Advice From the Trenches

A Generational Divide: Do 20-somethings have different life expectations than previous generations did?

Dear C and Dr. B;

I work at a museum and there is a collection of new college freshmen who are there doing internships. I am having a hard time dealing with them – I’m in my 40s and they are all 20-something, and we have very different expectations and ideas about life.

Growing up, my expectations all had to do with achieving goals. The goals weren’t about emotional satisfaction as much as they were practical. Not all of them were that evolved – my mother drilled it into my head that I was supposed to find a man to take care of me and raise a family. If not, I was supposed to get trained to do some kind of secretarial work, or possibly teach. That’s what women did when she was a girl. My goal is somewhat different – I want to be the next director at my company – but what neither of us expected was to be “happy” all the time. It was all about being responsible, starting a family or establishing a means of support. She grew up during the depression, so maybe that’s why.

These young girls seem to react to everything that happens to them in a very black and white manner. Either it makes them happy – or it doesn’t. Anything that doesn’t make them happy is judged as bad or wrong. Everything else is “awesome.” I don’t know if this Happy=Good, Unpleasant/Difficult=Bad attitude is as predominant in all younger people as the ones here, but there really does seem to be a trend. Did their moms all read different books on raising kids than I did?   – Portia Past

Dr. B says: You’re right; two generations ago life was hard in America: WW2, the Depression … and people had different expectations. The environment we live in shapes our culture. Today, people are no longer in survival mode. Now, not only do they expect to be happy, they believe happiness is a right. Something got lost during the transition from survival to individual expression and self-fulfillment. We lost the sense of collectivism and duty that WW2 brought out in us.  

Reality is affected by what we do, not by what we feel. It’s our actions that affect those around us. If we make our feelings top priority, things get messy, because not only do feelings change from moment to moment, but no one can read your mind. People only see the results of what you do.  

Reality is perplexing, and truth is often the opposite of what we intuit. Many things that seemingly make us unhappy are things that ultimately bring us happiness: hard work, challenge and problems (if we solve them).  Some people are even happy being unhappy. 

Your goal-directed happiness requires only the satisfaction of accomplishment. Doing meaningful things is more far-reaching than mere happiness. Happiness alone is a poor life goal based on nothing but fleeting moments. Contentment is a sustainable well-balanced system – and a much better life goal.  

C says: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has an interesting take on emotions that gives another perspective to this issue. TCM views happiness as an integral part of living, but it gives equal importance to sadness, worry, anger and fear. All of these emotions together lead to a balanced life, but any one of them in excess may lead to illness. If we are to lead a healthy life, we should experience all emotions equally, giving no favor to any one emotion for too long. Each emotion is ascribed to an internal organ that is either benefited in the short term by its expression or damaged by dwelling on it. Too much happiness can burden the heart.

We are all made of good and bad. It is the contrast of elements that gives meaning to each. Without pain, we have nothing to measure joy against – our multi-layered depth of feeling would become one long, flat line. I can’t think of a shorter route to boring and blah.

The 20-somethings will figure this all out eventually. Or not. Either way, I wouldn’t worry about getting along with them. They will all move on soon enough, and by the time they are your age they will probably have gotten kicked in the teeth enough times to have developed either strength of character or sizable drug habits. Bon voyage! 

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