A Generation of Dream-Catchers

How the ‘Me’ Complex affects our careers – and how to avoid it!


Do you think you’re special?

It’s a question most of us are rarely asked. The kind of query reserved for Wetherspoons drunkards looking for a scrap. Cue response: “No Kevin, I don’t. Please put the Stella bottle down, now; there’s a good chap”.

And if you put the question to any close friend or family member, the answer would be a swift: “No. Of course not.”

But, at least where statistics and social scientists are concerned, our generation in particular defines itself by egotistical means. Most of us are regular subscribers and no.1 fans of, well, ourselves, and we’re certainly not unique in thinking that we’re unique.

University of New Hampshire management professor Paul Harvey talks of particularly high ‘entitlement levels’ in our current generation. That’s Generation Y to you: a group of people born between 1977-1994. After scouring sociology literature and conducting hundreds of interviews with Y’ers, Harvey concluded that we are characterised by a “very inflated sense of self” that leads to “unrealistic expectations” and “chronic disappointment”.


Why is our generation so susceptible to these tendencies?

Well, in order to ascertain how and why this might be the case, we need to understand how societal values have evolved through the generations. This comparative exercise began with Generation G.I, born between 1902 and 24. Forced to endure the harrowing consequences of the Great Depression and WWII, these youngsters became acutely aware of just how precious a resource money is. Economic stability was their summum bonum and they never allowed their children to forget the merits of hard work and dogged determination.

They gave birth to the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) a group of people taught over and over again that they really could get that shiny red Ferrari and lush green lawn if they were willing to work hard enough for it. When the so-called ‘Summer of love’ was over, many of these sold their Volkswagen camper vans and went on to have the prosperous careers their parents envisioned for them. Hours of sweaty diligence and anxious late-nights paved the way for successful careers. The economy blossomed. In America in 1944, the GDP Per Capita was $12,773. By 1986, it had experienced a 66% growth, coming in at $21,23.

It was within this affluent society that we were born and raised, where the seeds of our social conditioning were planted and sewn. Almost as soon as we came out the womb, we were raised on a sense of optimism and unbounded possibility. Some of the first words we learnt, apart from Mama and Dada, were “I can”, “You can” and “I will”. This ‘special protagonist mindset’ birthed pioneering creative minds like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – ferociously diligent entrepreneurs who knew what they wanted to do and how to execute it.

But, as studies like Harvey’s demonstrate, we are all a generation of dream-catchers – subscribers and endorsers of the ‘me mindset’. This is particularly apparent when it comes to our careers and the factors that influence what are ultimately life-affirming decisions.


Entitlement theory and our careers

Statistics show that Generation Y consistently prioritise job fulfilment over financial gain. They “need to feel that their work has a strong economic or social purpose. They need to feel proud of their organization and the work that it does”.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach. It’s a pragmatic one and, in many ways, should make us happier in the long run. The only problem is that the perfect job, more often than not, eludes us. While in every other aspect of our lives we can have almost anything we want, as quickly as we want, the job market is slightly different. It often takes people years of blood, sweat and caffeinated toil to find that ‘perfect career’. In short: not that many employers are going to give their best jobs to 20-year-olds.

Harvey believes that it is this kind of thinking that makes so many of us miserable. Because we believe we are unique, we set extremely high goals for ourselves and, when we don’t reach them, are extremely disappointed. This all boils down to a simple, albeit reductive, method of gauging happiness:

Happiness= Reality-Expectations.

When our reality doesn’t match up to our expectations, we inevitably become unhappy. This sense of despondency is made worse in our social media age, where endless streams of perfectly-groomed Facebook accounts make us think everyone else is happier and more successful than ever. Ultimately, not only are these depictions of reality false, but the people endorsing them have got to where they are either through sickening amounts of hard work or huge amounts of luck – normally, both.

Essentially, they’ve won the lottery.


So how can young adolescents graduating from University stay positive and focused when it comes to pursuing their chosen careers?

Tim Urban from blogging site ‘Wait But Why’ has some brilliant advice for all of us which I’ll summarise for you in three concise points:

1) Stay wildly ambitious. The current world is bubbling with opportunity for an ambitious person to find flowery, fulfilling success.  The specific direction may be unclear, but it’ll work itself out—just dive in somewhere.

2) Stop thinking that you’re special.  The fact is, right now, you’re not special.  You’re another completely inexperienced young person who doesn’t have all that much to offer yet.  You can become special by working really hard for a long time.

3) Ignore everyone else. Other people’s grass seeming greener is no new concept, but in today’s image crafting world, other people’s grass looks like a glorious meadow. The truth is that everyone else is just as indecisive, self-doubting, and frustrated as you are, and if you just do your thing, you’ll never have any reason to envy others.

Essentially he seems to be saying: stay hopeful, but not delusional. And, most importantly, be kinder to yourself.


Will Moffitt is a guest contributor for Inspiring Interns.


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