A Millennial on “Millennials”: The Complicated Relationship I Have With My Own Generation

TimeMagCover-GenMe Last month, TIME Magazine’s cover story was about the Millennial generation, also known as Generation Y, those born between 1980-2000. The title of the article reads: Millennials are a generation mostly of teens and 20-somethings known for constantly hold up cameras, taking pictures of themselves and posting them online…They are narcissistic, overconfident, entitled, and lazy…Their self-centeredness could bring about the end of civilization as we know it…Or…they’re the new greatest generation.” Unfortunately, unless you have a subscription to TIME, you cannot access the article online so I will do my best to provide a brief synopsis of the key points that I’ll be touching on (read: analyzing and criticizing) in this post.

In the article Joel Stein, a 41-year-old White male, dissects the anatomy of a “millennial” (defined in detail below). The first half of his piece presents a cynical and disapproving illustration of the current generation of “teenagers and 20-somethings.” The second half is spent presenting the other (granted more positive) side of the generation, but it is with reservation that I say he ultimately ends with an honest endorsement of the millennial generation. I think it is the wishy-washy tone that Stein uses that left me feeling skeptical as I read his last few lines, and this online supplement to the article confirmed that I shouldn’t necessarily take his word for it: Joel Stein “living like a Millennial” for a day.

I appreciate that Stein at least uses the statistics from a few respected studies that ‘prove’ the millennials are different from the generations before them, and often in negative ways, but my biggest criticism about the article is the way in which the descriptions and analyses of millennials are void of particular contexts (for instance, one that considers how new media developed by members of older generations have affected the lives of today’s young people). Although Stein opens his article by admitting that he is “…about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow,” and that “…millennials’ self-involvement is more a continuation of a trend than a revolutionary break from previous generations. They’re not a new species; they’ve just mutated to adapt to their environment,” he in large part portrays the attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles of the millennials as rather isolated. Not to mention the fact that what is often left out of the conversations about millennials and their ‘inherent’ narcissism, are the companies creating and capitalizing on the devices and technology tools that allow people to be increasingly self-centered (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, etc.).

I was first introduced to the term “Millennial” right around the time I graduated from college in 2007. It was a name used to describe the group of young people born in the early 1980s until around the year 2000, which included me (born 1984). I grew up knowing about the “Baby Boomers” (my parents’ generation, 1943-1960) and had heard the term “Generation X” (the group born 1961-1980, people who were in their 20s and 30s when I was a kid) used at that point, but I can’t recall ever hearing a name for my generation until after I came of age. Perhaps that is due to the fact that I was young and not part of the circles actively discussing timely and appropriate names for the newest group of kids “running amuck,” causing both sociocultural and moral panics amongst learned and experienced adults across the country and around the world. Millennials Pic

We all know that the years that span a particular generation are not arbitrarily chosen; they are selected based on social, cultural, political, and economic aspects of our historical context(s). The Baby Boomers were “…suburban children who came of age in the Summer of Love. In midlife, they became yuppies who lost fortunes in the stock-market crash of 1987. Many have had their savings dented by the Great Recession and will postpone retirement.” Many of the members of Generation X “…were latchkey kids of working moms and divorced parents; they grew into young adults marked by a sense of ennui. Studies have shown that members of this generation may have reversed the historical trend of earning more in real dollars than their parents.” And the Millennials, also known as Generation Y, “came of age in the shadow of 9/11 and amid the rise of new media. First-wave millennials are now in their early careers amid a slow global economic recovery, with high unemployment and concerns about future national debt” (all definitions from Ford & Dodds, 2013). I’m a member of this generation and have greatly struggled with my millennial identity and membership in this group over the last few years, especially by my mid-20s when I began studying my own generation in graduate school and in my career.

