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?