It's easy to conclude that this job market is terrible for everyone, even young people. But I don't buy it. I think it's very bad if you are old, and not so bad if you are young. And that we get a skewed view of the stress level out there because older people tend to run big news operations-offline and on-and really have no sense of how younger people are handling the downturn.
We read about how scared young people are, and how desperate they are for a job, but we don't hear the other side: That young people are optimistic about their careers, their future and are doing well in the American economy. Underreported stories: Washington, D.C. is the easiest city to find a job, and young people love government jobs; farming is in a renaissance, and the local food movement is teeming with young people; healthcare and teaching are both booming; and while service-oriented work is hated by the top-down, rank-oriented mindset of baby boomers, Gen Y is much more collaborative and happy to work in the service sector.
Here's another bit of evidence of Gen Y optimism: The Wall Street Journal reports that applications to business schools are down 2%. That's a small decrease, but business school applications historically go up in a bad economy, and they stay up until things get good again. That applications are down is evidence that young people do not perceive the job market as terrible.
As the country moves to a knowledge-based economy, most Americans can no longer expect to earn more than the generation before them. In fact, Don Peck, writing in the Atlantic, explains that as the economy recovers it will look permanently different. This will not be a recovery where the skills of older people come back into demand; the jobs that emerge will be in new sectors, and the financial expectations of employees will permanently shift because of the new realities.
Young people know this. They are not waiting around for things to change, to get back to how they used to be. Young people accept the realities of today and jump right in. This is why young people on a whole are optimistic about their ability to get a job and find their place in the world. The 2010 MetLife Study of the American Dream finds that young people are more optimistic than older people about securing a safety net if they don't already have one. Also, while Gen Y is in terrible shape financially - increased college loans and lower entry-level wages-this is also a generation that defines the American Dream in terms of family, rather than financial security, so Gen Yers feel confident they will achieve their own version of success.
Additionally, the demographics of the U.S. workplace favor Generation Y: As baby boomers retire, Gen X, which is only half the size of Baby Boomers, cannot replace them. So there will be a significant worker shortage in the U.S. by 2015. Generation y will benefit from the worker shortage. They will get higher paying jobs faster, they will go up the corporate ladder faster, and they will be able to remake the workplace in their own image without much resistance.
You can call Gen Y entitled, or delusional, or self-centered, but Gen Y has a gift for reframing situations in a positive light. This is a gift that stems from the parents of gen Y being obsessed with self-esteem. Self-esteem breeds optimism, and this optimism makes Gen Y emotionally able to fend off the recession better than other generations.
Even better, optimism helps fight the bad economy in real ways as well. Psychology Today shows that people who are optimistic are more likely to create their own luck. We all know that a successful career is a combination of hard work and good luck. So maybe if you thought more like Gen Y, you'd be doing fine right now as well.