Don't Be Evil?
"Don't Be Evil" is Google's unofficial motto, and GenY seems to have adopted it as its credo as well. No generation has ever aspired to "make a difference" to the extent that the millennials have. And no generation before has expressed such distaste for corporate greed. There's no question that younger Americans don't want to be evil. The question is, do they want to be good?
Many younger Americans genuinely aspire to make the world a better place, and they back these feelings up by contributing time and money to all sorts of causes -- everything from political canvassing to fundraising for the poor to mission trips abroad. But the paradox is that too many of these same individuals, most of whom would never dream of violating the rules of political correctness, demonstrate less interest in fulfilling the everyday responsibilities of obtaining a good education, maintaining steady employment, and avoiding debt.
Self-righteousness often has a way of aligning itself with self-interest, and this is as true of GenY as of any previous generation. At last count, nearly one fifth of Americans aged 16 to 24 were unemployed, and millions now live with parents even after they finish their schooling. Once they get jobs, evidence suggests that millennials are viewed as less productive than other generations. Yet these same workers, criticized by colleagues for a lack of effort, rallied to the chant of "Yes, We Can" in 2008.
In other words, while the millennials are busy doing no harm, they don't seem to be doing much good, either. According to one recent poll conducted by Workplace Options, 70% of fellow workers feel that millennials are simply lazy. Indeed, a Pew Research Center report revealed that GenYers themselves fail to see "work ethic" as among their distinguishing traits. Work ethic, in fact, did not even make the list. Instead, millennials describe themselves as possessing a knowledge of technology and pop culture, an identification with liberal politics, a greater intelligence, and more fashion sense. That list goes a long way toward explaining the reputation of millennials as a generation that "dislikes the idea of work for work's sake."
Playing games on the internet, listening to an iPod, and social networking for liberal causes doesn't contribute to getting work done at the office. And the claim of greater intelligence is disproven by the fact that GenY, as a group, have the lowest college entrance scores since the early 1960s. All of those "smart" young people who rallied around Barack Obama in 2008 weren't really so smart.
They weren't very selfless, either. The Obama campaign made a point of communicating several priorities of particular interest to millennials: first, that higher education should be "free," which presumably means that student loan debt should be forgiven or reduced for recent graduates; second, that those who have fallen behind on their mortgages are "victims" of the big banks, who should be forced to write down principal; third, that child-care credits and other forms of wealth transfer from older to younger Americans should be expanded. In fact, Obama has followed through, or attempted to follow through, on all of these promises. But none of these policies suggests that millennials are voting from anything but immediate self-interest.
In that sense, this generation may be no different from any other. All human beings pursue their own self-interest. It's just the pretense of disinterestedness that is disturbing. For the millennials, self-righteousness and self-interest have an odd way of coming together. It's as if the pretense that they are doing no harm is being used as an excuse for evading more mundane responsibilities. It seems that this generation's determination to transform America into a "better" society -- one, for example, with a guaranteed living wage regardless of work -- is designed to assure that their own needs are met, regardless of whether they contribute. That, anyway, is the impression one gets from the Occupy Wall Street movement.
It all raises the question of what "do no evil" really means, and whether not doing evil is enough. It's nice to believe that one has not been tainted by materialism or greed. But is an absence of wrongdoing enough? And is engaging in profitable activities that provide comfort and security necessarily wrong? When one thinks about the terms in which the millennial generation has chosen to define itself, some grave doubts arise.
Most important, perhaps, is the quality of passivity that "do no evil" engenders. Every form of productive labor involves some element of compromise. Manufacturing always impacts the environment; medicine involves less than ideal outcomes; teaching imposes standards and restraints. All too often, the GenY response to these difficult choices is withdrawal. If harm can result from one's actions, don't act. But harm can result -- in fact, it always results to some extent -- from every real-world endeavor. The only way to do no evil and continue to exist is to live at someone else's expense, which seems to be what some in GenY are really about.
That's certainly the case with those who return home and fail to seek employment after completing their schooling. Boomerang kids may imagine that they are doing no harm -- they may even believe that they're doing their parents a favor by keeping them company -- but in most cases, they are draining their parents' budgets at the very time when the parents need to be saving for retirement. That's not just wrong -- it's deeply callous.
When they finally get around to seeking employment, the choices most millennials make are also revealing. It turns out that 70% of GenY wish to begin their working lives by owning their own business. Another large segment, overlapping the previous to some extent, prefers to work for non-profits. Interest in working for businesses in the private sector -- the kind of employment that demands regular hours and measurable productivity -- has fallen to a new low. A study of 4 million GenY Facebook pages reveals that only 7% of millennials presently work for a Fortune 500 company. And even when millennials do enter the private sector, their first priority seems to be lobbying for more flex-time. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of GenY women are reportedly burning out before age 30.
The millennial generation is not unique, of course, in thinking it has been empowered to save the world and in failing to live up to its ideals. The baby boomers exhibited plenty of self-righteous egotism. Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn -- they all thought they knew how the world should be ordered, and they attempted to impose their ideas on others. And though most baby boomers were not radical at all, as a generation they displayed a troubling arrogance that was a reflection of their comfortable postwar upbringing. Yet as a group the boomers got to work and eventually became the most productive generation in American history.
As a result of boomer affluence, GenX grew up in even more comfortable circumstances, and with a greater sense of entitlement. But GenX also entered the work force with relative ease, and it now contributes much to America's economy.
But the millennial generation is something else again. GenY may be the first generation of Americans who've decided that the best way to avoid doing evil is to avoid doing anything at all.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).