Blog Post

Penelope Trunk: 3 Career Myths About Gen Y

Cornerstone Editors

For the last few years, headlines such as "Gen Y grads more likely to launch start-ups" and "Generation Y Is Born To Startup" have shaped a perception that Generation Y might be the most entrepreneurial demographic in human history. You can't walk around the SOMA district of San Francisco without tripping over a tech CEO who has yet to celebrate his 30th birthday, and Inc. Magazine's annual 30 Under 30 list is a celebrated who's who of up and coming entrepreneurs ready to take on the world. It's a Millennial world – we're all just living in it.

But a recent survey conducted by Monster suggests otherwise. The report found that 41 percent of Gen X employees (those born between the early '60s and late '70s) and 45 percent of Baby Boomers (the generation born after World War II) considered themselves to be more entrepreneurial, compared to only 32 percent of Gen Y (those born between the early '80s and early 2000s). And if you talk to more seasoned observers of the labor market, like Brazen Careerist founder Penelope Trunk, you'll find that Gen Y may not be the greatest navigators of their own careers.

"Gen Y feels like they're special, but they're actually misguided," says Trunk, a commentator on workplace trends who has appeared on 20/20, CNN and NPR. "This is a generation whose parents told them that when they grew up, they could be anything they wanted. That's not really true.

Myth 1: "Do what you love"

"You don't get paid to do what you love," Trunk says. "And you don't get to create your own job title unless you have your own company."

Emergent wisdom tells us that Millennials were raised by parents who instilled in them abundant quantities of self-esteem, reflected in the not-so flattering euphemism "Generation Me." This upbringing convinced many Millennials that they were destined for greatness, and that they would one day find or create a job doing what they love. That perception is bunk, Trunk says. "The thing we should do for our career is something we would only do if we were getting a reward," she writes in a recent post, "Bad career advice: Do what you love."

Not only has this advice left Millennials feeling immense pressure to find the "perfect" career, it's led many young professional to disappointing dead ends. According to Bloomberg, average incomes for individuals ages 25 to 34 have fallen 8 percent, double the adult population’s total drop, since the recession began in December 2007. And unemployment rates among the same age group remains stuck one-half to 1 percentage point above the national figure. Adds Trunk: "Gen Y seems entrepreneurial because they're unemployed."

Myth 2: "Create your own career"

Despite the perception that this generation's entrepreneurial spirit is guiding them toward inventing their own jobs, rather than trying to fit into a pre-established mold, the number of actual entrepreneurs has remained relatively stagnant. While a vast minority of the workforce becomes successful entrepreneurs, "everyone else – if they can get a job – just does that," Trunk says. "You can only get hired for the position that's available."

And while the rise of wacky job titles seems to indicate a new wave of job opportunities, a "director of first impressions" is still just a receptionist. Millennials may be drawn to creative titles that they believe portray their own unique individuality, but the title is still a reflection of the corporate brand, rather than the individual.

"Salesforce's 'chief fun officer' or Zappos' 'manager of happiness' doesn't say anything about the person, it says more about the company," Trunk says. "They're conformists, they're not making their own titles."

Myth 3: "You can have it all"

One of the biggest myths out there, this goal is simply unattainable for most. "Gen Y is fundamentally conservative," says Trunk. "The challenge for them is not getting the conservative lifestyle they're after. Gen Y men feel like they need to be millionaires by the time they're 30. Gen Y women want a fantastic career in their 20s and a fantastic family in their 30. And if they can't live up to that, they're panicking."

When it comes to making the most of the intersection of work and life, Trunk suggests a couple ideas many Millennials may not be ready to face:

  • For men: "50 percent of Gen Y men are wondering how to develop the skills to get out of middle management. They're not going to."

  • For women: "Women do best when they don't have huge careers in their 20s. Women don't get rewarded for having a fantastic job."

Those are harsh realities for all those Millennials chasing the American dream, but one that must be reckoned with if they are to maintain an ounce of that self-worth they learned as children.

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