Food for Thought: Are Generations Just an Artificial Construct?

A friend linked me to this video the other day which basically dispels the the entire notion of generations to be nothing more than a construct that we’ve made up. Ever since the opening of this blog, this has actually come to my mind quite a few times. Who decided that this generation is born between this and this year? How did we agree that this generation has this set of characteristics, and another generation a completely different one?

It’s all pretty trivial, if you think about it. Discussion about generations becomes especially heated when it comes to careers and jobs. We talk about how Millennials have a completely different work ethic from say, members of Generation X, but at the end of the day, but is that really true? At the end of the day, we’re all people. We prefer to make more friends than enemies, we want to be happy and we want to succeed. So, are we really that different after all?

Extending upon Adam’s argument, I think that in many ways, the whole idea of these generational differences is misleading. It seems to imply that because you’re born in a certain generation, you take on certain characteristics and you have a certain personality. Generation X’s grew up in a tougher and less wealthy world, so it’s easy to say that they’re hard workers and have a strong sense of responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that everyone born outside of this year group is lazy and thoughtless. In fact, it can be quite as easily argued that in a wealthier society, people are more competitive because they are well aware that they have the potential to achieve more. This competition drives them to work hard and to think and act responsibly to beat out all the rest, so in that sense, we’re really all the same.

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Graphs taken as screenshots from video

On one hand, there are so many different people in a generation, and the age range is pretty large. Someone who’s 30 is a Millennial, and so is an 18-year-old. A 30-year-old would have had some solid work experience and perhaps settling down to start a family, while an 18-year-old is just freshly out of high school. They would be at completely different stages of life – so how can we lump them both into one ‘generation’? As Adam mentions in his video, a Millennial could be a mother of a Millennial, which completely goes against the whole scientific idea of family generations.

I wish I had a coherent conclusion to express, but I don’t. Generations are a construct, because it’s trivially decided in what years a generation starts and ends. But there are trends that show some differences between them, for example a varying level of trust in what we see online, contrasting views on sticking to one job or exploring options. In discussing generations, I think it’s important that we understand these differences are not born out of the generation we belong to, but are the result of the varying circumstances we grow up in. A lot of arguments regarding generations are also way too absolute and unbacked in the way it classes humans into different groups, lacking the understanding that we in many ways are the same.

“So, you’re not local, right?”

Featured image from http://www.bcaromania.org 

This is a little bit of a personal post. At university, whenever I speak to someone in Cantonese whether it’s just to strike up conversation or because we have to discuss a group project, a follow-up question is always something along the lines of “So, you’re not local right…?” I don’t blame them. My Cantonese is perfectly imperfect, and if he or she heard me speak English earlier, my lack of a Hong Kong accent would lend to the belief that I am in some shape or form connected to another country.

“But you were born overseas?” “You studied abroad? “Your parents are from somewhere else?” No, no, and no again.

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GIF from reaction.club

I studied in an international school growing up where English was the medium of instruction, and I’d always shown a larger interest in English than Chinese as a child. I loved reading, but it always took a disproportionate amount of encouragement and sweet-talking for my parents to get me to read a Chinese book.

Recently, the term ‘third culture kid’ (TCK) has gained a lot of traction. According to TCKid.com, a ‘third culture kid’ is a person who has spent a significant amount of time growing up in a culture that is not what their parents grew up with.

In a sense, I am very much a third culture kid. The music I listen to, the TV shows I watch and the books I read are all in English, originating from the US or the UK. They’re definitely not things I can speak to my parents about. But just like my parents, I grew up in Hong Kong, albeit a very different Hong Kong from what they were used to as children.

So, I don’t fit the traditional bill of a TCK. I wasn’t born in India, my father isn’t an African diplomat and haven’t lived in 8 different countries. This Buzzfeed article lists 31 signs you’re a TCK, and I can’t say I identify with many of them. But I can say this – this position I’m in is definitely not unheard of among Millennials whose way of identifying themselves will show you that you don’t have to physically be part of two different cultures to be a third culture kid.

Why?

Speaking from a Hong Kong perspective, the demand of parents for their children to receive an international school education – or at least study in an English-speaking school – contributes to this. Especially for the later-born Generation Y-ers, families are becoming wealthier, making non-local schools a viable option. Forums geared towards expatriates are full of questions about long waiting lists and fear that their children won’t be able to get a spot. While an international school education is not arguably better in any way, it almost guarantees a grasp of the English language that would surprise others who didn’t know you were educated in English – but at the expense of your Chinese skills going to shit. When you’re spending seven hours in school speaking, hearing and learning English, that afternoon Cantonese program you watch first thing after school and the few words you exchange with your parents do little to stop the fact that English is slowly and surely becoming your first language – even if the circumstance of growing up in Hong Kong didn’t intend it that way.

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Harrow International School Hong Kong; image from educationuk.org.hk

Proficiency in English opens up a world of media that our Generation X and baby boomer parents just don’t get. The dominant language of popular media is English, so it is unsurprising that proficiency in it basically allows you access to all facets of media, from K-pop songs to 90s American sitcoms. Our brains, hard-wired to figure out technology, mean we can torrent anything and everything. I’ll be honest – Limewire was a formative part of my preteen years. I know every Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff song, but I can probably name about three local celebrities.

