Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My generation

I've been reading a lot lately about people my age, called Millennials.  It started here, with a bunch of articles on Psychology Today.  The weird part (to me) is the paternalistic tone.  People who write about Millennials usually are baby boomers, with an audience of baby boomers.  Sometimes I want to clear my throat and awkwardly interject, "You know, guys, we can read now.  We know what you're saying about us, and it's kind of weird when you talk about us like we're not there."

What baby boomers say about us is predictable.  We are lazy, selfish, and don't respect our elders.  We've always got those dang earbuds in and never log out of MyFace or Spacebook or whatever it is.  We have been known to text at the dinner table.  And, horror of horrors, we like our parents: we call them a lot and sometimes even live with them after eighteen.

But more optimistic (and factually supported) articles point out other things: we use drugs and have sex less than Gen-Xers did at our age, and we vote more.  Our popular music is more singable and fun than what was coming out ten years ago; our culture is less dark.  We're a bit more wholesome than "young people" are expected to be.

A generation is bound together by a lot of factors, one of which is the prevailing view of children that our parents had when we were born.  In the eighties, adults were looking at the teenagers of the day and realizing that maybe total neglect wasn't a good plan.  There were news stories about kidnapped children, about drugs.  Parents decided to start investing a bit more in kids, paying us more attention, making sure there was someone watching us.  The latchkey kid phenomenon started to die out.

But there's also the things we went through together -- what was going on in the culture, what was happening on the news.

We grew up in relative affluence; throughout our childhood the economy was getting better all the time.  We weren't allowed to watch and do a lot of things.  Many of us grew up shuttling between two households and were part of blended families.

We were talked to a lot about racism and tolerance, about drugs and sex; and for the most part we listened.  We all agreed that the people in our history books were dumb for caring what people looked like.  Our classrooms were rainbow-colored and there were kids in wheelchairs at our clusters of desks.

There was always a computer in the classroom, and some lucky people had one at home too.  They would bring in pretty printed pages from Encarta for reports -- what an easy way to do research!  We had computer labs and got to learn to type, to use Paint, to play Oregon Trail.  I thought everyone would have a computer before my family did, but eventually we got one.  It had seven programs on it.  Before long it was replaced by a truly gorgeous one that had actual games.

Technology developed so fast we hardly noticed.  That was just what technology always did.  We learned how to use each new thing before our parents had quite figured it out.  We got email addresses and some of us learned to make websites with html.  In high school I joined a Lord of the Rings forum and learned to speak both kinds of Elvish.  I felt like there were now no limits to what I could learn.  And for those of us who had previously felt weird and different, now there were friends around the world interested in the same stuff as we were.

There was some talk about us being sheltered, spoiled, but very optimistic.  Of course we were optimistic.  Everything was going well!  Then, of course, came 9/11.  It was a tremendous shock.  Some of us were more affected by it than others.  I hardly comprehended it at first.  The war, though, I did understand, and it terrified me.  I had always thought those bad old days were over; that having a dad in the military was just something to brag about.  I never thought he would actually have to do anything.  Friends whispered to me that they didn't know where their fathers were; somewhere in the Middle East they thought, but they weren't allowed to know.

We went to college, some of us.  My dad told me that I was lucky to come of age in such a prosperous time; I could major in whatever I wanted and would have no trouble getting a job.  I had a scholarship and my parents' help to pay for college; other friends readily got loans.  The thought of not going to college didn't really occur to me; I kind of thought everyone did.  And anyway that's what you do when you're smart enough and you want a good job someday.

Then, right as we were graduating, the economy imploded.  Some were lucky enough to have already established some kind of career; others languished unemployed for years.  That often meant having to move back in with Mom and Dad or at least accept an occasional monetary gift.  It can be hard to accept that, when you were hoping to be "grown up" by now and not need help from anyone.  And then everyone calls you a "failure to launch," which I think is ridiculous ... we should call it, "a failure of you guys to bank responsibly."  Because of all the people alive today, Millennials are the ones who aren't responsible for the state of the economy.  We haven't had much chance to participate in it!

Then of course we have insult added to injury every month (if we are the lucky ones with paychecks) when we see Social Security being deducted to pay for our parents' and grandparents' retirement, even though they have money to live on and we don't.  We're not stupid.  We know Social Security isn't going to be there when we turn 65.

So where does that leave us?  Disappointed?  Yes.  Bitter?  A little.  Pessimistic?  Surprisingly not.  What I see in my peers is grim determination to at least do something about this mess.

You can see it politically.  Millennials haven't been voting much for status quo politicians.  Some voted for Barack Obama when he promised Hope and Change, because by golly that's exactly what we want.  And others of us got behind Ron Paul.  He, like Obama, promised some actual changes, the kind of changes we want.

And what do we want?  For the most part, we want the American dream, the way it was promised to us.  A chance for everyone.  Not, as we are maligned, because we want our slice.  It's because we want everyone else to get theirs too.  People made fun of Occupy Wall Street protesters because they could afford to take the time to protest.  Some obviously didn't have anything else to do, being unemployed.  But others said, "Well, I can afford this, but others can't, so I'm out there for them."  We don't really like the huge divisions in wealth between us.

