My father used to make the rather ridiculous claim that children are always taller than their parents. As patently laughable as that assertion is, others do not shy away from equally sweeping, and verifiably false, assertions about succeeding generations. The most common tends to take the form of “kids have it so much easier than we do, and are so spoiled they don’t even appreciate how easy they have it.” Each generation following the World War II “greatest generation” – the baby boomers, gen X, millenials – is purported to be increasingly self-centered and even narcissistic by the one preceding it.
In medicine, it’s not uncommon to hear “seasoned” (a.k.a. older) physicians (a category into which I, alas, fall) decry the ease of training in the era of resident work hour restrictions. No doubt the life of a medical trainee is different, and yes, easier, now than 20+ years ago. And I, too, share a certain nostalgia for the kind of camaraderie engendered by a shared survival of hardship, and for the nature of the doctor-patient relationship that may be unique to spending unsustainable hours together. Perhaps that is the price one must pay for patient safety and a humane work environment. But regardless of what one thinks of the merits of restricting work hours, we should not therefore assume that the current generation of students and trainees is any less motivated by commitment to healing than we were. Choosing to value one’s health does not mean sacrificing purpose.
Indeed, there is some evidence that the millennial generation is, if anything, even more altruistic than ones before. A recent report showed that “the no. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning.” And the top choice for a place to work was a children’s hospital (St. Jude’s, to be precise)! I see this in my own sons, 20 and 24 years old, who both made the decision to attend state university to avoid incurring debt, with the intention of entering some form of public service career. Only one of them may have ended up taller than me, but both give the lie to the idea that altruism and service to humanity are waning characteristics.