"Lke most things that are repeated often enough ,[certain] 'insights' into Generation Y have attained the status of common sense." Photo: Getty Images
Over drinks with an assortment of 30-going-on-40-somethings the conversation turned, as it often does, to Generation Y. Or, to give this conversation it’s more accurate label, ‘Why Young People Are Rubbish At Everything’.
'They don't stay in the job as long as we'd like them to' complained Mary Anne who managed a bank call centre team packed with 20-somethings. 'And they always want to know why. You can't just ask them to do something and have them do it.'
'It's not like when we were young', she went on. 'We respected authority. We did what we were asked. We didn't need to know why.'
And it wasn't just in the workplace. Mary Anne had observed the same behaviours in her teenage children.
I was worried she was about to advocate having a good old war to sort these young’uns out, but instead she was coming to terms with this pesky generation. She'd attended a conference and heard a speaker explain why Generation Y so exasperate Generation Xers and Baby Boomers and how Xers and Boomers can best manage them in the workplace.
'They've been told that they can do and have anything all their lives. They want options and choices’ she explained. ‘If you explain why they have to do something in a particular way, then they're more likely to do it. You can't just offer them the same options again and again.'
It was the familiar script about Generation Y that I've heard repeated in slightly different forms for about the last decade. And like most things that are repeated often enough, these 'insights' into Generation Y have attained the status of common sense.
But like so much else that’s passed off as common sense — like the earth being flat or the pulling power of Speedos — generational stereotypes don’t stand up to close scrutiny.
Listening to Mary Anne, I couldn't help but think that many of her observations about her younger colleagues and her children were more about class than about age. What she was describing wasn't so much generational differences, as what people with ambition do in low-wage, precarious employment: they move on to something better.
Her colleagues aren’t silly. They know their jobs can evaporate sooner than you can say ‘off-shore call centre’. A 2009 survey of call centre workers published by the Australian Services Union found that 45 per cent of employees felt that their job was not secure. The decision to hop from one job to another isn’t about what decade you were born in. It’s a rational response to an unstable and fast-moving labour environment.
In this sense, generational stereotypes have become a way of talking about differences in wealth, power and status in a culture that stubbornly pretends such differences do not exist — or are the natural outcome of free choices.
For example, many of Mary Anne’s younger charges sounded like they were middle class kids, imbued with middle class values of asking questions ('they always want to know why'), career and lifestyle mobility ('they don't stay as long as we'd like them to').
Mary Anne, on the other hand, had joined the middle classes but retained the values of deference to authority familiar to those of us — myself included — who were raised in lower middle class families. This is a lot more straightforward than a series of dreamt-up traits that are supposedly unique to Gen Y.
But there’s a problem with generational ‘explanations’, whether they come under the labels ‘Generation Y’, ‘Generation X’ or ‘Baby Boomers’: while they seem to explain complex sociological, economic, political and cultural forces that shape people’s lives, they provide no such thing.
At best, they're bland descriptions of the terrain. At worst, they gloss over the more important factors that shape people’s lives, like the material circumstances in which they find themselves, their gender and race, and the differences in power that these carry.
Take, for example, a 2011 CommSec report which found that if you're an Australian woman, then you will, on average earn 82.1 per cent of what your male colleagues do.
That’s not just young women, but applies across the board. That’s going to have a far larger affect on shaping your life choices and options than the decade in which you were born.
While there are undoubtedly differences between younger and older people in terms of assets, wealth, power and status, these are mostly temporary and tend to fade as people age, establish careers, have families and acquire assets. They are not the fixed characteristics that clunky, highly general labels such as 'Generation X or Y' suggest they are.
If you want to understand social, cultural, political dynamics, then ditch the cute generational stereotypes. Class, gender, and race provide a better — although less fashionable — place to start than the imagined gulfs that separate the generations.
Christopher Scanlon teaches journalism at La Trobe University and is co-founder of www.upstart.net.au, the magazine for emerging journalists