In the two years between finishing college and beginning my master’s program, I became quite intrigued by the conversations springing up about the millennials, or GenY (no one title had stuck yet), most of which were quite critical and cautious focusing on the youth’s unfounded levels of narcissism coupled with an extreme lack of self-esteem and self-respect (the kicker? these prescriptive behaviors had been identified before “social media” was even a concept. Yes, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube greatly increased/exacerbated certain practices and attitudes, but we must recognize their pre-iPhone existence). Pretty crazy, huh? One of the first books on this topic that I came across was Generation Me (2006) by Dr. Jean Twenge, a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University. Twenge provides the following synopsis: 

GenMe Book CoverWe live in a time when high self-esteem is encouraged from childhood, when young people have more freedom and independence than ever, but also far more depression, anxiety, cynicism, and loneliness. Today’s young people have been raised to aim for the stars at a time when it is more difficult than ever to get into college, find a good job, and afford a house. Their expectations are very high just as the world is becoming more competitive, so there’s a huge clash between their expectations and reality. More than any other generation in history, the children of Baby Boomers are disappointed by what they find when they arrive at adulthood…

By the time I applied to master’s programs, I knew I’d found deep and long lasting connections between my interests in media literacy, my generation, and where I might fit into the field of education. Below is an excerpt from my statement of purpose to UPenn’s Graduate School of Education (where I ended up getting my master’s) that not only explains the connections I’d identified but also documents what I was thinking about almost 5 years ago:

“…I have become very aware of and interested in how teenagers are affected by the media’s images and messages. There is no question that the medium has been used as a vehicle to educate adolescents in the past; examples include “Just Say No” to drugs, and encouragement to learn the “Truth” about tobacco.  But more often than not, print and on-screen advertisements, magazine articles, television programs, and movies produce negative content and perpetuate stereotypes that continue to demean disadvantaged groups (i.e. women and people of color) and hinder social progress. This current generation, however, the Millennials (or “Generation Me,” as Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. terms it in the title of her book) is particularly unique. The subtitle of the book is: “Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable than Ever Before,” and this got me thinking: How do I feel about this label? What can I do for the younger members of this generation to increase an awareness and understanding of the name that we have made for ourselves (consisting of both positive and negative connotations)? And how can we turn it into something progressive and powerful?  

And I think my answer may lie in making connections among this generation, media literacy, and leadership. Leadership has always been an integral component of my education and has shown me that there is just as much to learn outside of the classroom as there is inside. I have discovered (through trial and error) that a successful leader knows how to delegate responsibility, work with a team, and listen to and accept criticism in order to attain a goal. However, I am faced with a challenge: Generation Me, whose age range is approximately 10 to 40, has “never known a world that put duty before self…believes that the needs of an individual should come first,” and has been extremely influenced by the media. And while I am proud member of this group, a dichotomy arises when I attempt to balance being a Millennial and simultaneously criticizing the behaviors and stereotypes that have been both self-inflicted and assigned to our generation. I am frustrated, yet inspired…I want to identify connections between peer leadership and media literacy in order to create a tool for criticism and a discourse about civic responsibility to challenge and motivate those around us. In order for change to occur, it is imperative that America’s youth operate with a heightened awareness of the messages and images surrounding them daily. By bridging the various aspects of the Millennial identity, we will be able to strengthen our future leaders and engender conscious citizens.   

We must continue to question and push back on institutions, practices, and beliefs that have become rote in our society. Americans have experienced some monumental events this year that will change aspects of our lives forever: the first African-American President was just elected, we are in the midst of an economic crisis, and technology (and our dependence on it) is surging ahead at full force. Many paradigms are shifting: sociologically, culturally, politically, and economically…because it is shaped by these other dynamic and changing structures, education as an institution, a theory, and a practice is also in a position to be reexamined, strengthened, and shaken up a little bit…”*

* Side note: The fact that so many of the ideas that I presented in this essay remain in the forefront of the work I’m still doing today (through a master’s program and now in a doctoral program), really solidifies that I am on the right track with the work I’m meant to be doing.

So back to this article in Time. My initial impuse was to respond to every overtly sarcastic, yet attitudinally-ambiguous claim and comment that Stein offers about millennials in his piece. I approached my research with this game plan in mind…it’s been 3 weeks. It’s never taken me this long to gather my thoughts, resources, citations, supporting evidence and texts and put it into a [somewhat] coherent post. I just realized this week that it was largely due to the fact that just thinking about dissecting every bit of this article was exhausting and deterring me from writing anything at all.

