“Stay wildly ambitious” – redefining success for Generation Y

Published on June 10, 2014 in Blog with 2 Comments
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Not so long ago an article entitled ‘Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy, took the social media world by storm. It trended, was retweeted, liked and possibly even instagrammed. Its message was simple: Generation Y yuppies, those born between the 1970s and the mid 1990s, are unhappy. Robert Holtom, a young Transitioner and REconomist reviews it here…

Now, a yuppie is a ‘young, urban professional’ or ‘young upwardly-mobile professional’. The article introduced a new group of modern-day yuppies – the GYPSY: Gen Y Protagonist & Special Yuppies. The GYPSYs are described as having exceptionally high opinions of themselves, thinking they are more special and entitled than others, and believing that well-paid, fulfilling jobs will be handed to them on a silver platter.

These GYPSYs, the article explains, are in for a shock once they enter the real world where hard work can be dull, expectations are often not met and it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. So, after lambasting and parodying the GYPSY for most of the article it concludes with three rather vague pieces of advice to the unhappy yuppie:

  1. Stay wildly ambitious. The current world is bubbling with opportunity for an ambitious person to find flowery, fulfilling success. The specific direction may be unclear, but it’ll work itself out — just dive in somewhere.
  2. Stop thinking that you’re special. The fact is, right now, you’re not special. You’re another completely inexperienced young person who doesn’t have all that much to offer yet. You can become special by working really hard for a long time.
  3. Ignore everyone else. Other people’s grass seeming greener is no new concept, but in today’s image crafting world, other people’s grass looks like a glorious meadow. The truth is that everyone else is just as indecisive, self-doubting, and frustrated as you are, and if you just do your thing, you’ll never have any reason to envy others.”

However, given the simplicities and assumptions of the article these three pieces of advice are a little too glib for my liking. Instead, I wish to embed the article in some economic and political context, and thus offer three different pieces of advice. It is worth noting that the original article was published on a US website, however, I shall apply its rather homogenising arguments to a UK context.

Some context

First things first, the article fails to mention the Great Recession of 2008, the effects of which are still undermining economies around the world. Its effects include increased competition for fewer jobs, growing income inequality and rising costs of living. It also claims that yuppies make up a ‘large portion’ of Gen Y.

But this claim is unsubstantiated and instead it needlessly homogenises a vast and diverse group of people, within the UK alone there are 7.4 million young adults aged 16-24 (12% of Britain’s population). Meanwhile, an Office for National Statistics survey puts youth unemployment at 19.8%. Much worse than this, a recent study by the Prince’s Trust found that a third of the long-term unemployed young people who were interviewed for the survey had high feelings of worthlessness and had contemplated taking their own lives. The findings are bleak and deeply distressing as the review links joblessness with hopelessness.

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ONS reports that youth unemployment is at 19.8%

Thus, reducing the millions of young people in the UK to some overly simplistic Gen Y yuppie parody is both insensitive and misinformed. This does a disservice to the inherent diversity of this demographic and undermines the intense difficulties many of them are facing. Now, I don’t want to present myself as the voice of the young people of the UK, I’m actually 26 so technically not young anymore.

No, I cannot speak on behalf of others but one thing I can do is speak out against a tendency to reduce, essentialise and simplify problems. The article, whilst amusing, turns a problem into a punchline and offers three glibs pieces of advice as a get-out clause for people who may well be suffering from chronic depression. I don’t think that’s good enough.

The Political

The absence of political engagement in the article is also very concerning. It’s almost as if politics is playing the same trick Kevin Spacey tells us the devil did in The Usual Suspects – convincing us that it isn’t there. For example, the political ramifications of the Great Recession and the mode of capitalism the UK is attached to (i.e. neoliberal, globalised, consumerist, based on hierarchy and private property ownership) are simply not mentioned at all.

There seems to be a tacit assumption that competing with others for scarce jobs in the marketplace and working very hard for often little or no pay will eventually yield fulfilment and a sense of worth. Furthermore, for those who are successful by these measures the assumption is that they will spend their earnings on increasingly expensive goods all to ensure destination happiness is reached.

Nevertheless, it is understandable why such an article would tacitly or overtly promote such a lifestyle given its ubiquity in our everyday lives. For example, the numerous posters and billboards we pass as we walk down high streets or wait at train stations tend to be exclusively based around the promotion of consumer products. The only option we are given is to define our identities by consuming the mass produced and in doing so support an economic system that depends on exploitation and the relentless consumption of finite resources to promote continued growth. We are even encouraged to get into debt to maintain this sort of lifestyle.

