Talkin’ ’Bout Y Generation | A consumer psychologist paints the face of the future.
Generation Y, that oh-so-lucky group of kids ages 12 to 32 who will soon take over the world (if they haven’t already) are an empowered bunch. They’ve grown up with the Internet, on-demand TV, and stay-at-home dads who made them mac and cheese from scratch. But, is it all good? Well, according to Golden Gate University psychology professor Kit Yarrow, a specialist in consumer psychology, Gen Y-ers are brimming with confidence and self-esteem. The only thing is, they could use some non-virtual friends—and maybe the occasional noogie. Yarrow came to these and other conclusions after conducting a recent nationwide study of 2,000 Gen Y-ers that included 100 personal interviews and 11 focus groups. She’s also co-written Gen Buy—How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). Pumped up about the future of G-Yers and my possibly insignificant role in it, I rang my pal Yarrow, a fellow boomer, to find out what makes Gen Y so special.
Paul Kilduff: Gen Y-ers are taught in school not to be bullies. That’s a big thing in my daughter’s school, which is probably a good thing. But that can also translate into no teasing, which is maybe not such a great thing.
Kit Yarrow: Well, it’s kind of infantilizing, isn’t it?
KY: I mean, seriously, come on. We don’t want our kids to be like Jell-O when they get out there. That’s just not the real world.
PK: Yeah, you can’t take somebody making a joke about you.
KY: That’s definitely not helpful to the kid, to baby them like that. That’s actually one of the complaints I’ve heard (in my research) from employers—sort of the babyish quality that I think comes from having been catered to or protected a little bit more. I don’t mean to put any parent down for doing this because it feels really necessary in an unsafe world. [But] it doesn’t work for kids in two ways. One is that it doesn’t teach them about their own strengths and their own resilience, which is really necessary to be a great, effective adult. You have to learn some things by trial and error and see that you’re strong enough to make it through problems that arise in your life, and you can figure out answers on your own rather than having your mom or dad have to take care of it. And kids don’t learn that if parents are constantly intervening. The second thing is that if you worry a lot and overprotect your kids, in effect what you’re telling the kid is that the world is unsafe. And you don’t want a kid going out there feeling afraid and wary. You want them to feel a little bit more positive. So, helicoptering: not good for anybody.
PK: Is Mark Zuckerberg the ultimate member of this generation, or at least the richest?
KY: Well, he might be the richest, but I would say most people of his generation wouldn’t look at him as really representative.
KY: Well, all I know is what I saw in the movie [The Social Network], to be honest. I haven’t met him and he could be very charming, for all I know. But if the portrayal in the movie is anything like him, he would not be typical of your average Gen Y-er because of his extreme social awkwardness. Gen Y-ers don’t tend to be as socially awkward. They’ve been talked to and communicated with, and they’re fairly confident of their ability to connect with other people. And so his extreme nerdiness wouldn’t be typical.
PK: Irony of ironies that the guy who started a social networking phenomenon would be socially awkward himself.
KY: We are finding actually that Facebook and social networks in general aren’t the best for helping people to develop interpersonal skills. They’re a deterrent, in fact. We are becoming less and less capable as a society, not just Gen Y-ers, in terms of connecting with other people on deep, emotional levels. It turns out that the neurons that connect to empathy don’t fire when we’re talking to people through technology. And empathy is really the glue that holds society together. So if we’re using social media as our way of feeling connected to other people, ultimately we’re going to feel fairly lonely.
PK: I’m friends with a lot of things on Facebook, like old high school friends. But I’m also friends with Little Debbie’s Snack Cakes. Jack in the Box, we’re friends.
KY: Not too discriminating, are you, Paul?
PK: You know, I don’t refuse a lot of friend requests. I just figure the more friends I have on Facebook, the better. I don’t quite know how to feel about Facebook. It’s a great way to stay in touch with people that maybe you haven’t seen or heard from in a long time. But bottom line, I’d much rather have fewer Facebook friends and more friends that I actually see and do things with, even if it’s only occasionally.
KY: Well, that is very, very smart and psychologically healthy. But the thing is that people our age—I think we’re about the same age but I’m not sure.
PK: I’m 49.
KY: We use social media to orchestrate and facilitate relationships we already have.
KY: Younger people tend to use Facebook, Twitter, social media, as a means of creating connections with people, so there’s going to be a great difference in the quality of those relationships. It’s absolutely psychologically healthier to meet with people face-to-face, see people face-to-face, and nourish face-to-face relationships. Those are really essential to our happiness. But a lot of younger people are almost getting to the point where they’re using social media more like a patch for what’s missing in interpersonal relationships. It almost becomes like a drug. So if you feel lonely and want to connect with somebody and you use social media, it’s sort of a temporary fix. But while you’ve been doing it, you haven’t been cultivating face-to-face relationships, and that’s where the ultimate fix occurs.
PK: I always enjoy talking to you.
KY: I’m going to go find you on Facebook now. I think I already liked you. Now I’m going to have to go friend you since you’re easy and I know you’ll friend me back.
Age: In dog years I think I’d be about 7.
Birthplace: Upstate New York
Astrological sign: Virgo
Idol: My husband