It isn’t stereotypes that keep us together

Enough with the lazy stereotypes about younger folks.

We hear them all the time these days. Shallow and often conflicting traits that paint us as so different from other generations. Or, my favorite, patronizing HR columns that describe us like Wild Plains animals (like this).

When I googled ‘generation Y’, up popped everything from ambitious, family-centric and teamwork-oriented, to lazy, selfish, entitled, materialistic and… tattooed and pierced (see here or here or here, for example, or this more thoughtful piece about stereotypes here). When we talked to younger folks for a recent GenSqueeze video, they listed off spoiled, tech-saavy and into ‘selfies’ – not that you need to be young to like those.

As the saying goes, there could well be kernels of truth in some of these stereotypes. (Never mind that there has actually been research debunking many of the common ones!)

The real issue though is that, not only are they simplistic and often unfair generalizations, but these stereotypes obscure the remarkable variety within younger Canada, and the truly important ties that bind younger Canadians together.

To begin with, younger Canada is huge and remarkably mixed in its demographics. There are about 12 million Canadians aged between 19 and 45, or 36% of the population – more than both the Baby Boomers aged 46 to 65 (28%) and seniors aged 66+ (14%). Today’s Younger Canada is very ethnically diverse, with about one in five foreign born. It’s the most educated generation ever, though split between university and college grads and those with high school education or less. Younger Canada is also spread across our broad country, with its different regional cultures and attitudes (Timmies and hockey aside).

In addition, there are important differences in life stages within Younger Canada. The late-teens and 20s have increasingly become a period for young people to get educated, establish careers and mature into adult life, whereas the 30s and early 40s are more about starting families, buying homes and balancing these time and financial commitments with progression in those careers.

Sure, we do have different attitudes and values than other generations. According to Ekos pollster Frank Graves, there is a growing values divide between more liberal younger Canadians and more conservative older generations. Yet, there has been a broad decline across all generations in traditional family values and more conservative beliefs. In addition, social values research by Environics suggests that cross-generational differences in Canada are far narrower than the social values gap between Canadians and Americans.

It’s also important to recognize the dramatic differences in values and attitudes among younger Canadians. For example, the Gandalf Group, a market research firm, groups Canadians into three categories: ‘runners’, ‘walkers’ and ‘spectators’. A disproportionate number of the ‘runners’ are younger Canadians. More urban, educated, and ethnically diverse, this ambitious and optimistic group have busy social calendars, spend a lot of time online, are more active in political and community life, and want to find meaning in their jobs. On the flip side, they are also concerned with social status and often live beyond their means despite relatively well-paying jobs.

While the ‘runners’ reflect many of the stereotypes – ambitious, diverse, tech-savvy and materialist, for instance – they represent only about a third of younger Canada. An even larger segment of younger Canadians fall into the category of ‘walkers’: a more suburban and somewhat older group that is less career-oriented and materialistic, and tends to focus more on home and family. They’re often too busy caring for kids or aging parents to spend time online or getting involved in their communities.

A third group, the ‘spectators’, are becoming worryingly disconnected from mainstream society. Often suburban and male, they have less active social lives, spend more time online, and are generally the least happy or optimistic. They are not inspired by their work and feel alienated by popular brands, culture and politics. In stark contrast to the runners, these younger Canadians are tuning out.

Yet, despite these differences in attitudes and lifestyles, there are critical ties that bind all younger Canadians. More important than the values and character traits we may (or may not) share are the important challenges we will have to get through together.

I don’t need a crystal ball to predict that Younger Canada will face a difficult economy in the years ahead. The job market and the mix of education and skills workers need will continue to shift. Housing affordability will remain an issue. So will the costs of starting a family and raising kids. Sustaining the natural environment will have to be a growing priority. As will rejuvenating our civic and democratic institutions, and getting the ‘spectators’ to tune back in.

Sure, I take ‘selfies’ now and then. That isn’t a defining marker of me or my generation. We in Younger Canada are an amazingly diverse group, and it’s the life, work and family challenges that we share that are what bind us together.

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It isn’t stereotypes that keep us together
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