“Millennial”

I hate the word “Millennial.”

I’d been feeling that way for quite a while before John Green wrapped up my thoughts pretty well in this letter to the World Economic Forum.  I reposted the article on Facebook with the caption:

Millennials are just young people (people 18-34ish); young people are always criticized for their laziness and entitledness. The parent venerates their elders while degrading their children. It’s just the cycle of things. But in the Internet world, this is amplified because both the Millennials and their parents are on Facebook.

17767819718_bc0c8b580b_oThis post generated a little bit of discussion between myself, my sixth grade teacher, my brother, and a former coworker of mine.  (Facebook is weird)

But the word “millennial” has been following me, and I have several problems with it.  After discussing with my wife, I think I’ve nailed the problems down to the following:

Problem the First

My first problem is that the word has a massively (and perhaps intentionally) vague definition.  I was born in 1985; am I a millennial?  According to the original definition, yes; but many of the articles denouncing millennials are written by people my age, about today’s high schoolers and college students.  My son was born in 2014; is he a millennial?  How can both I and my child be members of the same generation?

As a result of this vagueness, many bloggers and meme-makers have used the word to mean “people I don’t like who are younger than me.” It’s become a touchstone for Gen-Xers to use to criticize their children’s generation. Of course the idea that the elder criticizes the younger is nothing new, but it seems to have taken on a new virulence since both elder and younger in this case are on Facebook.

Problem the Second

Secondly, the word is imbued with a very specific theoretical person: Selfie-obsessed teens and twentysomethings who can’t keep their eyes off their smartphones, want everything to be handed to them on a silver platter, and don’t care about the real world or real people. The problem with this is that I don’t think that this straw person really exists, at least not at the scale that most bloggers would like us to believe.  Now, of course the pastiche must certainly be accurate for some. Stereotypes are driven by some element of truth, and I’ve definitely met some people who match – even some older people, people my parents’ age who use technology horribly and are always stuck in their phones.

ITU/Rowan Farrell

But almost every Millennial I know well (no matter what definition you choose) is driven, caring, and sees the world in a diverse and colorful way. They want a lot from the world, sure, but they’re willing to work for it, and they’re facing significant challenges that are different (though not always harder) than those previous generations faced.

Problem the Third

Finally, the word simplifies the problem and doesn’t offer any solutions. It’s often noted, for instance, that Millennials are more unemployed or underemployed than the previous generation; but it ignores the root causes of that phenomenon, such as the 2008 recession and an increasing number of college graduates flooding the entry-level workforce.  It ignores the fact that jobs are becoming available more slowly, because older workers aren’t retiring and freeing up positions.  It ignores the fact that many of the “old guard” companies are drying up and the up-and-coming industries aren’t making enough money to hire new people yet.  It ignores the fact that automation and outsourcing means that local skilled jobs are hard to find.

It also doesn’t present any serious ideas for shoring up the issue (“work harder” is often thrown out there, and that’s hardly a viable option; “put yourself out there” is also something I see a lot, and that doesn’t help either). Rather than finding a solution, the word is usually used to denigrate people as lazy and apathetic, when the truth is often the opposite.

So, in short: it’s a massive, vague oversimplification that people are using to criticize without offering any real solutions.

I originally wrote out those three problems with the word “millennial” in response to a really great article by local author Ben Shine on Sky Blue Window, which ends with this particularly beautiful line:

It’s not my job to tell an entire generation what music they should like. I’d rather be curious about what they create or why they like what they like. Irony is much more boring, in the end, than someone who takes the time to figure out what is appealing about a Katy Perry song. Or about David Bowie.

The Result

But so many people don’t want to be curious like Ben, they just want to use “millennials” as scapegoats.  Like this Facebook commenter, whom I don’t know and will remain anonymous.  They replied to an article I read and rather liked about the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.

The world is no longer interested in stories, just propaganda after propaganda. Like the past was so horrible and only the present is so cool. As if the present generation of arrogant selfie obsessed kids have a chance in hell to survive the real world intact.

This got my blood boiling, because I have several friends who are in this generation he so carelessly dashed off.  I replied.

Uh…what?

The Force Awakens is popular because it’s more like the original trilogy, which was popular because it was more like old sci-fi movie serials, which were popular because they were like campfire tales. The oldest stories are always popular. They endure. They’re evergreen. TFA is just the latest expression in this ongoing world.

As for “arrogant selfie obsessed kids”- clearly you don’t know anyone from this generation, or at least not a representative sample. Many of them care more, help harder, love better, and work harder than a lot of people from the so-called “greatest generation”- you just hear more about the selfie-obsessed ones because you’re on Facebook.

The selfie generation will be the ones to colonize space, if we do things right. And they won’t do it because they’re selfish. They’ll do it because they love stories like Star Wars.

And I truly believe that. That’s why it gets on my nerves that so many people are writing thinkpieces about millennials without actually knowing any of them (or really even knowing what they are).  It bothers me that they oversimplify struggles and underrepresent the contributions they’re making.  But I think the worst part is that they’re pointing out problems without offering solutions, or even believing that there are any.  Good luck getting anything done that way.

• • •

Other recommended viewing: A few days ago, John Green’s brother Hank replied to his article with a video:

I don’t know that I agree completely, but I certainly agree enough.

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