Some things I learned this summer: I can’t afford to be well-nourished in New York City, professional people also kill time at work by watching YouTube videos and the first task for most people of our generation at our first jobs will be disproving the assumption that we’re ignorant and entitled. Facebook’s creator, Mark Zuckerberg, has given our generation’s reputation a boost but it’s just not enough for our faces to be seen over the towering images of Snooki and Heidi Montag.

During my internship this summer, I made a good first impression on my boss, whose friends had exchanged horror stories about incompetent interns and warned her not to have high hopes. All I had to do to exceed expectations was to know how to converse with her and not roll my eyes at her.

Maybe all the praise and reinforcement that’s paved my way to young adulthood has blurred my self-concept of 18- to 26-year-olds. But I thought we, as a unit of Millenials, were amazing and everyone knew it. But I’ve heard our generation described as delusional and conceited.

We have a reputation for acting entitled, lazy and being incapable of completing any actual work. Maybe we’re decent students and creative enough to turn out some impressive iPhoto albums, but we’re digging ourselves into a hole in the field of real-world work — which is a pretty dried up place to begin with.

I think our generation is misunderstood — by everyone, including us. The New York Times Magazine recently published a ten-page piece by Robin Marantz Henig called “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” in which she discusses the work of psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who attempts to make sense of some of the confusing and contradictory characteristics of what he calls “emerging adulthood.” This piece — along with conversations with my summer boss and others — gave my picture of our demographic some clarity.

I now have a grasp on two visions of today’s emerging adults. One is that we’re a group of spoiled, coddled, developmentally stunted, overgrown children who irrationally expect praise and success where none is due. The other is that we’re inspired, enlightened, uncompromising, justice-oriented change agents who look past the recession and the politically-infected federal government to see a better world — and are willing to work for it.

Parts of each of these descriptions have always characterized 20-somethings, while other parts are specific to our generation. Since the turn of the twentieth century, psychologists have been aware of the “sense of possibilities” that exists in young people. However, our generation has been uniquely described as the “happiness generation” — we prioritize personal fulfillment above all else. So those two qualities together explain why we turn down our fourth choice job offer: we won’t be miserable and we know something better exists. It’s not, in most cases, because we’re lazy and want more money.

There are those who say that society’s acceptance of our generation putting off the start of a family until our 30s and taking our time to figure out the exact career path we want to follow is allowing us to stay children forever. Stalling commitment, however, doesn’t necessarily mean we’re stalling our adult selves from emerging. Many of us are investing a lot of energy and serious consideration to figuring out what, exactly, will bring us the most fulfillment and how, exactly, we want to impact the world.

Before jumping into a committed relationship, a career and a mortgage (some or all of which I plan to have before I’m thirty), I want to do whatever I can to ensure “the dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children” — as The New York Times Magazine put it — are not a part of my future and Arnett’s research says 96 percent of you, as 20-somethings, don’t see that in your futures either. Our critics see this period of exploration and consideration as arrested development, which I suppose it is if we’re hiding from adulthood instead of sizing it up and seeing where we fit into it.

We should feel grateful for the opportunity to create a foundation for personal fulfillment and we need to be watchful of our tendency to expect that happiness will be handed to us. We have to work hard for it, right now. And to our future bosses: It’s a win-win because once we figure out what work will make us happy, we’ll gladly do a lot of it for you. We’re the same kids who had to get into college during the most competitive applicant climate ever — we know how to work hard, we just won’t do it unless we believe in it.

Libby Ashton can be reached at eashton@umich.edu.

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