As mentioned above, and as demonstrated in a number of my other posts, I often have incredibly mixed sentiments about the young people who I write about (e.g. the Rich Kids of Instagram), their activities and behaviors, which tend to go viral because of their shock value (and more often than not tend to reinforce racial, social, and economic privilege, stereotypes about gender, and heteronormativity). I’m thinking of Internet celebrity Rebecca Black’s music video for “Friday” (interesting review from Rolling Stone here), the “Sh*t People Say” meme, and just yesterday the New York Times profiled three well-off, White girls (from Long Island, all graduated from Cornell University) and their website, Betches Love This: “Taking a break from thinking about ourselves to write it down” is the site’s tagline (I’m serious). As the girls explain,


This website isn’t self-help. Self-help is for fat people and divorcees. This site is the betchy girl’s bible, reaffirming her beliefs about herself and the universe, and guiding her through situations a betch might encounter; such as, what to do if you find yourself being drawn to act like a nice girl, what do you do when your pot dealer doesn’t answer, and is it okay to give head on the first date? This is where you go to deal with your problems when you have no problems.

The girls claim ‘biting sarcasm’ as the excuse for their writing and have managed to package their collective voice and content as something original in the age when anyone can blog (yea, myself included). Hannah Seligson, the author of the NYT article, reports that the style and content on the girls’ blog is often referred to as the girl version of Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (not something I personally feel deserves celebration). The article includes a number of testaments from girls in their early 20s who view the site as a “bible,” which to me serves as a perfect example of why we (adults, educators) need to bring “texts” like this into classrooms and other educational spaces. It is too often that these are the types of stories covered in well-respected media outlets, which in turn creates a kind of false consciousness about today’s youth, and greatly overshadows the incredible members of the same generation who are working hard to challenge norms and create long lasting change.

I often find myself staring, gawking, scoffing, getting upset at pre-teens, tweens, and teens–whether I am seeing them walking down the street or posting publicly on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I usually reassure myself that it is important to witness these behaviors for “my research;” that this is what life, society, and culture look like today and as a ethnographic scholar, I must therefore observe in order to analyze and learn and grow. But that doesn’t make it any easier, nor does it make me any less angry or concerned mostly because I know that these are the examples of millennials that are plastered across the news as fully representative figures of this generation.

At the same time, the type of criticality and sensitivity that I had towards this article came from a different place than usual, due in large part to the fact that I too am a millennial (according to the prescribed years, although I think millennials born in the early ’80s and those born in the early ’90s could/should be differentiated as pre- and post-Internet, but perhaps that’s for another post). I couldn’t help but feel defensive as I read lines like: “Not only do millennials lack the kind of empathy that allows them to feel concerned for others, but they also have trouble even intellectually understanding others’ points of view.” 

While we cannot downplay the relative angst and skepticism that comes with the territory of the unknown, especially when it comes to small gadgets that can do big things–and when not knowing how to use these gadgets can render you obsolete in the job market, in the cultural landscape, or simply in the know–there is something undeniably special, exciting, and [obviously] unprecedented about the generation that shared a parallel coming-of-age with the Internet, cell phones, social media, etc. For example, a report on millennials from the Pew Research Center (2010) described the generation as:

…the American teens and twenty-somethings currently making the passage into adulthood – have begun to forge theirs: confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and receptive to new ideas and ways of living.

I often revisit this brief explanation of who millennials are, it’s something that keeps me grounded and reminds me of the utterly unique and powerful generation that I am a part of. I’ll admit, I do tend to feel pretty “millennial” [read: entitled, optimistic, even overconfident]. But I feel like this when I read and hear about absolutely incredible young people of my generation doing dope work across the country; using social media for good (I mean the best kind of “good” you could imagine); working to make education relevant, eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline, better prepare youth for the world we now live in. To name just a few: Rock the Vote, Louder Than a Bomb, High School for Recording Arts, TxtConnect, and FAAN Mail.

And there are even some youth born after the year 2000, sometimes referred to as the Digital Generation or the iGeneration, who do not know life without smart phones or the Internet. A few examples of incredibly noteworthy youth that we know pretty much only know about because of the Internet are Kid President, Unlocking the Truth (a hardcore rock band founded by 3 boys who are hip-hop and are fighting stereotypes and bullying in incredible ways, check them out right now), and even Sophia Grace & Rosie.

In closing, I will say that yes, older generations will always be critical of those that come after them; there will also always be new a new technology that scares us older people (it happened with electricity, telephones, the radio, television, computers, the Internet, etc.). Knowing that this is a cyclical process, we might try  to focus more energies on the productive, innovative, and revolutionary people and ideas that are coming out of our younger generations. As a millennial who is both proud and wary, I too must constantly work on readjusting my lens. And it’s just that: work; it’s not easy, it will not necessarily always be what we intuitively want to do or think, but it’s important that we strive to be more conscious and critical for both ourselves and our future generations of youth.