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In observing these trends and messages in mainstream society we can note that the political does not have to be defined simply in terms of the two major parties that battle it out in the Houses of Parliament. It does not just have to relate to left or right wing politics but can concern the larger economic forces that guide our everyday lives, as these forces are based on a political ideology, namely capitalism. It is worth noting that even if the economic system were based on a different political ideology, e.g. communism, the everyday would still be rendered inherently political. The main point here is that we are wrong to present the world as an apolitical space given the prevalence of very powerful political forces in shaping our societies.

Expanding the scope of the term political to apply not just to Westminster but also to the everyday is very useful. It gives us a new lens through which we can view the world. We can become active, political observers, rather than passive, apolitical consumers. The political will not be allowed to disappear in one of its own vanishing tricks as if an alternative did not exist, because it is just one expression of a vast array of political and economic positions. Thus, being able to perceive the political creates the possibility of changing it.

Some different advice

Whilst the article is right to point out that success is not easy, nor guaranteed, and takes much hard work, the reader is left wondering whether the sort of success that the article promotes is one worth aspiring too. Given that the pressures of living in a highly competitive and consumerist society can have devastating consequences, as the Prince’s Trust research demonstrates, rather than lower our expectations so we can cope perhaps we should redefine success altogether.

To do this we can certainly drop any “unfounded sense of superiority and deservingness” but we should keep our “strong sense of entitlement” as we do deserve better than this – young people do deserve to feel valued and do deserve a sense of worthiness in the things they do and the lives they live. That we’re facing social atomisation, economic instability and ecological uncertainty is not good enough, and we should feel empowered to be able to speak up about this and create change.

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British Youth Council empower young people to have a voice and be heard – www.byc.org

On that note, here’s some alternative advice that paints success in a different light:

1. Stay wildly ambitious. But not because we all desperately seek the material riches the yuppie is accused of wanting but because we are ambitious to create a society in which everyone is privileged.

A society that flourishes within its ecological boundaries, a society that pursues the growth of resilient, compassionate communities and not the ceaseless growth of profits linked to the depletion of finite resources. The sort of society in which young people can find deep meaning, build strong support networks, and really want to live in.

2. We are all special. We are unique as individuals and we are common as humans, and not ‘common’ in the classist, derogatory sense but common as in community, as that fragile and tensile weave that holds the social fabric together. From a position of self-compassion and empathy we can realise that just as we are special so too is everyone else, and special as in human, fallible, caring, not special as in famous, rich, arrogant.

Thus, in a double act of love our societies can flourish, we love ourselves and can extend that feeling outwards, just as others love us and keep us afloat. We are in this together, just not for the reasons David Cameron claims. But we have to be made to feel special as well, we need to be loved, trusted and supported. We don’t need to be accused of being ‘selfish yuppies’ or a ‘feral underclass’. We need to be shown how we can find meaning and purpose within the social contract, rather than being written out of it.

3. Don’t ignore everyone else. All those that came before who made this possible, all those now who help us and need our help, and all those still to come. The story of the self-made wo/man is a lie as the world we inhabit is a collective achievement. The better we get at working together the more likely we’ll create the necessary conditions for a stable, cohesive society to flourish, whereas if we all pursue our own, atomised, self contained versions of success we will find it much harder to achieve contentment.

Creating this sort of society, based on community and compassion, is a great challenge, which is why this is where all of Generation Y steps in, that broad spectrum of some 7.4 million people. We need to help each other. Whether we have jobs, are starting up social enterprises, beginning degrees, many of us have opportunities for helping other young people.For example, we can create jobs for others, we can share our experience through workshops and skills shares, we can run campaigns to promote the living wage, there’s so much we can do.

In working together we can rewrite the pervasive cultural narrative of competition and mistrust. It will be hard work but the chance of success it offers will be so much more satisfying and enriching than the current choice of cyclical debt and spending. So if ever there was a time to dream big then I reckon it’s now.

Feel inspired?

Here are some useful resources…

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One year in Transition

Edventure Frome, One Year in Transition and Catalyst are all inspiring educational initiatives for young people wanting to challenge the status quo and create livelihoods doing the things they love.

REconomy is also full of inspiring examples of community initiatives that take power back into localities and empower all generations.

Of course, you can always join your local Transition group (find it here) and if there isn’t one, you could start it!

Positive News and Transition Free Press make for inspiring alternatives from the mainstream press.

Action for Happiness provides practical tips for boosting personal well-being and the NHS provides free therapy and counselling. Time to Change is a great organisation dedicated to ending mental health discrimination.

 

Picture credits: rat race.

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