Stop Analyzing Millenials

December 3, 2013

On the front page of Sunday’s Weekend Review section, the New York Times ran an op-ed arguing that millenials (loosely defined as the generation of young people born after 1980) are actually not narcissistic, as the prevailing wisdom indicates, but rather, are more worried about happiness and meaning than chasing money.  To make their point, the authors astutely point to various studies that back up their hypothesis.

On Monday, Slate ran an article asserting that millenials are suffering through prolonged adolescence.  Thus, millenials are actually not narcissistic, but rather that “they often are unable to think for themselves”, which results from helicopter parenting and fewer high paying jobs.  To make her point, the author astutely points to various studies that back up her hypothesis.

On Tuesday, Fast Company ran a blog entry making the case that, despite the opinions of most business leaders, millenials provide a creativity and ingenuity that is vital for the modern-day work environment.  To make the point, the authors astutely point to various studies that back up their hypothesis.

Three straight days, three different analyses, and none, in my opinion, particularly helpful or revelatory.  As a millennial myself, my contribution to the conversation would be to ask everyone to stop trying to analyze an entire generation of young people.  Seriously.  It’s so tiring.  For two main reasons:

1)   You can literally analyze this generation any way you want to:

In today’s data-driven world, it’s easy to find support, with anecdotal or quantitative information, to prove virtually any hypothesis.  Thus, I’ve read articles that “prove” that this generation is much more narcissistic than any other generation.  Or, that this generation actually is wholly optimistic and ready to make a difference – just in different ways. Or that millenials are unhappy, because their career expectations are not meeting their career realities. The reality is that you can analyze millenials however it best fits your specific agenda.

The truth?  Probably some combination of all of these.  But that’s just the point- it’s impossible to analyze and generalize for an entire generation of young people.  In doing a completely random survey of my own friend network (just because surveys are apparently required in any millennial analysis), I found that I have friends working in social-change non-profits, teaching in public, private, and charter schools, leading up tech companies, investing in tech companies, getting graduate degrees, and much more.  I have friends who post on social media accounts multiple times a day, and friends without a Facebook account.  I have friends making a ton of money, and friends scraping to get by.  The one commonality is that I think that we all don’t like to be put under one umbrella because frankly, besides our age, there’s just too much diversity out there to categorize us.

2)   History Matters:

A lot of people like to point to millenials as the most entitled and narcissistic generation of recent history.  And to make their case, they can point to the fact that “selfie” was just named Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year and that this generation feels the need to post their meals, their dates, and their opinions all over social media.  Joel Klein made this point in a Time Magazine story earlier this year entitled “The Me Me Me Generation” (in which he then tried to make everyone happy by saying these same behaviors would “save us all.”

But the reality is that the whole “Me” Generation meme was coined by Tom Wolfe in a 1976 New York Magazine article, in which the famed author slams the Baby Boomer generation for their materialistic consumerist ways.  It seems that every generation is coined as more narcissistic than any other in history.  In reality, these sentiments, whether demonstrated through social media or consumer behavior, might just be young people growing up, before the stresses of marriage (and failed marriage), kids, mortgages, and real life settle in.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, some millenials I talk to assert that, largely because previous generations have screwed everything up, it’s our idealistic and hard-working behavior that can save it all.  In other words, we are the most important generation.

The problem with this argument is that, well, it’s also been made before.  Despite the myriad of challenges in today’s United States, many caused by the utter dysfunction of our government, I’m guessing that baby-boomers coming to age in the ‘60s, many participating in the counterculture of the time, felt the same way, as they dealt with multiple prominent assassinations, a war in Vietnam, the threat of nuclear holocaust, and the Civil Rights Movement.  Seems like a pretty damn important time period.

Whether we like it or not, the history of change in this country is one of pragmatic incrementalism. And it means that, whether we like it or not, change on issues like economic inequality, gay marriage, immigration, and other social justice issues will not happen over night.

Change will happen though.  And it will happen precisely because millenials are anything but a monolithic entity.  Some will act radical, some will act pragmatic, some will act apathetic.  Some will take selfies, some will avoid Facebook, and some will invent the next SnapChat.  And that generational diversity will lead to a better country.  So in 40 years, we’ll be writing articles in a more just country about how the newest young generation just doesn’t care enough about what’s been handed to them.

– Scott Warren, Executive Director

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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