Perhaps the most iconic image to emerge from the devastating Depression of the 1930s is Dorothea Lange's photo "Migrant Mother," in which a desperate-looking woman, her face heavy with weariness, holds an infant in her arms while her other children cling to her shoulders.
Now contrast this image with the latest photo of Paris Hilton dancing on a nightclub table, or Facebook snapshots of college seniors at a party, and you begin to get an idea of how Generation Y (my generation, also known as the millennials) is generally seen to stack up against other generations – particularly the "Greatest Generation," which weathered both the Great Depression and World War II.
They were called resilient; we're called lazy. They were selfless and sacrificing; we're entitled and indulgent. Commentators often point to studies in which 20-somethings have admitted to – horror of horrors – believing in ourselves and our ability to accomplish great things.
And they insist that our fluency in all things technology means that we're more concerned with updating our Facebook profiles than working hard.
Forget the uselessness of writing off an entire generation before its members have even had the chance to do anything with their lives; this underestimation has been happening since kids danced the Charleston, talked about flower-power, or listened to hip-hop. Using one label to describe millions of people from all types of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds is the kind of intellectual shorthand these same pundits are all too happy to ascribe to us millennials and say it comes from our warped attention spans.
But millennials haven't necessarily had it as easy as everyone might think. Our adolescence was defined by Sept. 11 – and we've been bombarded by the insistence that we live in a terrifying world ever since. Studies by Demos and the Center for American Progress have suggested that the combination of declining incomes, growing debt, and high costs of education, home ownership, and healthcare are conspiring to make this generation the first to not surpass the living standards of their parents.
Signs suggest that the very characteristics Gen- Y-ers are often ridiculed for – self-awareness, assertiveness, relentless positivity, etc. – are what will help us emerge from this economic crisis with our livelihoods and our sanity still intact.
Couldn't it be that because we're known for our hyper-individualism – blame it on our many online profiles, iPods that shut out the world, and personal computers – that we understand better than anyone else the importance of being self-sufficient? Or that the confidence we've been instilled with by always receiving a trophy growing up is what will help us keep our spirits up when jobs and security seem out of reach?
While the recession is giving us plenty to worry about, there is evidence elsewhere that our incessant hopefulness is working for us.
We did, after all, help elect the first black president precisely because he identified and embodied that same sense of optimism so well.
William Strauss and Neil Howe echo this in their book "Millennials Rising: the Next Great Generation," saying that members of Gen Y "rebel against adult pessimism by being upbeat, and rebel against social ennui by actually going out and getting a few things done." They also suggest that Gen Y really is indeed ready to take up the mantle of the Greatest Generation, because "hero generations" come in cycles.
Every generation ends up being defined by the struggles it met, whether war, a depression, or a battle for certain rights. Watch members of this generation walk into any of those storms with their heads held high and a strong sense of self and walk out triumphant as a result.