I don’t believe it

Type in “Generation Y” in the google search engine and you will end up with nearly 3,000,000 references. It’s the topic of the moment and it has been taken up by marketeers, management professors and trend watchers. In the past there have been studies about intergenerational differences and trends, but never before one generation has received so much attention long before it even has left a significant trace in world history.

Socrates

So this article might be sacriligious to many as it shows that there most likely is no such thing as Generation Y . I for one do not believe in it. I think something else is going on, but it’s something that has been going on for centuries.

It’s totally natural that generations that live side to side make comments about one another. Socrates was not very positive about the generation that came after him. The Romans thought that their youngsters were heading for disaster. The anti-authoritarian movement of the 60ies that culminated in may 68 in Paris and other places in Europe is another example of how one generation reacts to its older generation. It is of all times. But if you want to see how the revolutionaries of those days evolved, you can ask yourself how revolutionary that revolution really was. Many of the leaders of those days have now embraced what they have fought against, all those years ago.

We invent stories about generations

The transition into adulthood is changing in the sense that it takes longer than it used to. Childhood and adolescence are taking up a larger chunk of the lives of people in number of years (even though relatively it might be that due to our longevity it is taking up the same relative part of our lives). That’s a fact.

Also, every generation has its views on how to consider childhood. In a sense we invent stories about the generations. Probably we need those stories to create our own identity. Imagine that a child never disagrees with its parents? It has to, because otherwise it cannot become more of itself. So I am convinced that Generation Y is just a story (a kind of branding of a generation) and that the similarities between generations are more important than the differences. What undoubtedly has changed is the way children and youngsters are treated (educated) and that has of course a an effect on how youngsters behave and how they develop into what they at a certain time most dread: their parents.

Going back in history

Let’s go back in history. The classical notion of childhood was one of development: children had to become adults as fast as possible. Inspite of the image of Romans being civilised and having a lot of attention for the schooling of their children, conditions for many children were hard. There is even some evidence that infanticide and child abuse was much more common than we would (like to) think.

In the middle ages it was still that classical notion of childhood that dominated. There was not much understanding of the importance of the early age for the development of the child. Children were treated as “small adults” that were somehow innocent but incomplete. There was love, but emotional ties were influenced by the views of the church and by the high infant mortality.

For the church the most important issue was to baptise young children to redeem their souls. That’s why children were baptised immediately after birth, a habit which yours truelly was also the subject of in 1969. This shows that these practices survived well into the twentieth century.

The education of children in the middle ages is to be seen in its context. Society in itself was organised differently. First of all one needed to accept that societal organisation was a product of God’s will and was not to be questioned. Children learned what had to be learned without being taught the capacity to criticize. Catechism was the most important intellectual input they received and this consisted out of a list of questions and answers that you had to learn by heart. My parents underwent this in the 30ies and 40ies of the twentieth century, but it was in fact a medieval practice.

The Church was the main source of education but the education was used to indoctrinate youngsters with ideas (and fears) that perpetuated the societal structure. The product of this education was ignorance and thus the church stopped deliberately the development of youngsters. The Education was a way to control. Let’s not forget that this remained very true until Vatican II. And let’s not forget that this is a proven tactic of authoritarian regimes. If you control the youth, you control the future.

Confronted with other views, the catholic church turned to repression. Heresy was used as an excuse to get rid of religious opponents. The inquisition is an example of that. The index of forbidden books is another. So for centuries deviant thoughts were considered to be dangerous. Not only the church used this approach, the monarchs ruled as well with iron hand and did not tolerate any thoughts that might have destabilized their authoritarian rule. Intolerance is a weapon. So as far as children were concerned, they were brought up in a sense of societal stability and continuity, with a totally different perspective of the meaning of life. Let’s also not forget that life expectancy was only 30. Only 50% of royal children lived until their 20ies. So there was not much time to think about emancipation.

The Enlightenment

During the Enlightenment new ideas came up also about how to raise a child. Whereas in the medieval times it was the clergy that determined the vision on education, during the enlightenment it was philosophy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that the child’s curiosity should be the driver behind its development. He thought that the environment of the child should be rich and stimulating so that the child is to discover many things and ask questions about it. This is a romantic idea that still exists today and is found in many nature-nurture discussions. But nothing much had changed for children. The philosophers talked mainly about educating the upper class. Most children were brought up just to be productive. At the height of that we see the child labour during the industrialisation.

20th century

And then came the 20th century. During the 20th century the child was finally “discovered”. New educational theories came up and developmental psychologists finally determined the importance of childhood for the development of people. Laws were voted that banned child labour and installed the obligation for learning and schooling. Child labour was progressively forbidden in the West. So childhood was reinvented and extended in time. Children were allowed to play and they were given space to be a child. Parents became their mentor.

Related to that there was also the notion of social mobility and democratization of education . Where children in the early twentieth century used their extra time to learn a profession or a trade, they were increasingly stimulated to expand their horizon and to focus on a more general education. Higher education became increasingly accessible in the West and especially in Europe and the numbers of people signing up for higher education has increased since the 60ies of the past century. In the past a university degree was something for the happy few, today it has become a right for everyone. Let’s take a look at Germany. In 1994 1,8 million youngsters started continued education (after secondary school). In 2010 this number had increased to 2,2 million. This number is unseen in history both in absolute and in relative terms.

Casa mama

And now? Youngsters seem to be postponing their adulthood. This is called the psychological moratorium. In Italy it’s called “casa mama”. Youngsters do not need to take on responsibilities until their mid or later twenties. They prolong their studies. The Italians seem to be at the top of the chart. Even those who go to work early, have the chance to remain under parental “custody” for a much longer time than we have known in history.

