The Myths about Generation Y

29th Aug, 2014

The A-Level results earlier this month saw the first of Generation Z (those born after 1995) leave school and embark either on further education or the world of work. Despite a slight drop in passing grades, the record numbers heading to university added to the growing sense of optimism around this new generation and their prospects – in many ways they are the most privileged generation in history, having grown up with a natural affinity with modern technology, as well as being better educated and in better health than any cohort before them.

All of this would be fantastic news if it wasn’t exactly what was being said and written about their predecessors, Generation Y (those born between 1981 and 1995), who were also hailed as the most privileged generation in history. As we explored this week in our most recent Trends Breakfast event, Gen Y have since been acutely affected by the economic downturn – more so than other age groups – and have seen their prospects diminish and the media narrative abruptly change.

Twentysomethings today are more likely to live at home than ever before, youth unemployment soars above the national average (and is shockingly high for black and minority ethnic groups), and 1 in 3 young people will leave their home towns to look for work in London (not surprising, given 80% of private sector jobs created in the last two years for which there is data have been in the capital). What’s worse, the effect of unemployment on young people goes far beyond a short term, weather the storm impact – as David Blanchflower and David Bell have written:

“Early adulthood unemployment creates long lasting scars which affect labour market outcomes much later in life. Our results showed significant effects at age 50 from early adulthood unemployment that were much more significant than recent unemployment experiences…”

Once the luckiest generation in history, they are now Generation Screwed.

This isn’t, however, the whole picture. While this generation have undoubtedly borne the brunt of the downturn, there remain plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Not least because despite the recession, this generation is still very likely to end up better off than the one that preceded it – fulfilling the so-called ‘British Promise’.

Despite sensationalist headlines, the facts remain that young people are drinking less and less (indeed, in England, young women are more likely to have not drunk alcohol than done so in the last week) – and of course they are less likely to smoke than any generation before them.

Their use of technology is another resounding positive that is either lost or misconstrued in debates around this generation – especially as it relates to their interaction with the real world and current events. Wide ranging statistical sources show how positively Gen Y use technology  – whether to follow the news or to manage their social life and personal networks.

Understanding the truth about Gen Y – and avoiding the narrative that writes them off completely – is particularly important as we calibrate our expectations for Gen Z, who despite the overflowing optimism at the moment are also likely to face significant challenges on the way to independence.