Dreaming about life after college, I often find myself fast-walking to the other side of crosswalk white lines as I tilt my chin skyward to gaze into perfect blue. The soundtrack is always something reminiscent of the Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start,” and it rifts along spunkily as I make my way to a workplace filled with young and exciting people overflowing with innovative ideas for changing the broken systems of America. There are lunch breaks at sleek (yet homey) organic restaurants and after-work glasses of wine over great conversation in the apartments of newfound friends. There are weekend adventures plastered in photo albums on Facebook–jazz concerts in parks and smile-filled hikes on well-groomed trails. The rooms of my tiny apartment hold walls of bookshelves, a desk that boasts a great view, and a “creative space”of crafting supplies and violin sheet music for free time with a purpose. My days at work are motivated and productive. My value as an employee is acknowledged. I have responsibilities that I am proud of. When I return home for holidays and vacations I take the family out for dinner and talk about everything from my boyfriend to the Middle East. Every morning, I get dressed then have my travel mug filled with coffee by a barista who recognizes my face and knows my name.
It’s a very pretty picture I’ve painted for myself. One that I now know to acknowledge as a distant and unlikely pipe dream… at least for the years immediately following the completion of my education. Like many of my fellow members of the “Millennial Generation,” I grew up believing that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I was groomed to dream big. Now, as the “M” Generation begins to enter the unstable ground of the work world, our high expectations and fear of negativity leave our employers baffled.
We are a generation of idyllic childhoods and attuned parents who have invested everything in the name of our happiness, success, and well-being. We were given carefree weeks at summer camps, hours of music lessons, involved parent-teacher conference showdowns, encouraging shouts from soccer field sidelines, and relentless rounds of ACT and SAT prep. We had “play dates” and pre-packaged snacks. When we fell on the playground, crashing toward cushioned shredded rubber, our skinned knees were covered quickly with band-aids decorated by Mickey, Pooh and Scooby Doo. Even when we lost or performed poorly we were congratulated with a pat on the back and a “Good try!” We all received the obligatory light blue “participant” ribbon to hang on our bed frames at the end of the day.
With all of these boosts to self-esteem and protection from the “dangers” of the big bad “real world,” why do we find ourselves so unhappy when we set off to live the dream our parents have worked so hard to make possible? Lori Gottlieb, a therapist and mother, examines this question in her recent article for The Atlantic Magazine. Titled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” Gottlieb’s article looks at why the obsession parents have with their children’s happiness may be leading to more unhappy adulthoods when these kids finally leave the nest. Armed with plastic bookstore bags filled with advice from parenting experts spanning Spock to Holt, these parents are determined to keep their children out of the therapist’s chair. They will build a Utopian community inside the 4 walls of their suburban family home. Their children will look up to them as friends who they can discuss anything with. These parents, dedicated and doting, are the parents of the patients Gottlieb has begun to see every day. Their children have turned into 20-somethings with great educations, nice apartments, large networks of friends, high paying jobs, and seemingly inexplicable insecurities. They are depressed, indecisive and “adrift.”
Gottlieb argues that these anxious and depressed young adults (who might be defined as “Emerging Adults”) can trace many of their issues to their upbringings. Placed into only “perfect” situations and shielded from discomfort as we were supported by our parents from the world of play dates to the faux-independence of college, we flail like fish when we are thrown into the professional world. We text our parents 15 times a day, expecting a reaction to every feeling we experience as we have it. From teachers, peers, friends, and employers alike, we have come to expect instant feedback. We have been wrapped up and defended from anxiety.
The idea that we are in tune with our feelings and effective communicators with a plethora of positive experiences sounds like a good one. In some ways it is. We are an incredibly optimistic generation, and we are determined to change the world. We are more savvy when it comes to technology than any generation before us, and we are reshaping the global market. We will do anything it takes to claim the victory flag of “happiness” and “success.” And yet, for all of these positive qualities, we are also narcissists. We feel like we are “special,” and we don’t understand the hierarchy of the work world. We feel lost. We long for independence, but long too to stay tethered to our parents. They have become our best friends, and they support us for longer and longer periods of time. We look to them to help with our indecision, and we expect that they will fund us until we find a career that is both meaningful and lucrative. We feel that after all they have given us, we owe them something. Many somethings. For our parents, we were an emotional investment. The days of procreating for the sake of extra hands on the family farm are long gone. Though they aren’t likely to admit it, our parents struggle more with the idea of being “empty nesters” than any generation before. They hold on for dear life and then wonder frustratedly why their kids haven’t figured out how to be independent years down the line.
Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee declares that “over the past few years, college deans have reported receiving growing numbers of incoming freshmen they’ve dubbed ‘tea cups’ because they’re so fragile that they break down anytime things don’t go their way…well-intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods…they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up” (Gottlieb, 4). As I type, a campus tour group stands in front of the windows in my favorite study spot listening carefully to each word a yellow-t-shirted tour guide speaks with bated breath. The future freshmen look slightly bored, and leaf through their complimentary packets filled with pictures of smiling students living out the “best years of their lives.” The parents look fierce. Their eyebrows are furrowed. They interject with questions. They ask about mini-fridges and office hours and sports teams. The American versions of the infamous Amy Chua, they are tiger mothers and fathers with claws (though these claws are often disguised with sugary words and discussions about “potential” and the “future.”) When they come back to this hill a year from now, cars filled with plastic bins and dorm room necessities from the aisles of Target, they will attend a goodbye ceremony with their children. They will be ushered out with tears in their eyes, their college freshmen ushered out through separate doors. They will call within 24 hours to make sure everything is going according to plan–their children still maintained within an invisible bubble.
Though they have done everything possible to make sure their children develop into happy and fruitful adults, these parents have unknowingly made it harder for their kids to actually grow up. They have defined what happiness will mean for their children without allowing them to define it for themselves–letting them fall along the way.
In an article written for the Wall Street Journal in October of 2008 titled “The Trophy Kids Go to Work,” Ron Alsop discusses the interaction of generation M with their new employers after spending so many years sheltered by their parents and positive reinforcement. His general assessment is that my generation has an unbelievable set of expectations–we believe we will have high pay, flexible work schedules, promotion within a year, more vacation time, and constant feedback right out of the gate. We expect to be the CEOs almost immediately. We grew up with teachers who worried about using harsh red ink to grade papers because it would affect our self esteem (Alsop, 2). We long for employer attention and recognition of our brilliant ideas. Like Gottlieb, Alsop attributes our over-confidence and high expectations to over-involved parents and a Baby Boomer generation determined to boost self-confidence. Our now common hiatus of Emerging Adulthood is thought to be largely due these parenting styles, the constant connectivity allowed by revolutions in technology, and the changing structure of the economy.
Reading these accounts of “trophy kids” and the fragility and brashness of my generation, I feel a bit slighted. Though the majority of the content in these articles has merit (and I’m more than willing to admit that I remain very close to my parents and have expectations for my life after college that are probably too high…) I think that we should look at things a little more positively. I think that my generation should have more of a voice in all of this. I am hoping that soon there will be more articles about Emerging Adulthood and life in the “real world” of work written by 20-somethings. I hope that our rosy hued perspective will prove useful. I hope that we will be taken seriously, and that the fact that we take longer to grow up won’t continue to be seen as a shameful thing (already, psychologist Scott Arnett has begun to debunk this view of Emerging adulthood.)
But who knows, maybe that’s just the optimism of my generation talking…