Gen Yers lack confidence, behave like idiots

April 16, 2008, 7:45 PM UTC

After a Gen Y talk recently, an audience member shared an interesting story that went something like this: He — an Xer — was running late for a meeting, and he called down to tell the other employees, all younger, to start without him. Only nobody answered. So, thinking the line was tied up, he ran down to the room, only to find the seven Yers looking at each other, evidently unsure of what to do in the presence of a ringing phone.

Now there are a lot of reasons for this behavior, not the least of which might be stupidity, but I think it may have more to do with something that’s been obsessing me lately: confidence. For all the talk of our narcissism and unrealistic expectations, we also seem to lack a certain go-it-alone bravado that’s characterized many great leaders — bravado that just can’t be cultivated when you have a whole universe of parents, coaches, nannies, teammates and Facebook friends ready to rescue you at a moment’s notice. Like any toddler whose mother runs to him every time he falls, we’ve just learned to cry for help (really loudly), not pick ourselves up.

Gig reader Keith V., a 37-year-old father of four and law student who wrote in about his recent observations of the Yers in his classes, has noticed this, too. “You guys are more skilled and know more than your parents now,” he says. “The only thing you [lack] is confidence. For example, last night in my litigation course, my professor (a baby boomer)…confessed that he didn’t know what a motion in limine was until five years out of law school. A girl in my class (probably about 25) had already done one as an advocate, but had to be coaxed to offer this.” And asked the same evening if they’d ever seen an oral argument, something they’d all witnessed in their legal writing class, nary a peep was heard. Until Keith raised his hand to say they had — after which, of course, everyone chimed in to agree.

One might think that, for students who’ve decided to invest tens of thousands of dollars in law school, it might be worth it to, say, speak up in class and engage in the education they’ve probably paid through the nose for. But as many recent grads could tell you, law school and other graduate work, while obviously valuable, has also for some Yers become just another way of holding the real world — and the purportedly lonely and cutthroat corporate America — at bay. (As a close friend put it to my little sister recently, “You could always just get a PhD to buy some time till you’re 30.” And she’s not wrong; there are definitely people who think this way.)

What is that about, if not confidence? At least that’s what the folks at Hayden-Wilder, a firm that counsels recently minted college grads and rising seniors through the entry-level job search, told me when I spoke to them last year about the emerging Gen Y persona. “These young people don’t understand that they need to distinguish themselves,” says D.A. Hayden. “It’s almost wrong to reach out and say, ‘I’m a leader,’ They’re trained to work in teams — in school, in extracurriculars — they travel in groups of people, they don’t date singly. Everything is in this touchy-feely team environment. That’s all fine and merry when you’re a very junior candidate, but when you start moving up through the ranks, you have to put a stake in the ground.”

But does this explain why those junior staffers didn’t pick up that ringing phone? Hayden thinks so: “This manifests in all sorts of ways, from not having focus to having hyper focus; to being in La-La Land about what they can and can’t do; to what they make in terms of money — some just want to make money, while others don’t care at all. All of that translates into confidence.” So while different Yers might exhibit seemingly opposite behaviors — for instance, one might be too eager while another may seem disinterested — both could be coming from the same feeling of fear and insecurity bred by never having had to be this self-sufficient or self-motivated before. “Because this generation has been so coddled,” says Michael Wilder, pointing to Yers’ ever-present boomer parents, “when they do have to make a decision on their own, they’re looking for affirmation. They have no basic experience to allow them to be confident about the decisions they’re making.”

Which means, it isn’t so much that the Yers can’t answer the phone, it’s that they’ve never had to. And if one of them had decided to take that insane risk and break away from his shrugging cohort, he may well have been labeling himself a rebel, show-off, know-it-all, or any number of other schoolyard slurs for life. In short, he would not have been a team-player. And what worse fate is there than that for this generation of extracurricular-activity-addicts? It’s a funny charge to level, I know, considering the aforementioned assessment of Yers as inherently egomaniacal teacher’s pets. But as anyone who went to elementary school can attest, for both the teacher’s pet and the loudmouth Yer, all that flailing around is often just a desperate attempt to distract from the qualities they don’t possess, be it grade-school social standing or grown-up work experience.

And we see these evasive tactics everywhere: Friends hiding behind “finding themselves,” going from job to job, or even going back to school for no reason other than that they’re afraid they won’t really be able to cut it in the working world. And that’s the trouble. Because how are we ever supposed to believe we can do something if we never actually do it on our own? (Or, to be a complete dork and quote Dr. Wayne, of Batman Begins fame, “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”)

It’s scary, but as Michael Wilder puts it, you have to “teach yourself to think like an individual.” Not like a “we,” or like your parents, your friends, your colleagues, or even your company. Just a you. It’s a start. And from there, your employer can begin to see you as an individual, too, instead of as a representative of an entire generation of people s/he doesn’t like much. Which then leads to more opportunities for you, the individual — opportunities that help you to … build your confidence!

Who knows? Before too long, you may even pick up the phone.

Do Gen Yers just need a hug? Or are they the egomaniacs they’ve been made out to be? Tell us what you think…