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Book Excerpt

From Chapter 3: You Can Be Anything You Want to Be          

In the animated movie Planes, Dusty wants to be a racing plane. “You are not built to race; you are built to dust crops,” his friend Dottie warns him. But Dusty enters an international flying race—and wins. In another movie released the same year, Turbo is a snail who yearns to race. Close to the finish line in the Indianapolis 500, his once-skeptical brother urges him on: “It is in you! It’s always been in you!” Turbo wins, “proving,” as Luke Epplin observes in the Atlantic, “that one needn’t be human nor drive a car to win the country’s most prestigious auto race.” Epplin notes, “The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can’t fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it’s the nay-saying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community.”

These movies are just the most recent example of the relentless cultural message to young people: you can be anything you want to be, as long as you believe in yourself. In the Google database of American books, the use of the phrase you can be anything increased 12 times over between 1970 and 2008.

This got its start during the teen years of GenX. In his book What Really Happened to the Class of ’93, Chris Colin notes that his classmates were constantly told, "You can be whatever you want to be" and "Nothing is impossible." His classmates mention this time and time again. Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, authors of Quarterlife Crisis, agree: "For all of their lives, twentysomethings have been told that they can be whatever they want to be, do whatever they want to do." Lia Macko, the coauthor of a similar book (Midlife Crisis at 30), dedicates the work to her mother, "for truly instilling in me the belief that Anything Is Possible," which Macko describes as "the unqualified mantra of our youth."

These messages begin early. When the boy band 'N Sync appeared on the kids' show Sesame Street, they sang a song called "Believe in Yourself." Some people might tell you there are things you can't do, the song says. But you can be whatever you want to be, as long as you "believe in yourself." (What if they want to be brats?) One of the most popular Barney (the annoying purple dinosaur) videotapes for toddlers promoted a similar message: it's called You Can Be Anything!

And so it goes, into high school as well. On Glee, Brittany has always been portrayed as a poor student; she once said she had a 0.0 grade point average. But in her senior year, MIT suddenly discovers she’s a math genius. How did that happen? “It wasn’t until I joined this club that I really started believing in myself,” Brittany explains. “And as soon as I did that, as soon as I started believing that maybe I was smart after all, I think the whole world did too.” So the key to academic success is not hard work, involved parents, good teachers, or years of study, but believing in yourself.

As Epplin observes of the kids’ movie characters, “It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents.” When closely examined, these are ridiculous ideas, but they are routinely put forth as “inspirational” stories. Nor is this attitude surprising given other trends: The logical outcome of every kid’s having high self-esteem is every kid’s thinking that he can achieve anything.

In an episode of the family show 7th Heaven, 21-year-old Lucy gives a sermon to the young women in the congregation: "God wants us to know and love ourselves. He also wants us to know our purpose, our passion. . . . So I ask you . . . 'What have you dreamt about doing?' . . . What you are waiting for is already inside of you. God has already equipped us with everything we need to live full and rich lives. It is our responsibility to make that life happen—to make our dreams happen." So if you want to do it, you can make it happen. But what if your dream is to be a movie star or an Olympic athlete? Or even a doctor? What if we're not actually equipped with absolutely everything we need—say, a one-in-a-million body, Hollywood connections, or the grades to make it into med school? Well, you should just believe in yourself more. Yes, some people will achieve these dreams, but it will likely be due to their talent and hard work, not their superior self-belief.

One professor encountered the GenMe faith in self-belief quite spectacularly in an undergraduate class at the University of Kansas. As she was introducing the idea that jobs and social class were based partially on background and unchangeable characteristics, her students became skeptical. That can't be right, they said, you can be anything you want to be. The professor, a larger woman with no illusions about her size, said, "So you're saying that I could be a ballerina?" "Sure, if you really wanted to," said one of the students.

Great Expectations

This ethos is reflected in the lofty ambitions of modern adolescents. In 2012, 58% of high school students expected to go to graduate or professional school—nearly twice as many as in 1976. Yet the number who actually earn graduate degrees has remained unchanged at about 9%. High schoolers also predict they will have prestigious careers. Sixty-eight percent of 2012 high school students expected to work in professional or managerial jobs, compared to 40% in the 1970s. Unfortunately, these aspirations far outstrip the need for professionals in the future; about 20% of Americans work in professional jobs, about the same as in the 1970s. Short-term ambitions fare little better: In 2012, 84% of incoming college students in the United States expected to graduate in four years, but only 41% of students at their universities actually do so. In The Ambitious Generation, sociologists Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson label these "misaligned ambitions,” and another set of sociologists titled their paper “Have Adolescents Become Too Ambitious?” Apparently the kids learned the lesson "you can be whatever you want to be" a little too well. This might benefit some, but many others will be disappointed.

