior of our newest generation."  —Bernard Salt, author, The Big Shift

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Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
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5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.57(d)

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The World According to Y

Inside the New Adult Generation

By Rebecca Huntley

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2006 Rebecca Huntley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74176-133-7


From X to Y

The kids have got their own thing going. Good. 'The edge' is over.


Each generation is a new people.


ON SEPTEMBER 11 2001, I was sitting in my living room, having just returned from the first session of a fear of flying course I was doing. The latest episode of The West Wing was suddenly disrupted by a news flash about a plane ploughing into the Twin Towers on a bright New York morning. My family sat glued to the TV in horror and disbelief for the next five hours. The temperature of the world seemed to change overnight and 'terrorism' became a priority issue in remote and sheltered Australia.

As disturbing as September 11 was for every person who watched it happen on TV, for older generations this wasn't the first vision of mass destruction they have witnessed that shaped their worldview in profound and lasting ways. The GI and Silent generations have their images of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. The Boomers remember napalm bombings in Vietnam. Generation X, of which I am a younger member, grew up familiar with sepia-toned mushroom clouds and the threat of nuclear extinction in fifteen minutes flat. Those Grim Reaper ads on TV caused us all to fear a sexual black plague brought on by the spread of AIDS. But for members of Generation Y — commonly defined as young men and women born in or after 19821 — September 11 was the most dramatic global event of their lives so far.

Generation Y reacted to September 11 in a way that says a lot about Yers, their present attitudes and future direction. Most of them have only known a peaceful world, a world of quick and effortless techno-wars that are always won by America and her allies. They have only known a prosperous world, where the Dow Jones keeps going up and people only get wealthier. They were born and raised in a global society where consumerism and capitalism are natural conditions and go largely unchallenged. To them, technology is their natural ally, a necessity rather than a luxury, the solution to all imaginable problems.

September 11 was an event that threatened this new generation's sense of peace and prosperity. Monuments of corporate power were destroyed in a country whose economic and military dominance is practically unassailable. All the advanced technology in the world couldn't stop it from happening (although it ensured we got to watch it unfold live to air). The confidence of this rising generation of young men and women could have been fatally undermined by this event — but wasn't. September 11 did little to dampen the spirits of American youth, for example. A Harris Interactive Poll conducted one year after the attacks showed that American students remained optimistic about reaching future goals and did not have increased fears of a personal experience with terrorism. Many wanted to get on with their lives and not 'linger in the shadows of S 11'. Drake Bennett, in his article on volunteerism, found that instead of cowing them, the attacks provoked 'a general sense of solidarity and national duty' amongst young Americans.

Young Australians share the sentiments of their American contemporaries. Yes, there are parts of the world that are no-go zones due to terrorism (an annoying thought for a generation of compulsive travellers), but Generation Y's belief in its future possibilities and sense of personal freedom hasn't been curtailed in any serious way by the terrorist attacks in America, or indeed by those that occurred closer to home in Bali. Even the 2006 London bombings (in which both the perpetrators and victims were predominantly young people) seemed to have concerned but not panicked this emerging generation of young adults. Generation Y accepts, almost matter of factly, that living in today's world means you have to live with uncertainty.

In their study of wellbeing after September 11, researchers from the Australian Centre on Quality of Life found that younger people, especially young men, were less likely to say they were affected by September 11 than older people. My own conversations with young people suggest a similar conclusion. Steve, a young law student recently back from trekking around South America, doesn't feel as if events like Bali and S 11 affected him 'one bit'. He says, 'It affected the way I see world politics but not the way I think or view other people.' Laura, a young journalist, shares that view. September 11 didn't undermine her sense of security or wellbeing or stop her from travelling to Europe. Kirsten Hagon, Australia's Youth Representative to the United Nations in 2001, was in New York when the planes hit the World Trade Center. Did her priorities change? 'Not really,' she stated, in a report on her UN trip. For Kirsten, September 11 was a reason for action and hope rather than inaction and fear. She believes only her generation's commitment to removing poverty and intolerance will ensure international peace and security and a world where events like S 11 don't happen again.

I still think young people have the passion and the optimism and the desire to make a difference. The more we are able to participate today, the sooner we can start helping to solve the problems which plague our world and work for a better tomorrow.

In Australia, Generation Y's anger around S 11 was less about the event itself than the reaction of the United States government and its allies. Many young adults have reacted negatively to the media hype around the tragedy and the relentless and insensitive use of images of death and destruction to sell papers and increase TV ratings. And whilst this was Generation Y's first exposure to international terrorism on a grand scale, most Yers were aware that in so many other places around the world this kind of stuff happens all the time. For many of them, September 11 intensified their desire to enjoy life right now.

So it seems that even the most audacious and terrifying acts of public violence can't dent the ambition and optimism of what demographers Neil Howe and William Strauss call 'the Next Great Generation'.

