'Generation Y' self-centered and materialistic, or searching for meaning?

Opinion by Robin Youngson.

Generation Y, the so-called “millennial generation” born since 1980, are now the young nurses, doctors and therapists entering healthcare.

One theory accounting for the decline in human values in healthcare is the rising individualism of Generation Y health professionals, characterized by assertiveness, extraversion, the pursuit of material wealth, and narcissistic traits. This generation is more likely to believe that people get what they deserve and thus are responsible for their misfortunes. The heightened focus on individualism may be at the cost of collective and community values, with recent generations showing less in the way of empathy, civic orientation and concern for others.

But such arguments have always troubled me. I’ve had the privilege of teaching undergraduates in medicine, nursing and therapies. And I’ve run workshops on compassionate caring with health professionals in the USA, Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. I believe that students are just as committed to compassionate, whole-person care, as any generation before them, and that young doctors and nurses are seeking deep meaning and purpose in their work. In my experience, our young health professionals have a compelling wish to reduce suffering and to serve people in need.

But people generally fulfill the expectations placed upon them. If managers are cynical about the motives of their employees, then workers respond by being cynical about their work. On the other hand, if health leaders believe that workers are primarily motivated by a desire to serve, their employees tend to treat patients with compassion, kindness, and commitment to their wellbeing.

New research bears out my experience. In an article in the NY times, the authors argue that Generation Y are more concerned about finding meaning in their lives, than the pursuit of material wealth:

When individuals adopt what we call a meaning mind-set — that is, they seek connections, give to others, and orient themselves to a larger purpose — clear benefits can result, including improved psychological well-being, more creativity, and enhanced work performance. Workers who find their jobs meaningful are more engaged and less likely to leave their current positions.

Further, this mind-set affects what types of careers millennials search for. Today’s young adults are hoping to go into careers that make an enduring impact on others. Last spring, when the National Society of High School Scholars, a global honor society for high school students, asked more than 9,000 top students and recent graduates what they wanted to do with their lives, they found that these recession-era millennials favored careers in health care and government. Of the top 25 companies they wanted to pursue out of a list of more than 200, eight were in health care or at hospitals while six were in government or the military. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital came in as the No. 1 place these millennials wanted to work “The focus on helping others is what millennials are responding to,” James W. Lewis, the chief executive of the honor society, told Forbes.

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Image “Nestlé needs YOUth graphic” by Nestlé

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