It’s conversations like this that make me miss writing at this blog on a regular basis. So without further ado, I’m back. And I’ve got lots to say, so spread the word, and join the conversation. Let’s talk about Gen Y.

Rebecca brought up an interesting debate at Modite yesterday. Her position: Helicopter Parenting is good. Of course, it’s not as pat as that, so check out her post to read her reasoning. I think she touches on some good points, and the term “helicopter parents” may be a matter of semantics and over hyped by the media as she suggests, but I have to say, the worst-case types of helicopter parenting that have been hyped by whomever are alive and well, and as a Gen Yer myself, I’ve experienced it on the other side of the interview table. And it’s not pretty when it crosses the line from motherly advice to parental predominance. To me, that’s the issue at hand.

There are so many examples of helicopter parenting that I’ve witnessed in the job process, I have to say that it’s not a good thing. For example, my team once had a candidate turn down a job offer because their parent got too involved in their job search and told them they thought they should make a higher starting salary (even though they had little experience in the field) – it took that person six more months to find a job (and probably a lower salary than we offered) because they blindly followed the advice of a helicopter parent.

Gen Y and the Problem with Boundaries

I think that listening to parental advice is well and good, but I have also witnessed first hand that there is a large segment of Gen Y that struggles with drawing the line with their parents and emerging as independent adults. Because helicopter parent or no, the issue is really with Gen Y. It’s with individuals. And it’s about boundaries.

Boundaries are critical because they give us freedom. Here is an illustration I love: put someone on top of a 50-story building without any railing, and as the wind blows and the building sways, they will flock to the center of it. Put up some railing, and they will go to the edge, peer over, and have the freedom to explore the entirety of the roof.

For Gen Y, boundaries are critical because they enable us to explore the entirety of what it means to be an adult.

I have to say – I didn’t think a lot about boundaries in the context of the parent-child relationship until my pre-marital counseling this weekend. But it makes complete sense, especially applied to this issue.

Essentially, there are three types of parent-child relationships, and two of them are dangerous if they continue on into adulthood.

1. Child-child – In this type of parent-child relationship, parents want to be best friends with their kids,  so they don’t set boundaries, and they don’t do a good job of modeling to their kids what it looks like to be an adult. In the context of helicopter parenting, this can become pretty dangerous, because your parents may be intimately involved in the day-to-day decisions of your life, but they won’t be able to provide you with the wisdom of adulthood that you need – because they want to preserve that friendship first and foremost, and they may help you make decisions that seem cool, but are poor ones. This looks like something that happened to a friend of mine, whose parents advised her to get a variable rate 100% loan on her house a few years back, so she could get more house for her money (which was probably what she wanted to hear at the time), but now my friend is stuck in the middle of a mortgage crisis with a rising payment she can’t meet.

2. Adult-child – In this relationship, the parents become so dependent on their kids when they reach adulthood, the kids can’t have boundaries because the parents become so needy: the children take on the role of adult (like they should) but the parents start to play the role of child. This happens a lot of times when parents go through crises in their own life, like the divorce of his parents that our marriage counselor described bringing this issue to the forefront of his life. When things like this happen, parents tend to become obsessed with the lives of their children and often push aside boundaries even if that had existed previously – often because they need something to fill their own lives with, or to distract them from their own issues. So they will give you advice, and tons of it, but if they’re playing the child role in the relationship, is it really advice you should follow? Of course, you should always love and support your parents, no matter what is going on in their lives, but even in order to do that,  it’s important to have boundaries in place and preserve them.

3. Adult-adult – This is the healthy type of relationship that adult children can have with their parents. Sometimes, it’s up to Gen Y to set the stage for this and assert their adulthood by setting boundaries with their parents. Especially parents tend to helicopter. When Gen Y takes responsibility and sets boundaries with their own parents so that both are acting on the level of adults, this is the setting where “helicopter parenting” as Rebecca describes it works. And it’s really nothing more than Gen Y acting like grown ups, listening to the advice of their parents, and then weighing it as an adult and deciding from there whether or not to take it. Sometimes, this means you take it. Sometimes, it means you don’t.

But so many Gen Yers I know do not have these boundaries in place, or the ability NOT to listen to their parents when it’s neccessary – and that’s where it gets dangerous. If you can’t function without parental input, then you’re not in an adult-adult relationship, and helicoptering can really set you back. It can paralyze you with indecision, like one friend I know, who can hardly go on a job interview without deep parental advisory sessions prior to it. Or, it can ruin your relationship with your parents, like many who never learned to set boundaries and now just refuse to speak with their parents.

