Loading icon

The Young Folk

News & Features | November 12, 2013

Do a quick search of “Millennials” on most news sites, and it unearths hundreds of results, boasting titles like, “Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?”, “Are Millennials the Most Narcissistic Generation Yet?”, and even: “Will Tapas Bring Millennials to Olive Garden?” While the  Internet is overflowing with these stories, the “Millennials” beat isn’t reserved for short digital quips, nor is it limited to online searches. Back in May, TIME dedicated an entire cover story to “The Me Me Me Generation,” while a few months earlier the New Yorker published, “Semi-Charmed Life,” a feature story about the lives of twentysomethings. No matter how many writers, bloggers, and laypeople cite studies and pen rants about the onslaught of broke, selfish, young people who can’t get jobs, it seems that everyone is trying to get a word in about Generation Y. For whatever reason, the media seems to have a compulsively reductive urge to define and understand twentysomethings.

After reading many, many articles (“articles” being loosely-defined here, ranging from longform print pieces to short online blurbs) that discuss and/or analyze Millennials, it seems that all the pieces can be sorted among five main categories: the critical, the didactic, the pitying, the mocking, and the defensive. Most of these categories are self-explanatory. The defensive refers almost exclusively to the pieces written by Millennials, loudly proclaiming why we are not broke, self-obsessed, jobless, or whatever the claim may be. (Recently, a greater number of defensive-style stories by non-Millennials have emerged.) With few exceptions, these Millennial-authored defensive pieces come across as whiny and entitled, which does not exactly help the case that older generations have surmounted against us.

The critical, didactic, and pitying pieces can more or less be lumped together, with only small nuances. These are the pieces that identify what our generation is doing wrong and either rebuke us for it, offer some sort of instructions for how to fix our problems, or simply express a sentiment of condolences. These are the “Just in! Millennials don’t care about social problems!” stories, or the how-to’s condescendingly crafted by Baby Boomers to critique the lifestyles of today’s youth. Considered together, these three themes represent the majority of Millennial-focused reporting.

On the other end of the spectrum, the mocking or satirical pieces about Generation Y offer some of the most interesting case studies. A survey-like comedy post from the New Yorker website back in September, titled “A Lease Application for Millennials” mocks the lazy, entitled attitude that many writers and observers have tacked onto young people today. The piece includes lines like: “Parents’ bank-account number: _____. When have they sworn they would ‘cut you off’ by?” It goes on to poke fun at the media obsession with college hookup culture, positing, after a question about criminal history: “Is it a crime to hook up with random people?” The author of this particular piece, Ethan Kuperberg, is a Millenial himself (he graduated from Yale in 2011), calling into question whether he’s mocking his generation or simply commenting on the constant urge to talk about it.

When it comes to the defensive-style narratives, there is no shortage of content here either. Most sport uncreative titles, like “Why Millennials Aren’t Lazy, Entitled Narcissists,” and present stale arguments that have been regurgitated ad nauseam. (Perhaps one of the only clever responses was the TIME Millennials tumblr, where many overeager Millennials photoshopped the TIME “Me Me Me Generation” cover to display ridiculous photos of themselves accompanied by doctored headlines. While this retort showcased definite comedic value, it certainly didn’t possess any actual eloquence or formalized counterpoint.) 

In addition to these fairly consistent categories of Millennial-focused stories, the fundamental claims within these stories also fall within a few overused camps. The most popular of these topics are narcissism, laziness, and a lack of financial stability or job security. Allegations of narcissism in relation to Millennials become increasingly frustrating as one considers the changing technological landscape of our time. While today’s young people have a constant Internet catalog of our every move preserved through social media, older generations don’t have these comprehensive reminders. Scanning through one’s own Facebook statuses from 2007 can be a painful souvenir of immaturity or youthful stupidity that many Millennials have likely forgotten (or willfully erased from memory). Without these mementoes, we could perhaps forget many of our own tendencies from six or seven years ago. Take social media out of the picture, and throw another 25 or 30 years into the mix. This may sound snarky, but do today’s older-and-wiser generations really remember exactly what they were like at our age? Perhaps they’re being a little too critical, since they reaped the benefits of a more ephemeral coming-of-age, swept under the rug as time rolled on.

We are the first generation to grow up with such a large influence of social media—but this is old news. We’re certainly the first generation to grow up with the capability to snap “selfies” and plaster them all over the Internet. But these platforms are nothing more than enablers of our tendencies. Social media did not turn us into narcissists; these platforms act an outlet to express a preexisting desire for attention, and the reassurance of our self-worth. These desires are not unique to young people. Millennials are often the early adopters of new technology, but anyone with adult Facebook friends can confirm that self-absorbed Internet frivolity is not limited to the under-30 age bracket. Similarly, the claims of laziness, financial troubles, and joblessness are directly related to the current economic situation in the US. Direct comparisons of one generation to another cannot be soundly established, since there is no way to control for these ever-changing circumstances.

All that being said, I don’t mean to get sucked into a “Millennial speaks”-style defense. The underlying fact of the matter is: we’re wasting our breath. (As well as our clicks, likes, and retweets.) We’ve beaten this debate into the ground by now. Setting aside the different ways people write about Millennials, and the themes these pieces usually embody, let’s take a quick look at the whole practice. Why spend so much time and effort defining and reducing an entire generation to a few key concepts? This idea is inherently flawed, and ultimately, this type of writing is rarely constructive. Millennials don’t live a separate existence from all other generations, so why should we be examined in this way? On an everyday basis, many young people interact with parents, bosses, professors, customers, and strangers who don’t occupy the same age bracket; thus, we should not be examined and analyzed in a way that suggests a quarantined lifestyle from the rest of the world. This tactic of preaching down to the entirety of a younger generation, as though we inhabit an isolated world, is pointless and shortsighted.

On top of this, as a term, “Millennial” is a very vague identifier. The birth dates it encompasses are not always consistent, and neither are the details about who the category references. The fundamental vagueness of the very concept of Millennials reveals an important fact: it’s impossible to lump all the members of an entire generation into a handful of characteristics. It accomplishes nothing to hypothesize that “all Millennials are narcissists,” since this is a generalization about a particular subset of young people. All too often, when the term “Millennials” is used, many are referencing young, white Americans from the upper or middle classes. Given the exclusionary nature of the term, sweeping claims become even more dangerous.

Among Millennials, there are narcissists, sloths, and poor financial planners—but the same can certainly be said for older generations. I say this not on behalf of Millennials, and not as a critique of other generations, but rather as a plea for productive conversation: let’s put the Millennials debate to bed. Rather than hypothesizing and generalizing about young people as a whole, let’s pay attention to individual cases. We should be celebrating the accomplishments of the talented youth, and examining the shortcomings of the less promising members of our generation, as a way to understand the factors leading up to each outcome.

Few would dispute the wrongness of collapsing an entire race, gender, or class into a category of predictable behavior. While the concept of stereotyping young people may carry much less gravity than these examples, the same rule still applies. There are more than 85 million people in the US who are between 10 and 30 years old. Chances are that we’re not all on the same page. There are an amazing number of accomplished under-30s out there—let’s move on from the lazy habit of cutting corners and making guesses, and pay attention to what Millennials are actually doing.