What are the mechanics ? Adolescents are taking more time to make the transition to adult life. There are 5 elements in that transition : finalizing studies, leaving the parental home, finding employment, marrying and having children. So do we think that young people have become lazy, that it is their fault ? Looking at Italy it is for youngsters impossible to leave their parental homes because of a huge gap between their income level and the cost of living.

One of the reasons for delaying the transition into adulthood is that the financial situation or certainty of youngsters has deteriorated in comparison to that of the babyboomers who rushed into marriage and lived on a wave of economic prosperity. The coming generations will be less well off than the baby-boomers. So delaying adulthood is probably a wise thing to do. However we must not forget that families themselves face challenges and that this prolonged residence causes strains within families.

Something else is happening. There is a certain decomposition of education. Primary school teachers complain about the low maturity of children entering the system. Secundary school teachers complain about the low readiness of children leaving the primary school, higher education teachers complain about the inflow in their system and finally companies are worried about the quality of candidates. So have we become stupid ?

One element could be the deteriorating disciplinary climate in families and school. But there is no proof for that. On the contrary  discipline in school and teacher-student relations seems to improve and youngsters are even asking for it. The German psychiatrists Winterhoff argues that there is a problem within families where discipline is fading. Parents want to be the partners of their children whereas children need structure. He argues that our society is cancelling childhood which has a detrimental effect on the psychological health of children. The problem is not to create boundaries (Begrenzung), the problem is the lack of them (Entgrenzung). The lack of boundaries creates dependency. It’s only because there are limitations that people can (have to) make choices. And it’s by making choices that one learns to be free.

So from a very rigid educational system, with hardly any attention for the development of children, we have come to an age where adulthood is postponed and youngsters are given a lot of (false) freedom. This leads to different behaviours of later generations at comparable ages. But everytime we see a change in society, we see that generations return to rather stable values and needs. Revolutions never succeed. There is always a backlash. You could also state that the reaction to the anti-authoritarian movement in the 60ies was a more conservative society. The need for discipline that youngsters express might be a reaction to Winterhoffs observed disintegration of the family.

Generation Y

So is the current generation Y different than any other generation ? Looking at the changing perception of childhood and the prolongued trasition into adulthood, something must change in how people develop their identity and how they behave. Anyway, that’s the conviction many people have. But is there really proof of that?

Some studies show that generation Y does not exist. A French professor has shown that the employees belonging to generation Y do not differ substantially from other employees. Their behaviour differs from students from generation Y. I guess that this would be the case in any generation and that the process of work socialization would play a role in that process.

Despoiling

So maybe companies will take over the role of educational systems and they will despoil a generation that has been used to extreme high comfort and lack of boundaries. And at the end of this despoiling process, generation Y will have taken of its clothes and be just the same as any other generation.

Throughout history children have not changed that much. They were treated differently, but they developed into adults. There has been no change in their psychological needs. People need to have the feeling they belong, that they can be autonomous and have a sense of mastery. The only thing that has changed is the speed of the process. It has slowed down. Life is longer so there is more time to reach the state of adulthood. We look at the current generation and we think they’re different, because they’re different from previous generations at the same age. But every later generation was perceived by earlier generations as being different. And every younger generation has tried to differentiate itself from earlier generations. It’s an eternal process.

Youngsters reaching adulthood will find out that life is not that easy after all. They will have to work for the money. They will have to struggle for a carrier. They will have to take on responsibilities, they did not understand. And they will have to learn how to do it fast.

Technology

So what about technology? I haven’t mentioned technology so far. Yes, technology has changed. Indeed the possibilities of ICT seem to be endless. But does this change the deep needs of people ? It doesn’t. People will use ICT to fulfil those basic needs. So technology does not change those needs, but it facilitates their satisfaction. Generation Y does not have significantly different expectations about employment than students from the baby boomer generation and generation X. They do not have different needs at all.

Monolithical 

What is intuitively not right is to talk about generation Y as if it were a monolithical generation. In the past generations weren’t either. I mentioned the stories earlier in this blog : generation Y is a myth. The baby boomer generation has produced a lot of different behaviours : hard working citizens, hippies, radicalists, environmentalists, … and all in one generation.

There are many studies that do show differences. For instance generation Y is less focussed on money and more on quality of life. This is to be seen in a societal context as this is a trend for all generations. We all evolve together. The elderly people of today have a different behavior than the generations before them, but they have evolved during their life, together with society. Their current behavior is not comparable with what they heve been taught 50 years ago. It’s a collective development.
But at the end of the day people from generation Y will have to work hard as well and do similar things to achieve their personal targets. Generation Y will grow up and they will become just like their parents. We see that happening already.

We become our parents

Although the societal context is changing and technology is changing, there is no point in considering generation Y as a monolithical generation that is fundamentally different from other generations. The behavioural differences that we might see are less important than the psychological similarities with other generations and indeed rather superficial differences. Moreover you will have members of the same generation act differently and members of different generations act in the same way. Generation Y is an invention, just like all the other stories about generations that have arisen since the oldest times. At the end of the day we have the same psychological needs and drives.

How much we resent the idea during puberty and young adult life, we all become our parents. And no generational branding will change that. There is no way out.

David Ducheyne

David Ducheyne

David is a specialist in people strategies, leadership and organizational development. He has gathered international experience with Henkel, Alcatel, Case New Holland, Securex and the University of Ghent. As an author he has published on Sustainable Leadership, Customzed Work, Health Management and Learning. He's also an avid blogger and key note speaker.

We become our Parents: the Myth of Generations
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