Fast forward from September 11, 2001 to the beginning of 2003. I decided to return to casual university teaching, this time tutoring 18-year-olds in culture and communications at a regional university. Since I started teaching nearly a decade ago, I have run courses on everything from constitutional law to film studies. Every year my students seemed to get younger and younger. But suddenly in 2003, the gap between us felt like an abyss. These young people are something else. The differences relate not just to the music they listen to or the clothes they wear. The more striking differences are in terms of their basic attitudes and expectations about a whole range of issues — sex, marriage, friendship, family, politics, work, technology and the future. This is a generation with a distinctly different worldview to mine. I started to believe that these differences were worth exploring on their own terms and from the point of view of a member of Generation X.

Thinking about Generation Y has forced me to consider my own generational profile, what it means to be Generation X, that age cohort born between the early 1960s and the late 1970s. Defining X is an important step because, as Howe and Strauss found, despite a few similarities in behaviour and attitudes, Gen Y actually 'represents a sharp break from Generation X'. Instead of imitating us, Yers have reacted to our mood and our failings. This is proof that social change is not a progression along letters of the alphabet but more like a pinball in a machine, reacting (sometimes unpredictably) to the hits and misses of our society and our culture.

When the term 'Generation X' was first used by Douglas Coupland as the title for his offbeat novel, I was 19 years old, a first-year university student. If I had cared enough to consider the merit of the label, I'm sure I would have resisted attempts by anyone to define my personality on the basis of having been born in 1972. I didn't see myself as anything like the bunch of slackers and malcontents the experts claimed were typical of my generation. Now, I don't mind when I am identified as part of Generation X. I feel a sense of camaraderie with others who were born in the 1970s, whose musical tastes were shaped by the 1980s and who struggle to find a place in a world still dominated by our elders.

Watching the film Reality Bites on cable recently, what it means to be X became abundantly clear to me. Yes, it collapses into Hollywood romance at the end but on the way the film tries hard to capture what it was like to be a young adult in the 1990s. There is the revolt against commercialism, the alienation from a dysfunctional family, the reliance on an alternative and chosen family of friends and lovers. The film's protagonists are young adults with crushing student loans and university degrees who find themselves in minimum-wage jobs at The Gap and McDonalds. There is a resistance to marriage, feelings of shock and horror that people from high school are having babies already. These protagonists are finding their way through the post-university malaise without any guidance from heroes or role models, or any help from their Baby Boomer parents who tell them times are tough, swallow your pride and take that job at $5 an hour.

The feeling of hopelessness is there too. In her Valedictorian speech, Lelaina, played by Winona Ryder, asks her audience of parents and peers: 'How are we going to repair all the damage we've inherited? The answer is ... I don't know.' The grand, youthful ambitions of the Boomers no longer seem relevant or realistic. These characters are dubious about 'making the world a better place'. They know that whatever they choose to do with their life, however meaningful to them, isn't going to 'end world hunger or save the planet'. Ten years on and the characters in Reality Bites would still be grappling with career and commitment issues, trying to balance the needs of economic stability with personal fulfilment. They would probably be renters rather than mortgagees, in de facto relationships rather than married with kids, some still reliant on parents to get by financially, most still reliant on friends to get by at all. They may well be working in a job totally unrelated to their university degree.

There is no doubt in Howe and Strauss's statement that X has 'the worst reputation of all living generations'. It has been called the 'Me Generation', too selfish and self-absorbed to commit to a marriage, children, saving money or a permanent job. We postpone taking on the responsibilities of adulthood to the last possible moment, making us 'adultescents'. More sympathetic commentators have described us as the 'Options Generation'. We keep our options open in all aspects of our lives, 'choosing' to postpone long-term commitments in favour of short-term goals and stop-gap measures. Generation X has also been characterised as deeply pessimistic, an entire generation who saw the world through grey-coloured glasses. We grew up fearing nuclear annihilation, unemployment and AIDS, with little confidence in the future of the world or our own. Politicians weren't providing the answers and neither were our parents. There were no grand causes to believe in (expect perhaps salvaging the environment).We were highly cynical about anything and everything.

Our expectations in life were lower than our parents' — and for good reason too. X was the first generation to begin to feel the force of what journalist Simon Castles calls 'the negative consequences of two decades of extraordinary economic and social change'. Even now we wield much less economic power than the generations ahead of us. We are mostly locked out of the housing market and haven't experienced the kind of job security that was common in countries like Australia when our parents first exited school and university. In fact, a university degree, something that practically guaranteed success for our parents, would no longer ensure graduate Xers financial prosperity or career advancement. Strauss and Howe call us 'The Thirteenth Generation', a reflection of how unlucky we have been to be born and raised during such a dismal time in our recent history. Faced with such difficulties, life has become all about survival. In order to make it in an unforgiving world, we have had to become comfortable with change and adopt a flexible and pragmatic approach to everything. We get by on talent, luck and the benevolence of others (usually our parents).

