Millennials: Bridging Dreams and Reality

Millennials are famous for their optimism. Studies in the U.S. and around the world, confirm that a positive outlook about their personal future is one of the defining characteristics of the Millennial generation.  ‘Cynical’, ‘weary’, and ‘jaded’ describe very few young adults.

Christian Smith, sociology professor at Notre Dame, writes in his book, “Souls in Transition“, that  emerging adults 18-23 years old are “some of the most optimistic people we have ever encountered or listened to” (p.36):

“For the most part, their eyes are firmly set on the future, and they look to it with great hope and confidence. Some are beset with trepidation or despondency about what awaits them in their lives. But these are not many. Rather, for most, their hopes run high, their expected propsects are bright, good things are anticipated.”

Even in the face of the Recession, which has hit Millennials disproportionately in terms of jobs, Pew Research shows that they still believe that things will turn out all right for them personally (“Millennials Still Optimistic“). In fact, as a generation they are more optimistic today than they were in 2006. Smith says this optimism sounds like this, even among young people who have suffered setbacks:

This is my optimal path, what I’ve always wanted. You know, I really think where I’m going is exactly where I wanted to go in high school and the beginning of college”

“Right now I’m headed into finding my first, real, year-round job, and that’s very exciting to me. A lot of changes hve ahppened, but they’re positive changes.”

“Everything’s not where I want it to be, but I think with time, it will be where I want it to be, because like I said, I’m very determined, I’m absolutely sure of myself.”

Realizing the Dream

Millennials define their identity in terms of dreams and passions, yet we have also observed that they generally do not have a clear vision of how they will accomplish those dreams.  They have high expectations of their being successful in life, yet a a vague idea of the connection between college and career and exactly how careers progress. There is often a disconnect between where they are, and exactly the steps required to get there. They sense that the traditional paths followed by their parents, of as one young man put it, “high school, college, career, death” have shifted. There are more options, yet more choice also brings greater uncertainty.

Josip Petrusa, a Millennial himself, made this observation on his blog in post titled “A Generation of Dreamers“:

[Millennials’] dreams, goals, attitudes and passions are vividly clear and ever-present and almost larger than life. And this is where things get absolutely intriguing and downright interesting. Ask any Millennial about their pursuits of their dreams and goals and attitudes and passions and you will receive the most colorful, beautifully chaotic and elaborate series of characteristics. But then should you ask them on the real-life details it would take to achieve and accomplish their dream life and I guarantee you that you will put them at a loss for words.”

Millennials themselves seem to be aware of this disconnect. Many speak of the importance of finding mentors, internships and ‘hands-on’ experiences.  This is a complex transition, and to a large extent emerging adults are left on their own to ‘figure it out’. Petrusa notes that job-hopping is a trend we should be prepared to see grow “massively amongst Millennials”. He writes:

“… not because of  boredom or self-discovery or about finding the right career. It will be based in the very essence that if it does not somehow correspond or benefit their pursuit of their dream and dream-life, they will leave and pursue and hunt and attempt to discover something they believe will deliver on what they want.”

‘Figuring it out’ on your own is not as realistic today as perhaps it once was, when jobs were plentiful and the ‘mistake’ of changing majors or careers was not as costly. As a society, I am concerned that our educational system has not adjusted quickly enough to help young adults in the practical life-tasks of choosing a career and understanding how to be successful within it. More than anything, they need help developing a clear vision of what their adult lives will be like and how to achieve it.

Perhaps this insight underlies the fact that the period of emerging adulthood is extending now well into one’s twenties, as has been observed by multiple researchers and authors, including sociology professors Setterson and Ray (“Not Quite Adults: Why Twenty-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why That’s Good for Everyone“) and psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett (“What Is It About Twenty Somethings? NYT)

The Millennial Paradox

One of the challenges of understanding this unique generation is embracing these apparent contradictions. One the one hand, Gen Y is the most educated and well-prepared generation ever, yet it is the slowest to achieve the traditional markers of adulthood. They are both optimistic and uncertain, confident and anxious.  They believe passionately in their dreams, and measure their current situation with those dreams as a reference point.

Far from feeling ‘entitled’, most Millennials understand that it is up to them to cross the bridge to their dreams, and they are willing to own that responsibility. Nevertheless, for many it is a challenge. As parents, educators and even marketers, the more we can do to acknowledge the gap and help them create those plans the better off we will all be.