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Fortune Smiles -- or Rather, Smiley-Faces -- on Gen Y

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By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

They've got the tattoos, they've got the piercings, they've got the BlackBerry in one hand and the half-caf mocha latte in the other and an iPod plugged into their ears. Sure, they always look busy, but if you sneak up behind them in their cubicles -- which isn't hard, because that iPod is blaring Maroon 5 -- you find they're actually watching YouTube videos while instant-messaging with four of their tattooed, pierced pals.

What the hell is a corporate boss supposed to do with these cockamamie Generation Y kids?

That's the question that Fortune magazine tries to answer in its Gen Y cover story, which is called "Manage Us? Puh-leeze." The subtitle gives you an idea of what's inside: "Today's twentysomethings have their own rules. You just don't understand them :-)." When America's premier business mag touts a pop sociology story with a smiley-face emoticon, you know you're in for a deep blizzard of baloney.

Generation Y is the media term for people born between 1977 and 1995. Of course, it's a complete fiction: All Americans between the ages of 12 and 30 are no more alike than all Jews or all Asian Americans or, for that matter, all Latvian lesbian taxidermists. But birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, magazines gotta run generalizations about generations. God knows the baby boomers have been hyping themselves for decades.

Here's how Fortune portrays Gen Y: "At once a hipster and a climber, he is all nonchalance and expectation. He is new, he is annoying, and he and his female counterpart are invading corporate offices across America."

And then this: "Gen Y sometimes seems to share one overstimulated brain, and it's often tuned to something featuring Lindsay Lohan." And this: "They're ambitious, they're demanding and they question everything." And: "self-absorbed, gregarious, multitasking, loud, optimistic, pierced."

Wait a minute. Ambitious, demanding, self-absorbed, loud, optimistic: Aren't those the qualities that European snobs have mocked about Americans for 200 years? Does this mean that the only thing new about Gen Y is Lindsay Lohan and piercing?

Back in April 1969, when the baby boomers were entering the job market, Fortune depicted them as spoiled and demanding: "Young employees are demanding that they be given productive tasks to do from the first day of work, and that the people they work for notice and react to their performance."

Now, Fortune depicts Gen Y as spoiled and demanding: "They're really not that into work. . . . They often need an entire team -- and a couple of cheerleaders -- to do anything."

Hmm, do you detect a pattern here? For nearly 40 years, Fortune has been complaining that America's young whippersnappers just aren't sufficiently excited about slaving for The Man. (The Man, by the way, constitutes Fortune's subscription base.)

"When it comes to loyalty," Fortune complains about Gen Y, "the companies they work for are last on their list -- behind their families, their friends, their communities, their co-workers and, of course, themselves."

Well, good for Gen Y! Given the performance of American corporations lately -- the layoffs, the rip-offs, the accounting scandals, the outsourcing -- what rational human would put loyalty to his company over loyalty to himself and his family?


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