Considering Generation Y from the point of view of a Gen-Xer, it is easy to be suspicious, judgmental and even a bit jealous. We felt abandoned whereas they have felt treasured and protected. Howe and Strauss believe that Gen X 'had reason to feel like a throwaway generation whose problems older people ignored', whereas Gen Y 'have always felt themselves to be the focus of public attention'. We have a deep-rooted sceptical outlook whereas Generation Y thinks anything and everything is possible. They are far more confident about their own lives and the world's long-term survival. Social commentator Hugh Mackay summarises the mood contrast between X and Y by comparing the attitudes of a 19-year-old in 1980 and 2000. According to Mackay, in 1980 the average 19-year-old feared nuclear annihilation and saw life as grim and uncertain. His concerns about the future of the planet were tied up with anxieties about his own future, particularly his career prospects. Time-travel two decades forward and the average 19-year-old is confident, both about her future and the future more generally. She puts a big premium in having fun. She is more relaxed and capable of taking uncertainty in her stride without complaint. So in one generation we have seen a basic attitude shift from pessimism to optimism. This is intriguing if we consider that many of the problems facing our society in 1980 — environmental degradation, violence and war, family breakdowns, employment insecurity, third-world poverty and so on — still exist in this millennium. It seems that Generation Y is more capable than X at facing these problems — or more effective at ignoring them.

There is an irresistible urge when defining a generation of young people to make comparisons (often uncomplimentary) with older generations ('young people these days, I don't know ...' etc). I have tried my best to avoid the tendency amongst those over the age of 35 to see young people as 'a problem that needs fixing' — girls with eating disorders, boys without role models, homeless and drug-addicted teenagers, 20-somethings who are underemployed and oversexed, the list goes on. As Eckersley observes, older generations often see the world 'in a state of moral decline' and tend to blame the young for this decline. I do compare and contrast Y with the X and Baby Boomer generations throughout this book. In fact, part of this book's central theme hinges on how Y differs from X and how it is shaped by the parent generation. But whilst these influences, tensions and differences are important and interesting, Yers certainly deserve to be considered on their own terms.

What is Generation Y? The term is clumsy, and suggests that it picks up where X left off, which is not the case. It has been given many names — the Net Generation, the Millennials, the Dotcoms and the Thumb Generation (referring to their dexterity with remote controls, computer keyboards and mobile phones), and Echo-Boomers (as the product, both biologically and socially, of their Baby Boomer parents). Yers have been described as the Paradoxical Generation, due to their seemingly contradictory approach to life (they drink and take drugs but eat organic food, they are obsessed with technology but fear it is depriving them of deeper personal relationships, they want to get married but resist settling down with a partner). I have struggled to come up with my own term for this new group. I once dreamt about a possible name for them — Generation Blue Sky. It reflects the optimism and ambition of these young adults, the sense that their horizons are big and the possibilities endless. But like all the labels it seems to fall short of capturing what this generation is all about. So I have stuck with the term Generation Y.

Whatever you call them, there are certainly lots of them. They are the largest youth generation in history. In the United States, they encompass more than 70 million people and are almost three times the size of Generation X. In Australia, Generation Y isn't super-sized like in the United States. There are 1 119 755 people in the 18–25 age bracket compared with 2 025 351 in the much larger Gen X 26–39 age bracket. However, this million-plus will form the bulk of the adult population within the next 20 years and may steamroll Gen-Xers in the process, running over them in both public and private institutions. Generation Y's sheer size will make sure it makes its mark on the world in a way Generation X never did. We will have to understand their mindset in order to navigate our own future.

In order to understand why they are who they are, we need to understand their past, the world they were born into and grew up in. As children, their family environment was one of curious contradiction. Yers are mostly planned children rather than 'Saturday night specials', born to older parents who wanted to conceive (and sometimes had difficulties). They were usually born into small families, growing up alone or with only one sibling. All this has made them feel special and wanted. The decade of their childhood, the 1980s, was also a time when public fears about child abuse and abduction emerged with some force. The 'Stranger Danger' message was extended to include 'Everyone Danger', due to rising public awareness of child abuse in previously safe havens such as churches, schools and camps. Children were clearly not safe outside home but even inside home there were threats behind every door. New child-safety devices swamped the market in the late 1980s. There were ad campaigns about unfenced swimming pools and boiling pots tumbling off stoves. This was happening at a time of increased public concern about violence in schools, youth gangs and suicides, drug abuse, teen sex and pregnancy. Whilst these were all Generation X problems, they meant that parents of young children in the 1980s became hyper-aware of all the possible threats the world might pose to their special child.


Excerpted from The World According to Y by Rebecca Huntley. Copyright © 2006 Rebecca Huntley. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Rebecca Huntley is a freelance writer and cultural commentator with a PhD in gender studies. She has previously worked as an academic and a political staffer.

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