Book Review: The world according to Y

Today’s book review is The World According to Y: inside the new adult generation, by Rebecca Huntley. I probably wouldn’t have bought this book if I didn’t have some flying to do (four hours each way to NZ  meant I needed more than just some magazines), but I’m glad I did.

I’ve been a sceptic about this whole Generation Y thing for a while – is this really a new generation, or is it just that previous generations have, as usual, forgotten what it is like being young?

This book is very definitely on the side of Generation Y (which isn’t entirely clearly defined but is roughly those who are in their late teens to mid to late 20s now) being quite a distinct group of people. It’s then a survey of all the different ways that you can define social attitudes and why Generation Y is genuinely different from all the rest.

In the business world, I’ve been the recipient of one too many earnest presentations from HR consultants trying to explain these weird Generation Y people to serious business types. I’ve found them almost laughable as they explain that some of these “young people” actually like to use text messaging and instant messaging more than picking up the phone and actually chatting! Generally the word “hip” or “cool” is used in a way that makes me cringe to think that anyone of the Generation Y target age would ever hear the presentation.

So I approached this book with some scepticism.

The general stereotype of Generation Y (compared with those who have gone before) is that they are both incredibly ambitious and confident, and unwilling to settle down and do any hard work to get where they want to be. They are also supposed to be fickle, and brand aware but not loyal consumers.

I’ve always thought that these would have been how my generation (X, by most definitions) would have been considered – overly arrogant about our abilities when we started in the workforce, unable to settle down to the 10 year plan that we were supposed to have for our careers, and ridiculously consumerist (needing the latest car and then electronic gadget, rather than being sensible and saving for a mortgage).

But the major insight this book provided me with was broader than this – it was about mindset. Huntley points out something that I’d never really noticed before. Generation X, growing up, had an incredibly pessimistic outlook on life. Nuclear war was around the corner, the world was getting a worse place, we may all be dead in 20 years, so what’s the point anyway? (OK exaggerating slightly to make a point). Generation Y, on the other hand, is breezily optimistic about life.

I think one way of looking at this is why different generations might not bother with unversity. Boomers might drop out because they want to become hippies. Generation X dropped out because there was no point in studying when we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust. Generation Y drops out because they have a great entrepreneurial business idea.

The rest of the book does have some evidence for differences in consumer behaviour, work behaviour, and, to a lesser extent, relationship behaviour (this generation was far more likely to have experienced parental divorce, for example, so tends to have, paradoxically, unrealistically high expectations of what a good marriage should be), but to me it felt like degrees on a spectrum rather than the opposites that the optimism/pessimism divide create.

I’m still sceptical that this generation is so different from my own generation X. But this book is a good read in that even if you don’t buy into the generational change stuff, it’s a great survey of the changes that are happening in society right now, because of forces like demography, intensive marketing, changes in the workforce and the world at large. 

  3 comments for “Book Review: The world according to Y

  1. December 18, 2006 at 11:02 pm

    I’m pretty sceptical of overblown analyses of what makes Generation Y different to Gen X (which I’m part of) – but the book sounds like it could be interesting. There may well be something to the idea that there was an underlying pessimism (whether nuclear annihilation or environmental catastrophe or whatever) about the future when Gen X was growing up – I remember the threat of nuclear war and then the realisation of the potential impact of environmental problems.

    To me, this “emotionset” (A word I just made up to correspond to mindset) seems evident in what underpins opinions by many Gen X’ers about anything nuclear and about how environmental problems may be unfixable.

  2. MD
    December 20, 2006 at 7:58 pm

    Generations are different from each other – times change and whether we like it or not we have to change with them as they aren’t going to change back – that’s why i don’t understand the ’60s/’70s worldview and attitudes that still rule much of feminism.

  3. November 2, 2007 at 11:24 am

    I read this book and I felt this book was totally crap.
    my age includes in the generation Y and I don’t believe this book really talked about us. I think the author totally missed out what the real generation Y are.

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