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The Problem with Gen Y and Its Search for Answers in Harry

Posted: 08/16/09 02:31 PM ET

It's been two years since midnight revelers celebrated the release of the final Harry Potter book, but Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince's sustained domination of box-office charts shows that Pottermania is far from finished.

The New York Times called it nostalgia, and they might be right. David Browne claimed that "the impact of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001" and their attempts to escape the trials and tribulations of the new Millennium inspire Gen Yers to run around on broomsticks in futile attempts to replicate Quidditch matches. Harry Potter's impact on Generation Y, though, does not stem from escapism. The world Rowling depicts in the Half-Blood Prince is rife with collapsing bridges, incompetent Ministers of Magic, and a villain whose methods draw parallels to foes ranging from Hitler to Osama Bin Laden. For a generation that has been given everything except, perhaps, strong values, Harry Potter is the best source of moral guidance it has.

Aside from its affinity for Potter, Generation Y is most known for its drive for achievement. "Coddled by their parents and nurtured with a strong sense of entitlement," Generation Y has reaped the benefits of a more socially and technologically open world. The Washington Post explains that "Reared on rapid-fire Internet connections and cheap airline tickets and pressured to obtain multiple academic degrees," many Millennials "grew up with an array of options their parents or older siblings did not have."

With such ease, though, comes greater academic and social expectations. With plummeting admissions rates, many Gen Yers have faced intense competition to get into preschool, let alone the college of their choice. Able to reach their friends and acquiantances at a moment's text, facebook comment, or instant message, 99% of Millennials have profiles on social networks. With photos, videos, posts and status updates memorializing their every move, the youthful indiscretions of Gen Yers could have a negative impact on their professional and educational prospects. The popularity of social networking sites also makes sensitive subjects painfully public; as Judith Donan, associate professor at the M.I.T Media Lab explains,


for teens, who can be viciously competitive, networking sites that feature a list of one's best friends and space for everyone to comment about you can be an unpleasant venue for social humiliation and bullying. These sites can make the emotional landmines of adolescence concrete and explicit.

Poor Gen Y! Overly concerned with their social appearance and academic performance, many parents and employers complain that Millenials lack loyalty and humility; as Fortune 500 reports,


They're ambitious, they're demanding and they question everything, so if there isn't a good reason for that long commute or late night, don't expect them to do it. When it comes to loyalty, the companies they work for are last on their list -- behind their families, their friends, their communities, their co-workers and, of course, themselves.

The generation that got everything clearly lacks something. Call it patience, call it obedience, call it willingness, but the traits that Gen Yers must cultivate are ironically exalted in their favorite children's story.

Harry Potter and his cohorts are in many ways the ideal Millenials. Hermoine is an academic genius; Ron, after years of playing second-fiddle, discovers a talent for Quidditch; Harry, is not only a natural student and athlete, but bests authorities stuck in their ways and of course, vanquishes the evil Voldemort. They are talented, but they are also entitled, irritating, and precocious, just like their real-world readership.

However, Harry has an advantage that few of his fans have: a world directed by strong yet subtle moral principles. Rowling seemingly presents her readers with a strict binary between good and evil, Harry and Voldemort, Gryffindors and Slytherins, and then proceeds to question and transcend those boundaries. As Scholar Alan Jacobs explains,


The clarity with which Rowling sees the need to choose between good and evil is admirable, but still more admirable, to my mind, is her refusal to allow a simple division of parties into the Good and the Evil. Harry Potter is unquestionably a good boy, but, as I have suggested, a key component of his virtue arises from his recognition that he is not inevitably good.

Rowling weaves a complex, multifaceted sense of worth throughout her tale, prompting both Harry and her readers to ask important questions. Is Harry's detested Potions master Snape actually working for the exalted Order of the Phoenix, or is he still a double agent for Lord Voldemort? Was Harry's beloved, deceased father a schoolyard bully? Did Dumbledore profess a secret love for the dark arts? Just how similar are Harry and Voldemort -- both orphans, both rebels, both unusually gifted?

In Harry Potter, heroes can quickly turn into foes, and Rowling demands that her readership evaluate and reevaluate their understanding of the difference between good guys and bad guys. Thus, she provides the Facebook generation with a rare and important opportunity for moral reasoning. As Lauren Hinnendyk and Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl wrote in 2002 in the Journal of Moral Education ,

because the Harry Potter stories are classic fairy tales -- that is, stories that revolve around the struggle of good versus evil and moral obligation -- the exploits of Harry Potter and his colleagues not only serve as a source of entertainment but can provide an impetus for children's social and moral development as well.

By prompting her audience to explore the nebulous concept of character -- something which cannot be determined by a Facebook profile or memorized from a textbook -- Rowling provides her readers with information not readily accessed in the modern age. With religious attendance in decline, Generation Y must discover a new source of morality that can help them reason through modern challenges like the worth of the ever-expanding War on Terror and the rules of "netiquette". The lessons Rowling delivers up are sweet in their simplicity: in the final book, Dumbledore explains the roots of Harry's success.

Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.

Corny? Certainly, but Harry provides his readership with a guide through the treacherous, untested waters of modern life. Millennials must ponder if the earth will be a viable home when they're ready to have children; if social networking sites are not just killing their time, but their brains; if their dream job will go the way of print journalism by the time they're ready to enter the workplace. Harry's continued popularity, though, proves that love, friendship, and children's stories still hold true in an uncertain world.