In Flux: Bad Economy, Good Values?

There’s often a lot of talk about Generation Y, or the millennial generation, and what they collectively represent. This topic is worth discussing, since this generation, probably the biggest since the baby boomers, will one day dominate the workforce and spheres of leadership in this country. Thus, an evaluation of the values of this generation seems reasonable, and according to a New York Times opinion article, they seem to be in a state of flux — at least, as in flux as the economy.

The article discusses various studies conducted over an extended period of time indicating that millennials’ concern for others skyrockets in times of economic hardship and their value for material objects and self-regard increases during times of prosperity. However, this trend became even more pronounced in recent years.

“Although concern for others had been decreasing among high school seniors and certain markers of materialism — like valuing expensive products such as cars — had been increasing for nearly four decades, these trends began to reverse after 2008. Whereas older millennials showed a concern for meaning, the younger millennials who came of age during the Great Recession started reporting more concern for others and less interest in material goods.”

This desire for meaning in their lives as a result of the recession has resulted in relatively specific career choices for those who came of age during the downturn. According to the article, millennials want a job that makes that makes a difference and connects them to the world, not necessarily one that makes them a lot of money. Last spring, a survey conducted by the National Society of High School Scholars found that of the top 25 companies high school seniors wanted to work for, eight were in health care and six were in government or the military.

The issue with this tendency toward giving, however, is that it seems to be prompted by a social problem, economic hardship. Though the resulting selflessness for millennials is positive, how can it be maintained, and how could this social responsibility be passed down to the next generation? With another wave of  inevitable economic prosperity in the future, will the new generation have a heightened sense of materialism? The most important question is, however, if any of this is bad. In the past, a society of consumers has been valuable, and the economy could benefit from such attitudes again, though in the process, it may sacrifice the importance of meaning.

The mindsets of each generation might be as cyclical as the economy itself, and only time will tell what the new values will be in years to come.

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