Generation Y Is Unlucky, Not Lazy

Simply put, it's harder for young people to find a place in the world.

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Hurting Generation Y, who are young people nowadays, doesn't even have a decent name to go by: the "Go-Nowhere Generation" isn't something you want to hang your hat on. Nor is "Children of the Great Recession" much to write home about. Facing a tight labor market, they are stressed out and anxious about their lot, as are their families. The brunt of hard times falls on the young in a particularly cruel way, with high unemployment resulting in lost earnings and skills hard to regain in the workplace.

Pity, this generation of college graduates doesn't even have an ironical line—"Plastics!"—to brighten their prospects, as Dustin Hoffman's character Benjamin did in The Graduate.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times titled "The Go-Nowhere Generation" asserts that the latest batch of American adults is lacking a spirit of adventure, optimism, and can-do. Worst of all, authors Victoria and Todd G. Buchholz say, is the evidence that they are a stay-at-home group who don't go on the road, the most American of characteristics. Nor do they go to live in other states at the rate as previous generations, so what's wrong with them?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

My answer: life is a lot of luck. American adults in their 20s are undergoing a profound silent crisis because they are the first to wake up cold from the American dream of upward mobility. The Great Recession has hit every age group, but for them, it has hit especially hard. Their resources tend to be slender, and in some cases their college loan debts are heavy. This is a far cry from the so-called "Greatest Generation," which was actually the Greatest Opportunity Generation. (Tom Brokaw made up the fatuous name, taking a huge liberty in my opinion.)

Simply put, it's harder for young people to find a place in the world. As Caroline Gransee, a 25-year-old New Yorker and liberal arts college graduate, explains, "From talking to peers, I fear that many don't understand that we may not have the same opportunities that our parents had. We can't be complacent. We need to take control of our futures, because no one else is going to do it for us."

In the absence of any proactive job creation (paging Franklin Delano Roosevelt!) by President Obama's government stimulus, she has it about right. Given that energized young voters swept him past Hillary Clinton, it seems unfair he has done little for them. Obama never tried President Roosevelt's "bold, persistent experimentation" with New Deal-esque civilian arts and infrastructure programs.

[Read: Great Recession Means a Diminished American Dream for Young Adults]

The Depression brings me to the point that some generations are luckier than others. Every American generation has its own set of traits, even a personality from a shared set of experiences and expectations. Those born in the 20 years after 1776 were the Revolutionary. Those "Silent" born during the Depression were fewer in numbers, for example, but smarter than most. My parents are evidence of that. Partly because it was small, it never produced a president; it was skipped over.

Born in the 1920s was the blessed generation that went to win a just World War in the 1940s and came home to sunshine, open arms, and free college educations, on Uncle Sam. They were the generation with the greatest opportunity who married and started families in a period of domestic peace and plenty. All was well and they lived happily ever after. As they aged, their leadership lock on the country waned only in 1992, when George H.W. Bush lost the presidency to William J. Clinton—a good long run.

[See a slide show of Mort Zuckerman's 5 Ways to Create More Jobs.]

Clinton belonged to another fortunate generation, the populous Baby Boomers, who never met a labor market that didn't like them. Their tragedy was the Vietnam War. Those who protested the war had richer life prospects, to be sure, than those drafted to fight in the jungles "over there"—which never had the same ring as the upbeat melody popular in the '40s.

Life's luck or plight plainly includes when you were born as well as where. Holding down a job where they ask, Liars Poker '80s-style, "How can we make you happier?" may seem fictional. The "disillusioned" current crop of young adults may reinvent success, as cartoonist Tom Toro said in a letter to The Times. Holding down a job that frees one to figure out a new life framework—without an SUV—is well worth the candle.

Let's give this hurting generation a better chance and wish them, well, the luck of the Irish.

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