We're mostly for peace.  Obama in '08 and Paul in '12 were both peace candidates, and that made a big difference.  We tend to be tolerant of differences, which is why we are hard to rile up about defending traditional marriage.  We tend to prefer the "live and let live" approach.  The same goes for marijuana -- even if we don't smoke it, we tend to think it doesn't matter so long as people aren't blowing it on our faces or driving stoned.  Our elders really hate this, but there it is.

We're conflicted about abortion.  We are all well aware that we could have been legally aborted ourselves, and that a large number of us were.  At the same time we usually know people who have had abortions or who struggled through crisis pregnancies.  So I'm noticing that the pro-choice Millennials are stressing that they would like to reduce abortions, and the pro-life Millennials are talking more about reaching out to mothers in need than they are about condemnation.

What will we do with all this?  Well, we already are doing things.  Even in our teens and twenties, too young and too few for our votes to count for much, we're making big changes.  We're finding ways to achieve outside of conventional definitions of success.  There are singers making musical careers exclusively on YouTube and writers making a mint selling ebooks on Amazon.  There are programmers and microbusiness owners.  There's a homesteading movement that appears to be gathering speed.  And you may have noticed things like Linux and Wikipedia, open-source projects that we work on for fun which do good for the world.  No, we didn't invent open-source, but we sure do a lot with it.  Where other generations get home and watch TV, we get online and create content.

As a group, we're not particularly interested in money or climbing corporate ladders -- though some still do.  We're more interested in making a difference and in finding our bliss.  We don't mind being weird (see also Hipsters).  We'd rather hack our lives into a shape we like than just do what everyone else does.  This looks like selfishness and narcissism to baby boomers.  To us, it's just shaping our lives the way we like them.  We've taken seriously the idea that what the world needs is people who have come alive.  It doesn't mean we ignore the needs of others -- by no means.  We're heavily involved in charity work, advocacy groups, and so forth.  But we don't mind feeling good about ourselves along the way.

What will we do when we've all come of age, when we're a substantial voting bloc or when we populate the Senate floor?  No one knows, but those who are paying attention seem to think it's going to be big.

A few books and articles I've been reading:

Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation

This book is based on the thesis that generations go in huge cycles.  Thus, the Millennials are parallel to the "G.I. Generation," the people who lived through the Depression and fought in WWII.

I read the excerpts available on Amazon -- which amounts to quite a bit of the book -- and I can see the parallels.  However, I'm not really convinced.  There's so much more to each generation than the way we react and are shaped by the generations before.  Some things go in cycles, but others develop linearly or are completely unforeseen.  For instance, technology has increased throughout the past century, and that affects us deeply.  And 9/11 was a shaping force that was completely unforeseen (the book was written in 1999).

I'd like to read the rest of the book.  There was some talk of parenting trends, and I can definitely agree that we got more attention growing up than Gen-Xers did.  But it's interesting that there is no mention (in what I read) of the return of breastfeeding.  I've often thought that the trouble with baby boomers is that they weren't breastfed -- how does that affect us, since more of us were?  How does homeschooling change things?  Basically none of the G.I. Generation were homeschooled, and wouldn't that make a difference in how we view the individual versus the collective?  And the book does suffer from being such an early prediction.  It couldn't foresee just how much the internet was going to change how we relate to one another and to the world.

Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America

This book follows the same thesis, but I couldn't read as much of it.  I'd certainly like to read the rest; it was written later than the other, so there's talk of the election of 2008 and what that says about us.

A striking wealth gap emerges between young and old

"The typical U.S. household headed by a person age 65 or older has a net worth 47 times greater than a household headed by someone under 35, according to an analysis of census data released Monday.  While people typically accumulate assets as they age, this wealth gap is now more than double what it was in 2005 and nearly five times the 10-to-1 disparity a quarter-century ago, after adjusting for inflation."

The article notes that there is an extensive safety net for retirees and basically nothing for young people.  If your parents are rich, you borrow money from them.  If not, you're out of luck.

The We Generation

A whole blog about Millennials.  By baby boomers, of course.  I wish I could find more about Millennials that was actually written by us; I feel older people are trying to write our narrative for us.  But it's an interesting blog.

Are you a Millennial?  What do you think of our generation?


Heather C said...

Hear hear! Also, Encarta! Wow, just hearing that brand name brings back a slew of memories.

The only thing I'd disagree with is the idea that SS deductions feels like an insult. I don't mind it, but then again, I have both a paycheck and a financially solvent but not wealthy parent/family, so I don't really mind [yet?] the concept of putting money towards helping to support my parents and grandparents. . . it does feel dicey when I start thinking that it also goes to help those who ARE wealthy, but that's not close enough to my personal bubble for it to plague me much.

Thanks for writing this! I'm going to have to check out the excerpts behind those links.

Enbrethiliel said...


