What makes Gen Y tick

Millennials are accused of being soft and narcissistic, but they say they are also self-motivated and proactive

(left to right) Kathy Xu, Elshan Tang, Andrea Chong & Jian Hao. ST PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

In general, ageing does not have much going for it, except a privilege to speak about the younger generation with a mixture of horror and contempt.

"They're so soft," you say, having endured the ravages of time without so much as a squeak.

"Do those narcissists ever stop talking about themselves?" you cry as you click through your nephew's selfie-clogged Facebook feed. And so on.

These days, you have probably slipped in another word in such conversations: Millennial.

Used interchangeably as both a noun and an adjective, the term has gained traction, whether in an academic tome such as Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000), which is widely credited with coming up with the label, or the parody blog Millennials Of New York, which chronicles the struggles of these 20-something-year- olds in the Big Apple - think being unable to afford feather headdress-making lessons and Saturday brunches.

So what is a millennial? Definitions vary, but millennials are largely identified as those born between 1980 and 2000. The youngest millennial would, therefore, turn 15 this year, while the oldest would be just shy of 35.

  • Defining generations

    Baby boomer

    Aged: Between 50 and 66

    Coinage: First printed in the Washington Post on Jan 23, 1970.

    The defining experiences of this generation include being born during the post-World War II baby boom and being impacted by Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War and civil rights movements.

    Generation X

    Aged: Between 35 and 49

    Coinage: Popularised by Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel, Generation X.

    The latchkey children of working families and divorced parents, Gen Xers are highly educated but much more cautious and pragmatic than their parents.

    Millennials/Gen YAged: Between 15 and 34

    Coinage: Created by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe

    Born into the digital age, millennials are technologically saavy, open-minded and more likely to accept different subcultures in society.

They also go by other names such as Generation Y, Generation Me or, in Asia, the Strawberry Generation - referring to how they are easily bruised and require constant attention and praise.

How to spot a millennial in the wild?

Look for callused fingers, for one, from texting and gaming.

They are also the ones fixated on a screen while simultaneously anxious with #Fomo - otherwise known as the fear of missing out.

Another identifying trait is high self-esteem from being coddled by baby-boomer parents and being raised in a post-war era of curiosity and possibilities.

This also makes them more likely to pursue passion than a fat pay cheque - hence the professional bloggers, Instagram photographers and social media influencers.

On the flipside of this upbringing is a certain lack of resilience. They are less able to withstand pressure and can be sluggish, insubordinate or spoilt at work. (Yup, the poor little strawberries.)

One thing to note about millennial youth is that they are more alike than any generation before them, having grown up amid globalisation, the push of Western culture and the advent of the Internet and social media.

And they are a force to be reckoned with. At more than one million strong last year, according to Singapore's Department of Statistics, millennials make up nearly 27 per cent of Singapore's current resident population.

In the United States, their numbers hit close to 80 million - or about 25 per cent of the country's population - making millennials the biggest age group in American history.

No wonder there is such a high level of attention paid to Gen Y by marketeers and the media.

In between the human resource professionals who are wringing their hands trying to motivate millennials at work and parents who are struggling to understand what "social media maven" means as a career choice, it seems that there is a certain amount of anxiety when it comes to getting through to the modern-day millennial.

So, under all their Instagram filters, what makes the Singaporean millennial really tick? Life gets under their skin.


Fifty-four-year-old baby boomer Shan Li remembers growing up in a crowded three-room flat in Clementi with her parents and four siblings.

She says: "Back then, we had no choice but to share bedrooms and sleep on the floor - it was a normal way of life."

In contrast, her twin daughters, 27, never even shared a bed in their three-bedroom condominium home. When they were in primary and secondary school, the girls took ballet and piano lessons and, for a short time, attended pricey horse- riding classes at the Singapore Turf Club.

"I know people will say that they're entitled and spoilt, but it's got a lot to do with the way my husband and I raised them," the freelance financial planner says. "We want our children to have a better life than ours."

It is a sentiment that is shared by many Singaporean baby-boomer parents when it comes to raising their millennial children.

Given that 97 per cent of unmarried Singaporeans between the ages of 15 and 34 live at home with their parents, they may continue to receive their parents' care well into adulthood.

More liberal mindsets also make parents more likely to "peer-ent" them - a child-rearing style that values consulting children over being a no-nonsense authority figure.

On their part, millennials do not seem bothered by accusations that they were raised to think they are special.

University student Vali Mohandas, 24, the only son of a contractor and a housewife, grew up getting Lego and Xboxes as presents from his parents.

In recent years, gifts come in the form of iPhones and family trips to places such as Greece.

