Their parents made it through the rough stage of armed conflict and economic insecurity. Now members of Generation Y are at leisure to indulge their own pursuits, from business ambition to community organising. The comforts their parents grant them can leave young people free to buy material symbols of success, give back to society, or make lasting innovations. Their choices will shape Vietnam as we know it, perhaps for generations to come. By Lien Hoang, Photos by Fred Wissink

Perhaps no generation in Vietnam has received more scrutiny than today’s young people. They are seen at home and abroad as richer, more educated, fatter, tech-obsessed and highly connected compared with all who came before them. But who are these young Vietnamese really?

Born mostly in the 1980s and 1990s, Generation Y is an obvious product of history. But the fact that we are even evaluating them is a product of history, too. Decades ago, while other countries were wondering about their Lost Generations or Baby Boomers, Vietnam was fending off foreign militaries and combating famine. Living in peacetime gives observers the luxury to analyse the young population in real time. It also helps that Vietnam is at its most developed, and that the world overall is more quantified, recorded, and informed than ever. Both factors enable a lot of reflection, whether scientific or empirical.

And what has all that scrutiny shown? By nearly any measure — education, resources, fashion, opportunities, pastimes, family values, diets — these young Vietnamese mark a break from the past. They reveal a lot about where Vietnam is in its development, especially as the first group in modern history to be born into an independent and war-free country. As Vietnamese recovered from conflict after 1975, they poured their energy into the youth through wealth and education. In the wake of Doi Moi and foreign investment, parents used their riches to give their children what they could not have, resulting in today’s proliferation of iPads and Lotterias.

“Thirty years ago they had nothing,” said Nhan Nguyen, who has taught at RMIT University for a decade. “Now all this money is coming in, and everyone is scrambling to make a buck.”

A side effect, he said, is to produce far more “spoiled” children, which seems unavoidable as Vietnamese figure out what to do with their newfound money. Close to two-thirds of the country is under 35. Even those who are not privileged are at least comfortable, drinking milk and eating mass-produced or restaurant food so often that obesity and diabetes are on the rise.

In this narcissistic respect, the youthful might differ from their parents but certainly not from other Gen Y members around the world. A 2010 New York Times article described “Generation Me” as “entitled whiners who have been spoiled by parents who overstoked their self-esteem”. It might have been describing young Vietnamese.

That’s not the only trait that crosses borders. The onward march of tolerance and progressivism hits this age group hardest, best exemplified through LGBT rights. Just as New Zealand and France have legalised same-sex marriage this year, Vietnam is quickly pushing through a gay agenda, in part because young people think it’s no big deal.

What young Vietnamese also share with their global peers is the instant gratification that comes with improved technology.

“Probably the biggest concern with the generation is, everything must happen now,” said Chris Elkin, director of marketing and branding firm Red.

Many young urbanites don’t remember much before the era of the computer and the internet, where they can find immediate distraction in Candy Crush or Yahoo chat. More than 30 percent of Vietnamese are online, and the figure is even higher among Gen Y. Internet cafes and cafes with free wifi are a given.

“They’re not using the technology to enhance themselves,” Nguyen said.

What’s worse, Elkin worries that the easy access to digital toys is chipping away at home life. Families used to sit down together to watch TV in the evenings. But with Gen Y, “they may be in the same room, but on a computer or on a phone texting,” Elkin said. “But they’re not sitting down watching the same content drama as their parents or brothers and sisters. It’s not the daily routine anymore.”

Of course, the constant connectivity can be a good thing, too. Facebook and free news sites keep Vietnamese not only informed, but linked to the rest of the world. “The students I deal with now are way more switched on,” Nguyen said, comparing them to those he taught 10 years earlier.

That corresponds with the money and opening up that has allowed Vietnamese to travel, work, and study abroad. All of these are a form of education, which matters to a country where the United Nations says literacy has risen to about 97 percent among youth and where the number of students who go abroad has multiplied. In the United States, for instance, there were 15,000 Vietnamese in high school, college, and graduate school in the 2011-12 academic year. That’s a big jump from the figure of 2,531 a decade earlier, according to the New York-based Institute for Vietnamese Culture and Education.

