Millennials and the Paralysis of Choice

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Millennials have been accused of being incredibly indecisive as a whole. More and more, the perception of our generation as being wayward and non-committal is poisoning our professional image. However, this stereotype seems to have a kernel of truth. We’re certainly not lazy. We can’t afford to be. But some of us have a certain amount of difficulty deciding what we want to do with our lives. I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the origin of this phenomenon.

First, millennials lack the established career pipelines that members of previous generations had available to them. The old proverb of the hard-working person who went from the mailroom to the boardroom is no longer realistic. The entire idea of “working your way up” is less and less feasible. Between an overwhelming lack of social mobility and the overall lower availability of high-paying jobs, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Therefore, we are forced to blaze our own paths. Those paths are riddled with conditionals, “what-ifs”, and self-doubt. Each turn requires a completely new analysis. This constant assessment is overwhelming, and can cause us to take longer to decide what would fully satisfy us in a career.

This is not to say that the above approach is always the right way to handle things. We could certainly afford to make some choices faster rather than making an entire decision tree for every aspect of our lives. But, despite all that, we certainly cannot be accused of not thinking things through when it comes to big-picture decisions. We just may not be arriving at those conclusions as quickly as our parents might like us to.

Second, we were raised differently than previous generations. I personally believe our parents were raised with the idea that they ultimately were not that important in the grand scheme of things. This lack of self-confidence led them to push down their natural curiosity and settle for stable rather than personally fulfilling careers. Our parents did not want us to feel the way that they were made to feel. As with many rebellions, some went too far. They told us we could do anything. They told us we were the best. High self-esteem is certainly something worth pursuing, but it can lead us to think we would be perfectly suited for any career. Our ability to self-select has therefore decreased substantially. The bevy of options we perceive as being available to us leads us to take more time to pick one.

Third, many of us have access to resources that our parents and grandparents could not even dream of. While poverty still runs rampant and income inequality is growing, many families have become the beneficiaries of those who were able to “make it out” decades ago. Factory workers had kids who scratched and clawed their way medical school or law school. The sons and daughters of those doctors and lawyers were given the proverbial world. Many of them had their college paid for and were told to pick careers that were fulfilling rather than high-paying. That advice was absolutely solid, but it led to unrealistic expectations for many of us. We had to learn the value of a dollar on our own, and that lesson took longer to sink in. None of that, of course, is necessarily our fault. It’s also not our parents’ fault. Rather, it’s a disease of plenty that takes time to work through. Our perceived indecisiveness is merely a symptom, not a permanent disability. We’ll get there.

All of this is to say that we millennials are working our way through relatively uncharted territory. If the rest of society could put itself in our shoes for a minute and realize that we inherited a completely different world than previous generations did, maybe they would understand us a little more. In any event, writing us off as flaky and irresolute is neither productive nor fair. The characteristics that older generations seek in us certainly cannot be cultivated by shaming us into conforming. We will forge our own path, and we will do it in our own time. Until then, we just need a minute.

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