Are Gen Y Redefining Adulthood?

Gen Y

Career counsellor Arlene Hirsch blogged recently about the book “Mission: Adulthood: How Twenty-somethings of Today are Transforming Work, Love and Life” by Hannah Seligson. I thought it was an intriguing post, and though I haven’t read Ms. Seligson’s book, (which has a different title on, by the way)  I’m captivated by its central idea, that today’s youth are changing the definition of adulthood. As Hirsch describes in her post:

“Ms. Seligson argues that, contrary to a growing consensus that twenty-somethings are living in a transitional state of limbo, they are already adults who are living their lives according to different timetables and with a different set of rules.  They are redefining what it means to be adults.”

That may sound extreme to some, but I’d argue that it’s an entirely acceptable and unsurprising conclusion to draw. Gen Y are not the first generation to face different or more complex developmental challenges than their predecessors, after all. But this similarity between generations seems to go overlooked.

There are a few reasons for that. For one, generational differences tend to get overblown in the first place. There’s a fancy way of describing this using statistical language that I think sheds some light on the issue, as it pertains to pretty much every finding in social and cultural psychology: within-group differences are usually greater than between-group differences.  In other words, people belonging to the same category (a culture, a geographical location, a generational group) all exhibit individual differences, and the range of those individual differences tends to be significant. Looking at differences between groups is only really possible, though, by “averaging out” a group’s individual qualities, then comparing that result to another group’s “average.” In the process, we lose sight of the variability within each group, so they each  seem more homogenous than they really are. As a result, whatever differences emerge between those two groups seem more significant than they might otherwise.

Gen Y
Click to enlarge

So the myriad differences between members of Gen Y are vastly larger than the differences between Gen Y and other generations, as the respective lengths of the red and white lines in the above diagram illustrates. The corollary implication here is that there are more similarities between generations than differences.

Wait – more similarities than differences? But why don’t we read any articles about that? Why are there so many articles about how Gen Y are different?

Well, the simplest explanation is that similarities don’t have the same appeal to us as differences do. We want to know about differences. We’re hard wired to notice them, and will go to many lengths to point them out. Differences just have a sort of sexiness about them that similarities don’t have. Plus, most people – at least in western culture – seem to appreciate uniqueness.

So when it comes to Gen Y redefining adulthood, my response would be something like “sure – but hasn’t every generation since the industrial revolution redefined adulthood?”

Let’s face it – from a human perspective, 20-30 years is a long time. That seems to be about the amount of time between generations, and a lot can change in 30 years. To be honest, if being a twenty something in 1980 was at all similar to being a twenty-something in 2010, I would be concerned – and not just because I would be listening to much worse music right now.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the differences between generations are the similarities, if that makes any sense. It would be more unique for a generation to not redefine adulthood, given how many other things change in the time between generations.

*Cross-posted in Dave’s Diary at the Career Services Informer.