When they return home, Vietnamese bring back more than just a diploma. Nguyen Hai, 26, studied marketing at California State University, Long Beach, besides living in Seattle and Singapore for a year each. Inspired by the tech culture in California and Washington, and massive public investment in startups in Singapore, Hai came back to Ho Chi Minh City to develop the local startup scene. Some but not all of his current activities: He works with the Ministry of Science and Technology on a “Silicon Valley Vietnam” initiative to boost startups, brings hackathons and other tech events to Vietnam, and helped found Saigon Hub, a coworking space for startups.

“I just focus on what I think I can contribute the most,” Hai said in an interview at Saigon Hub, in between silencing his iPhone and explaining the startup system with a whiteboard.

Another alumnus of US schools, Le Hoang Uyen Vy started the e-commerce clothing site after her return. Wearing heavy bangs and a designer handbag, Vy acknowledged the privilege she was born into. Her parents reminded her they had suffered from war, while she had endless opportunity. Vy, 26, said they told her, “This world you live in is very peaceful, so you have the chance to prove yourself.”

The ambition and confidence of Gen Y has fuelled mockery in general, with one widely read Huffington Post article in September calling the generation “delusional” and quoting a professor as saying, “This is because entitlement perceptions are often based on an unfounded sense of superiority and deservingness. They’ve been led to believe, perhaps through overzealous self-esteem building exercises in their youth, that they are somehow special but often lack any real justification for this belief.”

Vietnam isn’t exactly plagued by the soccer moms and meaningless trophies of the United States. But critics often see parents as coddling their young, making them “weak”, as Nhan Nguyen put it. This inflates their sense of self, and that translates into workplace performance. Elkin said Gen Y aims to please and seeks recognition.

“You have to really, really butter them up” as an employer, he said. “But always getting a pat on the head isn’t necessarily a good thing.”

Elkin said their self-interest drives young workers to value professional growth, rather than loyalty, at a company. Ken Atkinson has a similar experience with his employees at accounting firm Grant Thornton, where he serves as managing partner in Vietnam.

“They’ve all got higher expectations from the older generation, in terms of what opportunities and training the job will give them,” Atkinson said. His staff surveys show that employees rank career development and workplace environment among their priorities.

Such ambition more broadly can push ladder-climbers to look for very different goals, from tougher responsibilities to salary bumps to work they consider meaningful. Vietnam is still a striving society, so the years to come will almost certainly reflect all three of those goals: Vietnamese will have more jobs that demand greater skills from them, pay them better, or make more of a contribution to the country — or some combination of these.

“Corporate social responsibility” has been a recent buzzword here and abroad, which is something Vy said she learned while working briefly at the Limited, an apparel company in the United States. She made that elemental to from the beginning; every year, she and her staff get together for a group charity day, like serving food at a pagoda.

But one day wasn’t much, so this summer she joined a new effort by Unicef, the UN arm devoted to children. Next Generation Vietnam has a steering committee of young and influential leaders like Vy who organise events and fundraising to encourage youth activism and charity. NextGen targets the 18-35 age group.

“We’re young, we can contribute,” Vy said. “We don’t have to wait.”

She considers civic responsibility a form of “self-actualization,” making subtle allusion to a famous psychological theory. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs illustrated that once humans secure basics like food, shelter, and sex, we move on to abstract desires, like friendship, respect and the sense that we’ve become the best people we can be. This is a helpful lens through which to understand the evolution of Vietnam. As a whole, the country has achieved many of its physical needs (ie, the Millennium Development Goals) but now faces an existential question of its place in the world. Will it be an equal society that doesn’t worry about the income gap? Will it stave off climate change and the natural disasters that come with it? Will it be materialistic and prosperous? Will it give cheap labour to the world or valuable skills and ideas? That depends largely on Generation Y.