Shara Yuki Enay Birbirsa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Last month, I read an interesting article about millenials in Hawaii Business magazine, my former employer. Millenials are those who were born between the early 1980s and 2000s. The article was about how millenials views life, careers and relationships.
I guess I would be considered an older millennial since I was born in 1980. But since I’ve spent a good portion of my career interviewing World War II veterans and AJA leaders, and getting into the minds of Hawai‘i’s most successful businesspeople and politicians, many of them baby boomers or older, I’m caught in the middle, sometimes seeing the world through both the boomers’ bifocals and a millenial’s colored contacts.
I am the youngest in my family and have always marched to my own drumbeat. Everyone in my family is an early riser. Me? I can sleep until noon, no problem. They like to read books and bake and do wholesome activities — I like to watch rubbish shows on TV, like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” or “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” go to the gun range and drink beer all night. They think I’m nuts because buying a home isn’t my top priority. And, I change jobs every two years. When I wanted to move to Ethiopia to volunteer, some in my family told me to get a job at our local Institute for Human Services instead, because it was safer and I wouldn’t have to go so far away. When I went away to college in San Francisco and came home with tattoos and a nose ring, my grandma told me that I looked like the kind of person that she and her friends gawk at while waiting at the bus stop. Like I said, I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drummer and my family just accepts me for my “un-Japanese-y” behaviors and antics.
In my parents’ and grandparents’ days, it was normal for people to work at the same job for 30-plus years and to be married to the same person for even longer. Today, it’s not uncommon for Gen Xers and Gen Yers to jump from job to job every three or four years and, unfortunately, the same apply to their romantic partners. We’ve grown up knowing that there are unlimited opportunities, being challenged to always want and reach for more, professionally and personally. Maybe that’s what contributes to our perceived flightiness. We are never content with what we have, which is a double-edged sword, because it can both propel us or inhibit us.
Ever since I traveled to Thailand in 2010, I’ve had the travel bug. My time in Ethiopia experiencing different cultures only intensified those feelings. I would love nothing more than to spend the rest of my life visiting all the different countries and cities on my bucket list. But traveling is not cheap — and especially to the places I’d like to visit. As a young adult, it’s not easy to save money, especially in Hawai‘i. Most of us know that we need to tighten our belts and live modestly in order to afford the things we want in life. But what I want is much different from what my parents and grandparents wanted in their day.
Purchasing a home is, of course, important me, but it’s not my first priority. I’d much rather spend the money that would have gone toward a down payment on a house on a trip to Italy, Greece, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, China or South America. Again, my family thinks I’m crazy, but in my mind, it makes perfect sense. I want to live my life with purpose and no regrets, creating meaningful memories and experiencing and absorbing all that I can wherever I can. I’m not interested in going to Las Vegas or Disneyland. I want to explore the 15th-century Incan site of Machu Picchu in Peru, skip on the Great Wall of China, eat authentic pho in Vietnam and gaze out into the dark blue ocean from Santorini, Greece, while I drink a Greek beer, nosh on some olives and enjoy the sunset. That’s why, for now, I’m willing to sacrifice the status, stability and security associated with home ownership to satisfy my more immediate desires.
I guess that’s another big difference between the older and younger generations. Many young people are all about instant gratification. Remember when it was customary for high schoolers to work in the pineapple fields during the summer to save money to buy a car, or new school clothes or to fatten their bank accounts for later? They were willing to work hard for three months of the year so they could afford something good at the end. My generation just charges whatever we want on our credit card and then figure out later how we’re going to pay for it. That’s why so many young adults are in debt by the time they get their first real job. Add to that sky-high student loans and it’s like we’re starting our lives in the one-down position.
Millenials have grown up in a world in which it’s normal to buy a Starbucks coffee every morning, pay exorbitant fees for a gym membership, and spend over $100 per month to have a cell phone and stay connected. It’s hard to believe we’re not all broke.
When it comes to work ethic and workplace culture, there are also major differences in the way boomers and millenials operate. Boomers are used to standing around the water cooler and actually having a face-to-face conversation about their weekend and what’s happening in their lives. Younger folks often lack social skills and have poor spelling and grammar because all we do is send each other text messages. It’s now acceptable in some companies to “call in” sick by simply texting or emailing your boss to say that you won’t be coming to work. Heck, you don’t even have to ask a girl out on a date in-person or even over the phone anymore since everything is online and done via text messages. No wonder the divorce rate is so high these days. What do we all expect will happen when we meet on dating websites, text instead of talk and do nothing the old-fashioned way?
I know a lot of older managers get frustrated when their younger employees use their cell phones to text and email during business meetings. Is it rude, or is it acceptable if they are conducting business? Lots of millenials also don’t like working a traditional 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. schedule. They prefer a more flexible workday, starting later, taking a longer lunch break and working into the evening. They’re not like most boomers, who would rather start early, take a quick break for lunch and pau hana early. There are so many generational differences and nuances to be considered these days. They make life a little more challenging, since we always have to be mindful of what’s appropriate and how our actions will impact others, but they also enrich our lives and make it more interesting.
There is much that millenials can learn from the older generations and vice versa. Sometimes a more conservative, long-range approach is better; other times, having a go-for-the-gusto, take-risks approach serves us all better. Sometimes when my mom calls me late at night and I’m still working at 10 o’clock, or if I talk to her about how hard it is to save money, she tells me that she doesn’t envy me at all. “I would hate to be young in this day and age,” she says.
But I’m proud to be a Gen Xer. Even though life seems more complicated than 30 or 40 years ago, we all deal with the same challenges and issues. Fortunately, we millenials have many more options and opportunities to reach our goals and make our dreams come true. My sights are set on Santorini, Greece, in 2016! I may be living in a cardboard box, but I’m going!
Shara Enay Birbirsa resides on the island of Läna‘i, where she is Pülama Läna‘i’s liaison with the community. Shara is a former writer for The Hawai‘i Herald and Hawaii Business magazine. She has been writing this Drama Queen Journals column since 2006.