Ambitions only grow stronger in college. In 2012, 3 out of 4 American college freshmen said they wanted to earn an advanced degree (such as a master's, PhD, MD, or law degree). For example, 42% say they will earn a master's degree, 19% a PhD, and 10% an MD. However, the number of PhDs granted each year is only 4% of the bachelor's degrees given, and MDs only 1%. Thus about 4 in 5 aspiring PhDs will be disappointed, and a whopping 9 in 10 would-be doctors will not reach their goals. And that's if students finish their bachelor's degree at all, with less than half of students completing their degrees in five years. A Chronicle of Higher Education study found that among the 4.3 million students who started college in fall 2004, less than 1 in 4 graduated. During the next decade, we are going to see a lot of young people who will be disappointed that they cannot reach their career goals.

Kate, 19, reflects, “As a child, I just didn’t understand that even if you said ‘I wanna be ____!’ you couldn’t necessarily do that. Adults made things seem easier than they were, and that made me grow up with unrealistic expectations of my future.” Once they reach young adulthood, GenMe’s overconfidence is often tempered by the dawning realization that reality may not live up to their fantasies. As aspiring writer Hannah says on Girls, “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or, at least, a voice, of a generation.”

Does this mean young people shouldn’t be encouraged to aim high? Of course not. But they also need to get the message, contrary to those promoted in movies and on TV, that it takes more than self-belief to succeed. Young people need to know that it takes years of hard work to succeed in most professions; they are unlikely to start at the top. It might also be better for students to identify the best path for them, not just what parents and teachers think is the highest goal. That way they’ll be less likely to waste their time pursuing a path that isn’t a good fit for them. The world will probably be better off, too. If all of the PhDs, such as me, suddenly disappeared one day, the world would keep ticking along fine for quite some time. But if all of the nurses, police officers, plumbers, trash collectors, and preschool teachers disappeared, things would get ugly quickly. If school is your thing, absolutely, get a graduate degree. But it is not the only path to success (or, take it from me, to a high salary).

There may be a silver lining to the trend of overly lofty ambitions. Perhaps some students who aim for graduate school will be more likely to make it through college. The best solution is to find the goals that will serve the student the best—whether that’s a graduate degree or a trade certificate.

Young people also expect to make a lot of money. In a 2011 survey, 16-to-18-year-olds expected their starting salary to be $73,000, which they assumed would rise to $150,000 once they were established in their career. However, the median household income in 2009—for all adults—was $50,000, or around a third of the teens' aspirations. Overall, young people predicted a bright future for themselves, even during the years of the late 2000s recession and its aftermath. Fifty-seven percent of high school seniors in 2012 predicted that they would own more than their parents; only 10% thought they would own less. In the 2011 survey, 59% believed they would do better financially than their parents.

Expectations for advancement and promotion are also high. One young employee told a startled manager that he expected to be a vice president at the company within three years. When the manager told him this was not realistic (most vice presidents were in their sixties), the young man got angry with him and said, "You should encourage me and help me fulfill my expectations."

Related to "you can be anything" is "follow your dreams" or “never give up on your dreams”—like self-focus, a concept that GenMe speaks as a native language. According to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, the use of the phrase follow your dreams increased by 17 times in American books between 1990 and 2008. Use of never give up tripled between 1970 and 2008. An amazing number of the young people interviewed in Quarterlife Crisis adhered fiercely to this belief. Derrick, struggling to be a comedy writer in Hollywood, says, "Never give up on your dreams. If you're lucky enough to actually have one, you owe it to yourself to hold on to it." Robin, a 23-year-old from Nebraska, says, "Never give up on your dreams. Why do something that won't bring about your dreams?" I was pretty well indoctrinated myself: the title of my high school valedictory speech was "Hold Fast to Dreams."

Some people might argue that this is just youthful hope—after all, hasn't every generation dreamed big during adolescence? Maybe, but GenMe's dreams are bigger. While our parents may have aimed simply to leave their small town or to go to college, we want to make lots of money at a career that is fulfilling and makes us famous.

From Chapter 8: Generation Me at Work

The young applicant seemed so promising on paper. When she arrived for the interview, however, she was holding a cat carrier—with the cat in it. She set the carrier on the interviewer’s desk and periodically played with it during the interview.

