Gen X vs. Gen Y: Who’s MTV and Who’s Entitled?

Experts work to define generations

From the “Go Nowhere Generation” to “Generation Me,” those in their 20s and 30s have been slammed with a very different reputation compared to their older counterparts.

A sense of entitlement, the first generation not expected to stay at one company, and fickle - these are some of the phrases used to describe those in Generation Y, also known as “millenials,” defined roughly as people born between the late-70s and mid-90s.

People like Benny Blanco, born in 1981.

“I just feel like I’m on a runway and just getting ready to take off,” he said in his Downtown San Jose music recording studio. “And I just gotta keep working. I feel like I’m chasing my dream.”

But not three years ago, Blanco was chasing a different kind of reality: scraping by working various construction jobs. “I didn’t like how I felt at the end of the day. I didn’t like how I was treated.”

And he said he remembered what teachers would routinely tell him and his classmates in school: follow your dreams. So he quit his construction gigs to pursue music as both a producer and recording artist.

“And I’ve always heard people say the best job is doing something you love doing, so I just sat back one day and thought about it – what do you like doing?” he recalled. “It was like, I love music.”

The advice of following one’s passion seems to have really taken off during the 80s. While there’s no true way of measuring whether there was a cultural shift during Gen Y’s upbringing, there are tools out there to help gauge pop culture over time. For instance, Google’s Ngram tool shows how popular a phrase is used in American writing over a certain period.

While the phrase “a secure career” started to decline in the 80s, “follow your passion” began to take off, especially in the 90s and even 2000s when most in Gen Y were in school.

“It’s very difficult to find evidence that this piece of advice actually works well,” said Cal Newport, assistant professor of Georgetown. Newport wrote his last book on Gen Y and how “follow your passion” has misguided an entire generation of Americans.

“The main problem with the advice to follow your passion is it assumes you have an identifiable pre-existing passion that you can follow. Well, it turns out if you look at studies or anecdotally, most people, especially oung people, don’t have a clearly pre-identified passion,” Newport told NBC Bay Area over Skype. “The other problem is this advice assumes that if you really like something and do it for your job, that’s all it takes to then love your job.”

He also addressed the oft-cited Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford commencement speech, during which he said, “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.”

Newport said this was a misunderstood quote, referencing Walter Isaacson, who wrote the Jobs-authorized biography. “Walter Isaacson has now said that [Jobs] told him that he does not like the advice, ‘follow your passion.’ If Steve Jobs had followed that same advice, he never would have started Apple Computer.”

Paul Harvey, an associate professor of Management at University of New Hampshire, has studied generational differences. He said Gen Y heard a lot of positive messages growing up as a sort of overcorrection for the lack of self-esteem building for Gen X, also dubbed the MTV Generation.

“It was a generation that was kind of known for being generally apathetic and somewhat depressed as they hit the teenage years and adulthood,” said Harvey, also via Skype.

Gen X is a group now heading into its 40s and even 50s, people who have built up debt and lived through several recessions, including the Great Recession. In fact, according to the Pew Charitables Trust study this year, Gen X lost the most of all generations: roughly half of their overall net worth, an average of $33,000 between 2007 and 2010.

“For better or for worse, Gen X was well suited to the various trials and tribulations that faced them,” said Harvey.

But not everyone’s ready to define an entire generation, especially based purely on year of birth. Elspeth Rossetti, director of Santa Clara University’s Career Center, works directly with students trying to transition from school to work life. She said Gen Y shouldn’t be slammed by the word “entitled.”

“They do go into the workplace these days with one, two, three internships behind them,” Rossetti explained. “So they feel that they have something to offer. It’s not just their degree. They’ve already been there, done that, and they’re taking experience into the workplace.”

Rossetti also believes this group isn’t so different from the ones that preceded it.

“I’d like to say there’s some huge dichotomy that took place, but really, I think young adults at this stage are really just looking to find themselves,” said Rossetti.

Harvey agreed the answer could truly lie in the numbers. The Gen Y population is estimated to be about four times the size of Gen X.

“We have roughly 80 million just in North America,” Harvey said. “What we may be seeing is the normal sense of entitlement that happens at or around that age group, multiplied many times over.”

One thing sociologists and experts NBC Bay Area spoke with agreed on was that this is the first time in human history in the U.S. where they can study four generations at the workplace together, from the younger people who grew up in the Depression Era, the Baby Boomers, Gen X & Gen Y.

“So to the extent that we can learn more about how the generations interact with each other and what we can do to help them function more cohesively together, that’s helpful for everybody,” said Harvey. “And having this narrow window of time here where we have four generations working together, it gives us a unique opportunity to do that."

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