Mincat sent me this post about unhappiness in Generation Y. It has stirred up some backlash in the US with many young people claiming that their angst stems more from unemployment in an economic downturn than any delusions of specialness, which may well be true. But some of what that article says does seem true to my peers by which I mean urban upper-middle-class 20-and-30-somethings in India.

What my peers seem to expect of their careers is money, a position of some status, and fulfilment. And they want this fast. It doesn’t help that some people seem to have achieved this and posted their success on Facebook. It also doesn’t help that the mantra we hear all around us: if you work hard enough, or even better, if you want something bad enough, it shall be yours (possibly because the Universe will conspire to make sure you get it).

I’m not sure if I grew up hearing that I could be whatever I wanted to be. Even if that message was as pervasive then as it is now, I never internalised it.* Either I was born with the humble gene or I learnt it from my parents who were neither grand nor had delusions of grandeur. I did hear that I should work hard and my parents would support me. That is all.

I’m always confused which generation I belong to. I think it’s X, and that may account for the watered down message. Our generation was susceptible to the message that we should find our passion and pursue a career in that. Even that was tempered by parents who were first or second-generation strugglers and therefore prone to steamrolling their children’s passion into more practical goals like a career in engineering or medicine. My parents did let me pursue my passion, but in retrospect I can see that they emphasised the work hard part more than the passion or the returns. They supported me in the rough times that come as a result of not quitting. (eg, when my boss was being an asshole and I really wanted to quit my job, my dad drove me to work every day).

But this is not about me. It’s about people around me. It’s one thing to discover what you’re passionate about and make a go of realistically building a career in it. It’s another to expect that said career is your birthright. It is not. Nor is it guaranteed that if you work hard you will be successful. There are millions of people who work hard and are not successful. There are also some lucky souls who do not work hard and are  successful.

There was an interesting article I read on Chinese graduates doing internships at the start of their careers and their chances of success. The children of professionals and connected parents had the highest chance of success simply because they already knew how to function within The System. The earnest and hardworking children of poor peasants rarely got offered internships. Nevertheless, it’s the stray success stories from adversity that get highlighted to us as role models, as if hard work alone guarantees success. If only. The wisdom we pass our kids should be more like this: If you’re not from a wealthy and influential family, work hard and you have a better chance of being successful if you’re lucky.

Whenever I hear of people pursuing offbeat careers and leading a comfortable life, I always try to get the backstory. Who is propping them up? Often, someone is. Very rarely does someone do something alternative without extreme sacrifices and lifestyle compromises which most of us would be loathe to make anyway. Getting the offbeat jobs that pay well takes some social capital, it’s rarely “individual merit” alone, but that’s the myth we are all fed. This is not to discourage anyone from pursuing their dreams, just that you need to have a realistic idea of your chances of success that are not gleaned from the shining examples around you. And sometimes the financial risk might not be worth it, and that’s okay. At least for most of us in the upper-middle-class, it is not occasion to whine about how unfair life is. Life is unfair, but it is actually less unfair to us so suck it up.

The other thing my peers seem to want is for all this to happen fast. There was a survey of Hong Kong graduates that elicited much derision because most of the graduates said they wanted to be CEOs in 10 years or some such. Dream big and all, but unless you have a godfather or your exceptional talent is coupled with fantastic luck, you are probably going to be spinning in the wheel for quite a while. And maybe that’s okay?

We also seem to think that because we’re special in one area, we’ll generally be successful. So I’m good at academics and aced almost every test that came my way. But I’m not naturally good at math (though I can do well on tests I study for), can’t speak the local languages, don’t like high stress, and not that interested in corporate schmoozing. So I’m probably not going to get to the top. And I’ve accepted that and moved on. Your one big talent might not translate into untold riches and fame. Accept your limitations or put in some serious work to overcome them.

A lot of people my age are angsty, and that may be due to being in the workforce for close to a decade and it losing its sheen. That’s natural. But the angst gets compounded when we think that somehow we deserve better or that there is some magical and not-too-efforty solution that will resolve this. Most of us actually are fortunate enough to have some options and wiggle room so maybe we should focus on that instead of letting hearing about the next person in their peer group who just published a book to fabulous reviews or opened their own kitsch little bookstore get us into a funk.

*One area in which I acquired some arrogance was academics. I was effortlessly academically successful and that give me the impression that I could always easily enter institutes of higher learning, but there too I was disillusioned early on and was fortunate enough to be around people of increasing intellectual calibre as I grew older. In fact, I was and still am, loathe to take up positions I feel I am not experienced enough to handle well.