A new perspective on the millennial myth

Culture, Featured

There is a glut of material floating around the interwebs about the so-called millennial generation and how the entire generation is little more than an impedance to the progress of the human race. The fact that the entire generation — which includes people under 36 years of age — lives completely inside of a world created and directed by individuals from the previous generation notwithstanding, millennials have recently been blamed for everything from the death of the American Church to the imminent collapse of capitalism.

We are lazy. We are self-absorbed. We are inexperienced. We are soft.

The stereotype is unflattering. Millennials are an entire generation that grew up with technology and wealth that previous generations could have only dreamed of, and it made them soft, selfish, and somehow incomplete. They did not have to pay their dues in order to gain a middle-class life — not the way that their forebears did.

Life used to be harder. They’ve got it so easy. They didn’t have to sacrifice. They didn’t have to give up anything.

I hope the reader will by now have an inkling of my intention with this post (as if the title did not already give away my intentions). The further we go down the road of millennial-bashing, does it not become obvious that all arguments devolve into the mere “us-versus-them” language that we see in every book, every superhero movie, every plot of every story known to man? I’ll cut to the chase: you need a villain, and so you create one based on any kind of stereotype or characteristic you can muster, in order to cast yourself as the hero.  

When we compare movies to real life, what is the number one thing we usually learn?

Movies can be finished in two hours because they are simple. There is usually good versus bad, they face off, and one side wins. Real life, however, does not have a screenwriter. And while there are often many losers in the world’s big conflicts, there are rarely any true winners.

The millennial/boomer dichotomy is not real.

The weakness inherent in most of the millennial-bashing “literature” can be brought out with a single question: Who are the parents of the so-called millennials? 

(It’s easy to figure out — just subtract about 25 years from the so-called Millennial range of 1980-1995, and you get 1955-1970. Younger Baby boomers and older Gen-Xers.)

One could easily say that we should have never expected anything from the children of pot-smoking, free-loving, anti-authoritarian hippies who never paid back their student loans and reaped huge (and undeserved) gains from the post-war growth of Western economies.

Concert goers at Woodstock, 1969

But that perspective doesn’t get expounded because most of the people doing all the writing about so-called millennials are not themselves millennials. Simon Sinek — not a millennial. Joel Stein (the man who wrote this article) — not a millennial. Up to now, mostly because many millennials are still just entering the workforce — the vast majority of voices contributing to the noise surrounding the millennial myths on the internet are not themselves millennials.

But there’s a better reason as well: Baby boomers (and some old Gen-Xers) are our parents. We know that our parents worked hard, whether in a factory or in an office. We also know, thanks to the hours of documentaries we watched on their cable, that some of them made some bad decisions. But to say that our parents by-and-large are “lazy”? “Pot smokers”? “Hippies”? That’s not something that anyone is really able to say. The real world, it turns out, is a lot more complex than that.

So, IMHO, when we participate in the Millennial/Gen-X/Boomer rivalry, we are not commenting on modern culture. We’re advancing a myth. 

Tell me about how the world is messed up because every millennial got a participation trophy, has a smartphone, and is lazy. I can just as easily say that their trophies and smartphones were given them by Baby boomers, who themselves all have smartphones, and are in massive debt.

Basically, the Millennial stereotype — just like the Baby boomer and the Gen-Xer — is a caricature. It may have some element of reality in it, but it is mostly an inaccurate, insulting representation of an enormous group of people. Just ask any actual Baby boomer.

When we attribute real problems to simplified caricatures, three things happen.

First, we harm our ability to build meaningful relationships with the people we have caricatured. Who wants to be friends with someone who assumes they are lazy, based on merely their birthdate?

Second, we rob ourselves of a more objective perspective on the world. The truth is, for every story about the laziness and self-interested nature of Millennials, one can easily produce a matching story to say the opposite. Laziness? Every generation has always considered the next one lazy. Maybe they are lazy, but in comparison to what? See — it’s subjective, not objective. They  probably aren’t actually any more lazy than their parents were at the same age. Once we come to realize that, it enables us to relate to each other without pretense. But we never come to that place if we insist on keeping up the stereotypes.

Third, social structures begin to crumble. The fact that we all — Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials — choose to think in terms of those stereotypes is a reason that we don’t want to be in groups together. It’s one of the reasons that, once people get to be adults, they leave things that their parents made them participate in. They realize that as long as they stay around, it’ll be hard for the group to view them as adults. It’s something that they never saw their parents have to deal with, and something they would rather not deal with, either.

Conclusion: So what then?

First, abstain, as hard as it might be, from the building of the myth. No generation is really better than another — just different. Generalizing is not wrong, but this post isn’t about mere generalizing — it’s about pitting gross generalizations against each other, to try and justify some form of superiority in comparison to others.

Seek knowledge. The more we read, listen, and talk to others, the more we will understand just how complex our world is, and how much it is different from a movie. We will become more comfortable with the complexity around us, and stop trying to blame the world’s problems on any one group of people.

Be friendly. The more friends we have, the more we will understand about different perspectives. Go out, find someone from a different generation, and be friendly to them — you will not regret it.

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