Understanding Generation Y

The generation gap has been a reality for as long as families have been around, but it’s probably never been as wide as it is today. Technological, political, social, economic and cultural change has created a world for our teens that is remarkably dissimilar from that in which our parents raised their children. Although we share the same planet it is as if we have grown up in two different worlds. The generation to which our teens belong has been called the Y generation.

They have never known a world without:
  • Faxes, telephone answering machines and mobile phones, TVs, VCRS, Laptops, ATMs, CDs, and AIDS.
  • Rap music and Madonna
  • Nikes and Nintendos
  • Terror attacks, crack and kids killing kids.

They do not remember:
  • Manilow or Milli Vanilli ET, Mr T, Jaws or “Who shot JR?”
  • Pac man, mopeds and 1 speed racing bikes

They live in a world where:
  • Self-expression is valued over self-control.
  • Respect is only given after it has been received.
  • The fear of living poorly outweighs the fear of dying.
  • Violence is an acceptable alternative.
  • The end justifies the means.

Characteristics of the Y generation
American author Eric Chester suggests 12 words to define this generation:
Impatient, desensitized, disengaged, skeptical, disrespectful, bluntly expressive, adaptable, innovative, efficient, resilient, tolerant and committed.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt writes, ‘If you ask a member of this generation two simple questions: “How do you want the world to be in 50 years?” and “What do you want your life to be like five years from now?” the answers are often preceded by, ‘provided there is still a world” and “provided I am still alive”.

Even if they are a very diverse group, the Y generation has several distinguishing characteristics that differentiate it from previous generations. Among these distinctive characteristics are the following:

1. A strong sense of community
They value connectedness and a sense of team spirit much more than they do individualism and competition. Our generation grew up with superheoes (like Superman) who worked on their own with enough power to solve any problem single-handed. Our girls have grown up with games and school that require collaborative teams; where no individual has sufficient strength to work on her own. Our girls understand that everything requires a team effort.

The amount of time they spend in cyber chat-rooms, is indicative of their craving to be connected to and part of a social network.
This sense of “community” and “group membership” makes our girls very susceptible to peer pressure. The lack of uniformity in dress sense and hairstyles that characterized the 80s and 90s does not belong to this generation. The consistency in appearance of the Y generation is symptomatic of our girls’ strong need to conform and identify with the group to which they belong.
Our girls have a strong tendency to place their friendships high on their list of priorities frequently at the expense of their work and family. The importance of peers and loyal friendships is clearly mirrored in the sit-coms our girls watch. Consider, for example, the sub-text of TV shows like, “Friends” and “Dawson’s Creek”

2. Confidence
Members of the Y generation seem to be confident beyond their years, nothing appears to scare or intimidate them. As a group, our girls have huge self-esteem and believe that they “can do anything” This confidence may make them appear brash or arrogant but the truth is that their attitude comes from a parenting style and an approach to teaching that puts the “child at the centre of the universe”.
The biggest disappointment our girls face is a realization that, in spite of what they have been told, they cannot do everything that they want; they are limited by their abilities, means and effort. This realization is often accompanied by frustration, anger and confusion. While their sense of confidence in their own ability and their future may make it hard to help our daughters to see the need to work at school, it does provide us with many opportunities to challenge them. We would be well advised to teach our girls that achievements are also the result of hard work and determination; that natural ability and self-confidence are not always enough.

3. Tolerant and accepting
What began in the hippie era of the 60s as a way of life characterized by free expression and individualism has matured into a culture of tolerance. The ideals of self-expression and acceptance are woven into the fabric of the current generations’ worldview. Our girls believe more than any previous generation, that no view can be imposed on anyone else, that tolerance and acceptance are core values.
While this attitude that “anything goes” might make it appear that our girls lack a clear value base, the reality is that they are free of many of the prejudices that belong to our generation.
Our girls belong to a generation that does not believe in a single truth; anyone who tries to offer them one will be dismissed as a fool. They do not believe that anyone or any institution can hold all the answers. This realization that no one knows everything tends to manifests itself in ridicule and dismissal of parents or teachers who try to set themselves up as the “experts”. Our best approach in dealing with this generation is to treat them as fellow students and work with them to “discover” knowledge. If we try to show them the path in an authoritarian way we will lose them on route.

4. Adaptable
Our girls are growing up in a technological world where everything changes rapidly. Computers, DVD players, cell phones and computer software are all continuously changing and “upgrade” has become part of daily vocabulary. Constant change has equipped our girls with a remarkable ability to be adaptable. Our girls are not as phased as we are by change; they expect it and welcome it as progress.

5. Focus is fragmented
Our girls have grown up with a remote control in their hand; it is the cultural weapon of this generation. For us the TV remote control saves us from getting off the couch. To our girls the “remote” allows them to interact with the TV, to multi-task and watch more than one programme at a time. While you and I might function better when we do one thing at a time, this may not be true for our daughters who have learnt to do more than one thing at a time and deal with many incoming stimuli concurrently. Our girls’ preference to be bombarded with multiple stimuli simultaneously has resulted in a situation where parents seem to be constantly pleading with their daughters to “turn that music down”, “pick one channel and stick to it”, “stop playing that computer game at the dinner table” and “turn the computer off while you do your homework’. A low boredom threshold is another dimension of the Y generation’s fragmented focus. This need for constant excitement and multi-modal stimulation presents a particular challenge for parents who expect tranquil dinnertime conversation and schools that have to educate.

6. They see black and white as shades of grey
In today’s world the distinction between right and wrong, and between truth and lies is becoming less and less clear. Our girls have grown up witnessing people like the President of the United States explain why it was not a lie to say “I never had sex with that woman”. They ‘watch films, like “Cruel Intentions”, which portray evil and dishonesty as cool, appealing and admirable. Our girls have grown up with permissive parents and in permissive schools. Generally this generation does not believe that there is a right or wrong that can be universally applied. They are a generation that lacks boundaries, stable anchors and a clear morality.
Allowing our girls to drink when this is against the law, to drive cars illegally or go to clubs while they are still under-age, does not help them to see right from wrong. Parents who protect their children from the consequences of their bad behaviour; defend their children when they have done wrong; or lie to protect their children are not helping their girls to develop a sense of morality.
We, the school and parents, need to work together to encourage our girls to achieve a sense of morality by engendering, honesty, being consistent and sending clear messages about what is unacceptable.

7. Been there, done that
Media images, graphic films, international travel, globalization and the internet have exposed our girls to many things. They are not easily shocked. The advantage of this is that they do not feel the need to shock or be shocked.
Musicians like those of the 70s and 80s who used shock tactics to attract fans have all but disappeared from the music scene. Our girls are listening to music with a much softer edge and a much more fun feel; consider for example the resurgence of Latin style music like that of Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. It is hard to find a contemporary equivalent of Pink Floyd’s “Another brick in the wall.”

8. Accustomed to instant everything
Our girls have grown up with fast food, pre-prepared meals, instant inter-net access, bullet trains and super-jets. They are not accustomed to waiting and expect everything to happen with minimal effort and lighting speed.
Their desire for immediate gratification may make our girls difficult to motivate when it comes to activities (like learning for exams) where gratification is delayed. Their impatience does, however, make them energetic and keen to get going.

Megan de Beyer has a Masters degree in Psychology. She practised in both Cape Town and Durban and has run many successful parenting workshops at high schools.
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