Whether or not helicopter parenting is a good thing simply just depends. It depends on your relationship wih your parents. It depends on your responsibility to be an adult and set boundaries with them. And it depends on whether or not you can think for yourself.

If you’ve got those things in place, then helicopter parenting is not just a good thing, it’s really not a thing at all.

It seems that Gen Y is adding a new characteristic to our list of generational generalities – many of us are joining the ranks of workaholics. Maybe it stems from our secret conservatism that we are mirroring tendency that characterized the careers and lives of our Boomer parents. It could be our intense desire to get ahead and our willingness to do whatever that takes.

Whatever the reason, it’s time to take a serious look at this issue and understand the trajectory of a life or career that begins with workaholism. Before it’s too late.

Now, I’m not saying that having a good work ethic and using it isn’t good. Of course it is. People who work hard deserve to get ahead. And usually, they do. That always will be true, and it’s a part of the system that’s built well. But there’s a big difference between working hard and working smart. In fact, psychologists tell us that hard workers are inherently different than workaholics.

And those teetering on the brink of being a workaholic need to think: is a life solely dedicated to a job or a career – well, is that any life at all?

Gen Y, pay attention – your lives are literally on the line.

Here’s what it boils down to: How we handle the proving ourselves time in entering the workforce is going to set precedents for the way the rest of our lives and opportunities play out. For example, as Penelope Trunk recently wrote, young women who want to have a family and career face the serious dilemma of timing and capitalizing on their fertility versus committing fully to a career. On the other hand of the same argument, young men like Ryan Paugh are talking about the dilemma of whether or not to commit to a long-term romantic relationship or to take risks in their career early on.

The main problem I see with these arguments isn’t in the arguments themselves. They both make excellent points, and the many counterpoints that are out there hold a lot of validity too. The problem is in the fact that each has outlined an either/or proposition. Essentially, you can have a family/relationship or you can have a great career. You see, the very way we are talking about this issue illustrates that no matter how much we tout the value of work/life balance, we seem to believe that in a way, it’s sort of a myth. And to be honest, a lot of times it feels like a myth.

All Gen Y workers entering the workforce face the issue of just how much to give to employers– hey, we’re a skilled, capable bunch with a lot to offer. That doesn’t necessarily differentiate us from generations past. It’s part of being at this stage in life. That’s also why right now is really important in who we will become as a generation. Right now, regardless of what we want, we have to deal with the reality of a system that often rewards time over talent and tenure over expertise. We’re aching for more important assignments, paying our dues while we wait on the rest of the corporate world to recognize and harness our raw talent.

And the truth is, getting what we want will take some time. Time that’s not best spent focusing every single spare moment on career while the other parts of our lives wait to get started.

Sure, there are opportunities out there for us now, and now’s a great time to invest in our careers. But it’s not a great time to procrastinate on life. It’s a great time to be living it. Which means that if Gen Y wants to be serious about work/life balance, we have to have the courage to prioritize for life when push comes to shove. It’s not an easy decision to make, but for the sake of the future of work (not to mention the future of you), I’d say it’s one worth making.

A Generation of Paradox

September 19, 2007

It seems like there are a lot of contradictions in what Gen Y wants – out of life, jobs, careers, family. The things that matter.

We want guidance but to do things our own way. We want to be safe but take risks. We want to be loyal to employers but true to ourselves. We want to have dreams but stability. We want to do it all but have free time.

Maybe this makes us a confusing lot. Some call us wishy-washy. Maybe it makes us the same as every generation who’s come before us. Some say we’re just young and we’ll change our tune soon enough, as life levels us out (or knocks us down, according to the most cynical.)

Regardless of whether it’s a new thing or not, we’re a paradoxical bunch. This reminds me of myself growing up. I was a tomboy who played in mud and caught snakes, but wanted prissy clothes with ruffles and bells. I loved shoes of all sorts but would rather go barefoot than wear them.

So, the paradox thing isn’t new to me. I’ve always characterized myself this way.

Now, I look at my life and the lives of my peers and see that the phenomenon of paradox is alive and well in all of us, in our dreams, our goals, our values. The question is, do we have impossible dreams, are our hopes too high, or is the world really about to change in ways that we are dreaming of?

And the other question is, will the world simply change around us, or does the evolution depend on our voice, that of a generation ready for change, not just for us, but for everyone?