How not to do generational analysis

I read – and laughed – at Maclean’s latest in a series of Gen Y bashing pieces. This time it was Lianne George, with the bat, in the employment office, in her piece “Dude Where’s My Job?”

The piece said a lot more about Lianne George than it did about Gen Yers (or the Net Gen or, if you prefer, anyone under 30) tinged, as it was, with the bitter happiness of someone celebrating another’s (perceived) comeuppance. If only the analysis had been as edgy, or as fun, the piece’s tone.

The saddest element of the article was its reduction of Gen Yers to a coddled, materialistic and self-aggrandizing cohort who are finally about to taste a dose of reality. This despite the fact that – according to George – 44% of Yers still live at home (many, would likely prefer to live independently) and have large student debts (an average of $5,631 per year in according to her). Hardly the stats of an entitled generation.

She laughs that:  “This is a generation, after all, in which seven out of 10 rank themselves “above average” in academic ability.” The intent is to show Gen Yers are delusional self-aggrandizers. However, Gen Yers ARE above average in academic ability when compared to the population as a whole. The number of people attending university and college has been steadily (and aggressively) increasing. Even compared to 18 years ago, a growing % of the labour force has post-secondary education. This is to say nothing of the huge increase in the number of graduate students. For many Gen Yers maybe one parent, and almost none of their grandparents went to college or university. As such Gen Yers are more academically inclined compared to the labour force. Does this give them confidence? Maybe. But I wouldn’t confuse it with a belief they are inherently smarter or better than everyone else.

It is also problematic to talk about generations. I could easily sit here and psychoanalyze how Lianne George is almost certainly a Gen Xer who graduated at a time when there were no jobs and had to claw herself into a career she enjoyed. As such her article is just an expression of the frustration she (and by extension of course, all Gen Xers) feel towards Gen Y who (after making millions in silicon valley) they hope are finally getting their due and will have to behave more like her generation:  forced by a declining economy to abandon their dreams and hopes and become the prototypical slackers of Reality Bites, mocking life as they resign themselves to dead end job after dead end job. What a wonderful thing to wish on a generation.

The problem is – I don’t think most Gen Xers think that way. Moreover, this type of generational thinking blinds us to bigger and more important problems. Gen Xers were never all slackers and Gen Y is not a single cohort. I forsee something much more problematic and unstable emerging than a bunch of Gen Yers feeling let down by the universe. Recently I read that there has been no decline in the number of job recruiters at UBC this year. I fear that we are seeing the wedging of our economy – a separation between an growing wealthy and opportunity rich creative class, a struggling white collar class and a destitute blue collar class. While already true, I fear the main determinant of who’s asking “Dude, where’s my job” won’t be age, but class. Worse, those who end up asking the question risk becoming part of a structural unemployment problem: insufficiently skilled to enter the workforce, and lacking the capital to change their circumstances. This is the analysis we need from Maclean’s, not cheap snipping at a whole generation.

But then, maybe the cheap shots sell more magazines.

9 thoughts on “How not to do generational analysis

  1. chsiung

    The fact that seven out of 10 rank themselves as “above average” is also a red herring. This sort of delusional behaviour is not a hallmark of Gen Yers, but of human beings. Consider studies showing that 86% of Australians rate their job performance as “above average” and 90% of American business managers rate their performance as superior to that of their average peer. In other words, people generally understate our faults and overstate our abilities.I discuss cognitive dissonance here….I agree with you that dividing us up into a generational approach and then blaming them is not helpful. Although I haven't read the MacLean's article, I am going to take a guess that there is also an overemphasis on “personal responsibility” and a lack of acknowledging how for example we (communities, individuals, companies) have created a culture of consumerism, “free-market” every person for themselves mentality. But I digress. :-)

  2. Devin Johnston

    Lumping people into generations for the purposes of mass psychologizing has always been problematic. The extraordinary degree of diversity in terms of socio-economic backgrounds, education, attitudes, beliefs, and dispositions within any given “generation” is far greater than the degree of diversity as between two generations. In any event, as the first commenter noted, the “7 out of 10” stat has more to do with human nature than with generational attitudes (and, as you pointed out, is not inaccurate.) In my Poverty Law class last week, we discussed the fact that about three quarters of all Canadians perceive themselves as “middle class”.

  3. Kevin Daste

    The number of Gen Y’ers living with their parents could be misleading. How were college students treated in the survey? While attending college, I was still listed as a dependent on my parents’ tax returns and lived at home for half of my college career. If you assume that undergraduates are in college until 22 or 23, with post graduates in college for 2 or 3 more years, the results could be skewed to give the impression that Gen Y’ers are simply living at home due to lack of work or low paying jobs instead of attending college.

  4. david_a_eaves

    Good point Kevin. Wish I could share the data source with you but I can't – it was embedded in the original Maclean's piece and they don't hyperlink or footnote the study/survey.

  5. Rahaf Harfoush

    Great article. I saw this article yesterday and was reminded of why I don't read McLeans (free copy came in the mail.) The categorization of any “generation” is a warning sign for me, just like boomers can be said to be selfish and Gen x angry and unmotivated. You can't apply these broad labels to complex groups of people especially when you consider that gen y is the world's first global youth demographic. There will always be those who feel entitled or who have been coddled, but that discounts the big chunk of us who have had to work hard for our success.

  6. Sameer Vasta

    I'll echo Rahaf's comment: this reminded me of why I don't read Maclean's anymore. The warning bells started ringing when I read the subtitle calling this the “most entitled generation” when the article does little to examine what this entitlement is or how it is defined.

  7. Geekwad

    It's not even impossible or even that unlikely for seven out of ten to be above the mean. If three out of ten gestated within drinking mothers, for example, then the seven who didn't are probably right about being above the mean. In fact, the mean could be thrown off enough to have seven “above average” students by just one Maclean's editor.

  8. David Humphrey

    Thanks for this, David. I have wanted to blog about a number of recent Maclean's articles that did similar things, but I suppose I was too self-absorbed to bother.Dave

Comments are closed.