She did not get the job.

Another job applicant took a call on his cell phone 15 minutes into the interview. A third brought his father with him. These are, apparently, not isolated examples. A 2013 USA Today story notes that such behavior is gaining notice across the country: “Human resource professionals say they've seen recent college grads text or take calls in interviews, dress inappropriately, use slang or overly casual language and exhibit other oddball behavior.”

Some blame new technology for this apparent lack of social skills, but it goes deeper than that. Raised on “just be yourself,” GenMe doesn’t always process the need to change behavior depending on the situation. If it’s good for them, they assume it’s good for everyone else—even in an interview. Jonathan Singel, director of talent acquisition for Avery Dennison, favors this explanation. GenMe’s parents, he observes, said, “You’re perfect just the way you are” and “Do whatever you’re comfortable doing.” As you know from the previous chapters, his observation is consistent with the numerous studies showing GenMe’s lower need for social approval and higher individualism.

That’s not all bad. We have GenMe—and the individualism that gives them their name—to thank for casual Fridays (or casual everydays). Hierarchies are flatter, with bosses more likely to treat employees with respect and explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. Companies realize that time off and work-life balance makes for more productive employees. The key is for all of the generations to find the strategies that accommodate GenMe’s preferences—but that also preserve the bottom line. With Boomers rapidly retiring and GenMe set to be 40% of the workforce by 2020, the time to do this is now.

The first step is to get the right information on how the generations differ. You’ve already learned about the generational differences in personality and behavior, and some of those translate directly into the workplace. But what about attitudes toward work? What does GenMe want out of a job that’s different from what Boomers or GenX’ers wanted when they were young?

Many popular press articles, consultants, and books on generations at work have tried to answer these questions. However, few are based on data comparing the generations—unfortunate given the emphasis on evidence-based management. Some describe the events each generation experienced and then guess how that will affect their attitudes toward work, rather than actually measuring attitudes. Other books interview managers who reflect on the changes they have witnessed in the workplace. That’s problematic, too, as perceptions are easily warped by fading memory, aging, and flawed recall. Most people have an overly rosy memory of what they were like when they were young employees—I was never late! I always did exactly what my boss said! Other authors who interview young employees can tell managers what young employees want, but that tells us little about generational differences. Perhaps this is what young employees have always wanted, so recruiting and retaining strategies can stay just the same. Interviews are also notoriously subjective—how does the author decide which parts of the interview to highlight? Often that depends on what point the author is trying to make, which introduces bias right off the bat.

A more objective approach is to use standard questionnaires that measure work attitudes, which ask people to respond to standard questions and result in a numerical score. Researchers often use such questionnaires to survey a large group of workers at one time. This has the advantage of more objective measurement, but any one-time survey has a big downside: it’s impossible to tell whether any differences are caused by age or by generation. For example, if more GenMe’ers than Boomers say they want a lot of time off, that could be because young people have always wanted time off, or because GenMe’ers like time off more than Boomers did when they were young. If it’s just being young, GenMe will grow out of it just as every generation before them has grown out of some notions of its youth. If GenMe’ers preferences are due to their age and not to their generation, the same recruiting programs that worked for young employees 15 or 30 years ago will work now.

Given these issues with one-time studies, it’s clearly best to study generational differences in work attitudes with an over-time study—one that has sampled people of the same age at different points in time. Until recently, only one or two studies had used data like this, and none with a large or nationally representative sample. Fortunately, the nationally representative Monitoring the Future Survey of high school students has measured work attitudes and desired job characteristics every year since 1976. That made it possible to trace work attitudes from Boomers to GenX’ers to GenMe’ers among those getting ready to enter the workforce. Because everyone was the same age, this dataset clearly shows the generational shifts in attitudes toward work without any concern that differences could be due to age. Along with my coauthors Stacy Campbell, Brian Hoffman, and Chuck Lance, we published the results of this analysis in the Journal of Management.

The results of the study fall into four primary categories: leisure and work-life balance; helping and finding meaning; money and status; and high expectations and impatience. In some cases, the data confirm the perceptions of managers and journalists about what GenMe (also called Millennials) values at work. In other cases, the data suggest that common perceptions of GenMe are wrong. I will also feature data from one-time studies when their results concur with the over-time data. However, always keep in mind that any differences in a one-time study could be due to age and experience instead. Each section will also include concrete suggestions for managing this generation—or, if you’re GenMe yourself, for finding a match between your expectations and the reality of the workplace.