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GIF from theodysseyonline.com

The implication of this is that Generation Y and Z are fairly similar, in that their chances of catching on this kind-of-but-not-really TKC-ness are equally high. The middle class is getting wealthier, allowing for more access to education in the language that dominates the first world – English. The media is only getting more powerful, and we’re only getting smarter in learning how to use it to fit our interests.

I sat down to write this without really knowing where it would go, but I guess we’ve got a little bit of a conclusion here. The constant questioning of my identity as a local Hong Konger doesn’t make me feel bad about myself, but it does lead me to understand that it is a form of TCK that is common among my generation, and likely the generation after mine as well.

A Gen Y’s Response to “Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy”

Around two years ago, the article ‘Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy’ popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. Knowing that I was a member of Generation Y and wondering what ‘yuppies’ are and why they, or perhaps we, are apparently ‘unhappy’, I clicked into it and read it. At that time, I thought the article made so much sense. The use of simple graphics and easy language to argue an otherwise somewhat heavy-handed topic made for a flow that was straightforward to follow, which probably contributed to my thinking that it was one of the truest thing I’ve ever read.

The other day, it appeared again on my Facebook newsfeed. I was bored, so I clicked the link and I read it again. This time, I found myself disagreeing with many of the points raised in the article.

(I just did a quick Google search and this article has gotten pretty wildly circulated since I first read it, with reposts on The Hustle and The Huffington Post. It’s even gotten quite a few reactions, understandably from other Gen Ys, of which I will be contributing to with this blog post.)

Here are some arguments, in order of their being, well, argued, in the original article that I’d like to contend with.

  1. The definition of happiness

    To set the context for the article that’s basically focused on why Millennials are unhappy, the writer, Tim Urban, defines happiness. Fine, that’s a solid way to start.But this is the definition that Urban has set out.Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 11.41.12 PM.png

    In my opinion, this is true in the scenario that you are a high schooler who didn’t study for a big test but really should’ve. Before taking the test, your expectations are low – at best, I’ll get a 50%, you think. But the test ends up being pretty easy, and you realize you remember surprisingly more from class than you thought you did. You end up with a 70%. Since happiness = reality – expectations, happiness is a solid positive 20%, so you’re happy. Okay, fair enough.

    Except we’re not all high school students who didn’t study for a test. Most of the time, we don’t have concrete expectations. I spent five months studying abroad last summer, and just being in a new environment with new people doing new things made me happy. It wasn’t because reality exceeded my expectations. My expectations were vaguely that I would enjoy myself, and I did. Happiness isn’t an equation; it just is.

    Therefore, the assertion that Millennials are generally unhappy is unfounded. It’s merely based on the above flawed equation whereby we have higher expectations than our elders, Generation Xs and baby boomers, and therefore are unhappy when reality falls short of them.

  2. We’re delusional because we think we’re special

    Also untrue. In fact, the competition to do get good grades at school, which later translates into the competition to secure a prestigious and high-paying job, is precisely what makes us realize that we’re just not diamonds in the rough. How can we all possibly think we’re special when we know only one in the eight of us sitting in this interview room will have a chance of landing this job? Perhaps this might have some truth among the younger Millennials, but as they grow older, they will realize for better or for worse that while they might have talents that not everybody shares, they are in no way ‘better’ than everyone else.

    And while parents likely do coddle their children more, enrolling them in special interest classes because they can afford to do so and to keep up with the trend of other parents doing similarly, the article makes it sounds like parents are putting their children on a pedestal and showering them with endless praise. I don’t know what it feels like to be a parent, but just from the perspective of a human being, it’s hard to be positive and encouraging all the time. I doubt there are many parents out there who really raise their children with the mindset that they’re better than everyone and can do no wrong.

  3. We’re taunted by our peers’ presence on social media

    This third point perhaps resonates with some semblance of truth, but it’s still not quite there. We’re not stupid. We know social media is all but a facade; I mean, I wouldn’t put up a picture of me in bed by midnight on a Friday night, because I know that would make my life look boring and pathetic. Whether or not that’s true, I’m aware that I only present the side of myself I want other people seeing, and everyone does, too.

    Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neill made that pretty clear back in October 2015. Deleting most of her Instagram pictures and re-captioning the ones that remained with confessions such as ‘it took me 3 hours to put on my makeup here and the whole rest of the day to get this shot’, she announced her departure from the limelight and how she finally realized that she was living a lie.

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    Image from The Guardian

    That’s one reason why Facebook is, as titled in this article, ‘losing its edge among college-aged adults’ – because we know it’s not real life. According to the American Press Institute, almost 80% of Millennials cite ‘seeing what friends are talking about’, i.e. the news stories they’re sharing, the blogs they’re following, as the main reason they use Facebook. Just over 40% use it to ‘share content’, and the rise in the numbers paying attention to their privacy settings shows that Millennials just aren’t interested in sharing their lives on social media, likely because they know it’ll never be a true representation of themselves.

    In my opinion, Urban’s first mistake was the assertion that we’re unhappy based on an ‘equation’ of happiness that’s way oversimplified, and subsequently connecting our ‘delusion’ and vulnerability to being ‘taunted’ by social media to it. It’s a coherent and well-written article, and while the conclusion of how we should keep our ambitions and focus on ourselves instead of those around us are fair, there’s still much to contend with.