Gen Y is not all that different from the rest of us.  Sure, they may be more connected, but we should not go out of our way to find differences — let alone explain them by spurious historical “facts.”

Gen Y, like all generational constructs, is imprecise, but Wikipedia defines the generation to include people born approximately between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. Are Gen-Yers different from the rest of us?  Sure.  But they share many more commonalities than differences with prior generations. I was struck by this the other day when reading another book for this blog, Your Career Game. That book contained a quote so fundamentally misguided that I must dwell on it.

Your Career Game is an attempt to apply game theory to job search and career development.  Set aside for now my views of game theory and its application to multi-person, multi-variable contexts.  That’s not what I want to mention here.

Instead, I want to quote one of the experts interviewed by the authors.  This expert, according to the authors, is a “McKinsey-award-winning author and widely respected expert on organizations and innovation.” She was asked about how Gen Y workers differ from workers of prior generations.  Her response:

When you hear about Gen-Yers, most of the focus is on the way they interact with technology, but I don’t think that’s the most interesting element of the generation. What fascinates me is that they grew up in a world that was obsessed with talking about terrorism — terrorism around the world, school shootings in the U.S., and so on. True, baby boomers grew up during the Vietnam War, but if you go to war, there is a reasonable expectation that something bad could happen. That isn’t supposed to be the case if you go to school or to work in the city, where you have essentially no expectation that something terrible is going to happen. Gen Y grew up with a concept that ‘bad things could happen at any point to anyone’ — a randomness that other generations didn’t experience as teens.

From Nathan Bennett and Stephen Miles, Your Career Game (2010), at 61. We are supposed to believe, in short, that what most strikingly sets about Gen Y is its unique cultural experience that bad things can happen to anyone, at any point.

I wonder where, when, and how this expert grew up, and who taught her history. That person, whatever his or her generation, missed a lesson or two. For  it doesn’t take much historical awareness to recognize that the expert’s statement makes no sense.

The Baby Boomers no doubt experienced Vietnam, as the expert concedes.  But for most Boomers, Vietnam was a symbol far away.  Something more terrifying loomed constantly:  Boomers lived under the constant threat of nearly instantaneous nuclear annihilation — not just of themselves, but of everything on Earth, at once.  Say “duck and cover” to American adults of a certain age, and you will get either a rueful smile, or hints of old worry lines.  We (I count myself as a late Boomer) thought for much of our childhoods and early adulthoods that a monolithic enemy that hated everything we stood for could, at the press of a button, wipe us and everything else off the face of the planet.

Did this threat and worry set Boomers apart from our parents?  Boomers might think so, but we’ve always been a bit self-absorbed.  The truth is — no.

To the contrary, Boomers’ parents and earlier ancestors had their own tangible and reasonable worries about potential random, swift demise.  Consider that during the 20th century no fewer than 12 deadly diseases were wholly or largely eradicated.  According to that linked article (from HowStuffWorks), US Census Bureau figures show that “the average life expectancy at the beginning of the 20th century was 47.3 years. A century later, that number had increased to 77.85 years, due largely to the development of vaccinations and other treatments for deadly diseases.” In other words, Boomers’ parents worried about the realistic threat of imminent, random death by one or more insidious killers.  Sound familiar?

Nor were insidious diseases the only threat.  War, crime, and all sorts of other forms of quick death were constantly lurking. In fact, one reasonable conclusion to draw from not just our history, but world history, is that it is shockingly remarkable that we have made it as far as we have.  So very many things could have killed any or all of us.

Worries over potential imminent death have always added a sense of existential angst to each rising generation. Gen Y surely feels this angst, caused perhaps most tangibly by the threat of terrorism. But that should bring us together, not separate us.

Am I wrong?  Does the fear of terrorism really set Gen Y apart from its predecessors?  If so, please let me know.