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Lazy, Arrogant and Full of Stick Figures

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Every week, somewhere in the world, a writer wakes up and notices a different pattern of economic behaviour amongst people born around the mid-1980s. These writers are faced with several options.

They could roll up their sleeves and analyse the vastly different economic, social and technological factors that influence decision making at the personal and political level.

They could do some number crunching on the prolific amount of data on employment levels, job security, housing affordability, and personal debt.

They could investigate the effects of the last 30 years of reforms to tax and financial law, and whether they encourage wise investment or protect a generation of people deeply in debt.

Oh but that’s kinda hard, says such a writer. Too hard for me. So instead, they write a fluff piece devoid of verifiable facts; an article full of insipid generalisations, non-sequiturs, pseudo-scientific surveys posited as “studies” and half-arsed reverse rationalisations.

They write a what’s wrong with Gen Y article.

* Draw bullshit stick figures

Week after week, a parade of hacks publish the same article over and over again. Articles explaining how the generation of people born between then 1980s and mid 90s are entitled, over-educated, and have ludicrous expectations. These articles are insulting to me. But they’re not insulting because I’m a member of this demographic; they’re insulting because they’re so lazy and idiotic.

Take, for example, the “study” (ie. amatuer survey with side of waffles) cited in Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy. It claims to actually show this phenomenon: that gen Y workers truly do believe that they are special. Are we really to believe that if we did the same analysis on previous generations we would see different results? I doubt it. But the writer’s mate said his 25 year-old casual-contract worker was lazy, so it must be true! And who needs research when there’s Google N-grams!

Decades of research into illusory superiority indicate that the phenomenon of everyone thinking they’re special is pretty much universal. But since we don’t have a time machine, I guess we’ll never know for sure whether Baby Boomers thought they were special in the same way just about every other group of people on the planet does. Maybe Baby Boomers were the special ones, a special generation where no-one thought they were especially special.

The what’s wrong with Gen Y articles are nominally about Gen-Ys having unrealistic expectations, and you’d have to suppose they’re an attempt to recalibrate those expectations. What they actually read like are older generations whinging about their unmet expectations for Gen Y.

The voices in these articles seem to want a generation of submissive and compliant workers who won’t protest industrial relations moving backwards by decades under the guise of “flexibility.” Consumers who just accept that it’s only Boomers who were allowed to borrow to the hilt and be protected by last minute economic reforms. Homeowners who don’t question how reasonable it is to require a debt of millions to buy a house worth tens of thousands. Citizens who won’t hold anyone older than themselves to account for poor public policy or economic vandalism.

The behaviour bemoaned by these articles could be analysed from the other direction: by asking whether it might be a rational response to prevailing conditions. In other words, while it might look like Gen Y think they’re too special to engage with the economy in traditional ways, they might just be walking away from a system that’s clearly rigged against them. This is kindergarten-level game theory. If a generation of workers appear to be lazy and unambitious, the simplest explanation is not that they think they’re special, it’s that their workplaces and the economy make anything else futile. Even more sophisticated is the idea that it’s not about walking away from a rigged game, but playing a different game that the writer doesn’t quite know how to analyse — except through generalisations and stereotypes.

Some writers have attempted to look at it from this perspective. Lockin’ out their generation (Mark Bouris) looks at the difficulty of trying to borrow for a house when the only work on offer is contract or casual. The real problem with Gen Y (Daniel Stacey) explains how a workforce who are largely casual will behave differently compared to a workforce with job security and regular hours. So that’s two so far. Well done. But it’s nearly impossible to find such articles in amongst the steady stream of keyboard mashing that make up the bulk of other articles telling Gen Y to stop being so precious. I’m skeptical that there even are many more.

The entire population of those born between 1975 and 1995 are not engaging, en masse, in bizarre economic behaviour across several different continents as some sort of elaborate pout and foot stomp. If the academics and writers who aim to analyse culture and economics would go a little bit further than this, they might actually reveal some important patterns emerging. But it’s so much easier to blame it all on the faulty attitude of those gosh darn kids these days and throw together some stupid stick figures, because stereotyping is easy and research is hard, and writers who want to complain about Gen Y are just far too special for that kind of work.