Still, he says: "Most of the kids in my generation are close to our parents and we consult them before we make any big decisions. You could say that makes me soft, but I'm grateful for the possibilities my parents have afforded me. I just don't want to settle for second best."


Having lots of options available has impacted the way millennials navigate their careers as well.

Because they are tech-savvy, they are clued in to new opportunities and are mobile.

Human resource professonals also say millennials tend to be more emotional compared with their parents, who are more pragmatic and stoic.

Emotional millennials may job-hop, but they are "more likely to be loyal to good leaders who value their input", says Mrs Cheryl Liew-Chng, chief executive of career consulting firm Lifeworkz.

And when it comes to managing them, it helps to give frequent bursts of encouragement to keep them motivated .

Talent acquisition manager Rudolf Peh, 44, who manages a team of five Gen Ys, says: "They've grown up with bite-sized pieces of information, so they respond better to regular face-to-face catch-up sessions than the traditional once- a-year appraisal system.

"Gen Ys need to feel valued or they're likely to lose interest in their work, even if they're paid well."

They are also redefining what classifies a career. A nine-to-five job in a cubicle? Sorry, that is so last millennium. With laissez-faire start-ups and social media consultancies these days, much of the work occurs in co-sharing spaces and coffee joints now.

"Thanks to technology, Gen Ys no longer want to be boxed in by perceptions such as work being confined to the walls of an office," Mrs Liew-Chng says.

"They're now open to a wide array of career options - some of which didn't exist a mere 10 years ago."

Case in point? Twenty-two-year- old YouTuber Tan JianHao and 23-year-old fashion blogger Andrea Chong, both of whom are earning comfortable six-figure annual incomes, thanks to their impressive online followings.

Ms Chong has 199,000 followers on her Instagram account and is finishing up the final year of her English Literature course at Nanyang Technological University.

She says: "I went from starting a blog back in 2012 to being flown to places such as New York, Munich and Milan to work with top fashion brands like Gucci."

Similarly, Mr Tan has no regrets forgoing university to focus on his 1 1/2-year-old YouTube career.

His account has had more than 50 million views. More than 356,000 followers wait avidly for his weekly comedy sketches.

He makes enough to rent a two- bedroom condominium unit in West Coast, which serves as his office and studio.

"I feel like my generation is full of risk-takers," Mr Tan says, when asked about how his housewife mother and diplomat father took to his decision to focus on YouTube full time.

He adds: "They might not have understood it at first, but I think they've seen that I'm really serious about making this a viable career. Now, they're very supportive."


Millennials are not afraid to let their heart rule their head, giving up conventional paths to pursue their passions.

For Mr Elshan Tang, 28, it meant putting aside a stable career to realise his dream of creating a range of watches under his brand Zelos Watches.

The resourceful mechanical engineering graduate from National University of Singapore created prototypes and ended up raising more than half a million dollars through crowdfunding site Kickstarter to support his three watch models.

His continues to be the most successful Singaporean Kickstarter project.

And it is not blind idealism at play either - millennials have shown that they have the grit and determination to see their passion through.

A prime example is Ms Kathy Xu's eco-enterprise, The Dorsal Effect, one of a growing number of home-grown start-ups with a social focus.

The 33-year-old gave up a stable job in teaching to sustain herself on less than half of her monthly salary when she chose to devote herself to shark advocacy full time in 2013.

And though building awareness was a steep battle, today, the enterprise conducts three to four diving trips in Lombok every month, encouraging local fishermen to stop shark fishing and instead provide eco-tourism services.

Ms Xu embodies millennials as connected global citizens, the way authors William Strauss and Neil Howe - who are credited for coining the term millennials - had imagined.

And if today's society-focused Gen Y translates to a future with more civic-minded leaders in charge, then we can be rest assured that neither this generation nor the next has too much to worry about.

Those millennials? Yeah, they are all right.


With technology, the potential of the millennial generation is limitless. Sure, we might have grown up in front of a screen, but we no longer wait for opportunities to come to us - we're out there making things happen ourselves.''

MR TAN JIANHAO, 22, YouTuber and video producer

As a generation, we're less quick to judge and much more open to change. Having a career online no longer needs to be a back-up plan and it excites me to help lead the charge.''

MS ANDREA CHONG, 23, fashion blogger and online personality

My generation is definitely more resourceful and savvy than the generation before. We're ready to listen and much quicker to find ways to solve problems. It's this resilience that will take us far.''

MS KATHY XU, 33, environment and shark advocate

The way I see it, goals like making money can make you happy only for so long. I don't want to live my life with regrets. I know that if I didn't pursue my passion, I would have always been left thinking, what if?''

MR ELSHAN TANG, 28, entrepreneur who raised funds through Kickstarter

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline What makes Singapore millennials tick?. Subscribe