Generations theory is fascinating, isn't it? =)

Baby Boomers get maligned a lot these days, too. Mostly by those pesky Gen-Xers! ;-) I have a Boomer friend who is fed up with being blamed for all the problems of the Church and likes to say that everything Gen-X says about his generation will be said about them by the next one . . . which is our own! What goes around comes around, aye?

Knowing that the next generation will not be kind to us, I'm trying to be as fair as possible. Instead of looking at who is to blame for what, how about just acknowledging that different generations would misunderstand what the other finds most important? Millennials may seem lazy and shiftless for not wanting to get a "normal" job and to earn their lumps the "traditional" way, but we would also be willing to work really hard on something like a homestead. Or you know, a blog. =P

Sheila said...

What is ironic is that the money we're losing to social security sometimes prevents us from paying back the money we owe our parents. So it's kind of a cycle, you know? I'd be happy to send my own parents a check, but the notion that Donald Trump can get my money is a bit much. I also would like to be able to take in my parents myself when they are too old to live alone, which is a much cheaper and less bureaucratic system than paying money to the Social Security Administration so that they, in turn, can pay for my parents to live in a sub-par nursing home. That's kind of like how I feel about subsidized daycare. It's great for people who need to use daycare, but it makes it even more prohibitive for me to provide my own childcare.

E, I'm sorry if I come across as a bit anti-Boomer. It's hard not to be when you're reading article after article about how narcissistic we are, how lazy we are, how selfish we are, and how we're really not at all special despite what we think. It's like they are personally offended that we (generally) feel pretty okay about ourselves. Of course as we get older we have to learn to "close," as you put it ... but if we were the other way around, we'd spend our middle years trying to make peace with our crappy self-esteem, so there's that. You don't turn 18 or 21 and suddenly become perfect.

Oddly I've always liked Gen X. They get so much grief from everyone because their teenage years were so bumpy and because they don't look like "go-getters," but they strike me as humble and kind people overall. Of course that's a sweeping generalization, but it's Gen-Xers leaving encouraging comments on my Facebook statuses about how it gets better in a few years, and it's Gen-Xers who founded all those tech companies like Apple that have made such a difference in our lives. It tends to be Gen-X politicians I prefer to vote for, as well, and Gen-X priests I can count on for sound doctrine.

You definitely have a point in your last couple of sentences. I was quite annoyed with my husband for the first couple of years we were married because he wasn't happy with any of the jobs he had. And I thought they were great jobs, because they paid the bills. I was sure his attitude would lead to a life of grief because he refused to "settle" for the daily grind of doing something he wasn't crazy about.

But that restlessness led him to move slowly from one job to the next, getting his masters, and honing his idea of what he wanted to be doing. And he's getting there! I'm so glad he didn't just stay put at any of those other jobs, because now he actually comes home happy most of the time.

Ditto for me. I wanted to stay home and have kids, and I worked my tail off saving up before they were born (and pinching pennies after) to make sure it happened. I'm not sure Boomers quite understand the notion of settling for a life of being poor rather than settling for a job you don't love. We understand that there is a choice -- we just don't find being poor so terrifying as all that.

That's why you see more volunteering, renewed interest in homesteading, exciting but unpaid internships, internet businesses, and really all kinds of ways of patching together a living. We haven't been willing to settle for the daily grind our parents told us we would have to .... and that's actually working out pretty well for us.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, I don't think you were coming across as anti anything! I'm not too keen on the Boomers myself, but for my Boomer friend's sake, I usually manage to forget my grievances. =P But Catholic Boomers in particular do hear some really hurtful stuff from the "Young Fogey" generation: comments like, "We're just waiting until you die."

It has been a while since I mentioned The Last Psychiatrist, but this discussion is reminding me of one post he wrote in defense of Millennials. He said that the supposedly "most narcissistic generation" in the world was actually only the second most narcissistic generation . . . because we learned everything we know from our parents. LOL!!! Personally, I'd say he was painting with a very broad brush, but I agree with his point that an older generation should ask itself how it influenced the younger, and not just assume that they haven't influenced the younger just because the latter aren't toeing the line.

Although I'm in a decent job now and am willing to keep my nose to the grindstone for as long as necessary, I also know that it's not what I want to do forever. And since part of what makes it necessary is that my family is living an unsustainable lifestyle, of course my idea of a long-term, practical solution is to make our lifestyle more sustainable. But that actually doesn't go down too well with some older members of my family, who say that's just my excuse for being "lazy."

Sheila said...

See, that's the thing. Not wanting to put forth the effort to maintain something you don't actually value isn't laziness -- it's a value difference. But for some reason, people who care about you often don't want to admit there IS a value difference. They'd rather assume you think the way they do and are just lazy. I'm not sure why this is.

There are lots of Baby Boomers I like ... individually. It's the societal trends I don't like, for instance, the way they vote. But even the ones I love sometimes like to toss around these vague put-downs, and I just don't like it. I try not to return in kind. It just seems there's an extreme enmity between us and the Boomers that makes it hard to respect each other's life choices.

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