‘Millennial’ is probably a word that makes you sigh. It is a term loaded with a set of assumptions about the younger generation and their presumed entitlement, narcissism, and inadequate coping mechanisms. If these generalisations are to be believed, attending university would have catastrophic consequences for such an emotionally-challenged generation. So, on the eve of a new academic year, it is worth taking a step back and examining the complexity surrounding current discussions about millennials.
Regular headlines, such as “Millennials aren’t ready for the reality of college life and can’t manage time or money, research reveals” (The Independent, July 2017), make grand, sweeping statements about the inadequacy of our generation. Still, while much of the discussion in the media can be cynically attributed to ‘clickbait’, it is intriguing to observe the conversation about millennials’ supposed shortcomings spilling into the worlds of politics and popular culture.
In the U.S., Republican senator Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, published last May, criticises what Sasse sees as “perpetual adolescence”, arguing that parents should be responsible for cultivating grit and resilience in their children. Characteristically, he states: “Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore – or how to become one… Perhaps more problematic, the older generations have forgotten that we need to plan to teach them. It’s our fault more than it is theirs.” In response, Sasse encourages parents to teach their children the value of hard, manual work, to encourage them to read, to delegate chores between children, all whilst looking back to the “Greatest Generation” for inspiration.
The senator’s approach seems to be in line with that of inspirational speaker Simon Sinek, who also blames millennials’ faults on “failed parenting strategies”. Both make interesting points, yet it is hard not to raise an eyebrow at this erosion of generational responsibility by both commentators. The oxymoron of self-reliance having to be taught by parents is rather puzzling, and somewhat counterintuitively encourages the over-involvement of parents: it seems the discussion of millennials as children is perpetuating a treatment of millennials as children.
Another issue is that the perceived magnitude of the millennial ‘problem’ seems to be largely dependent on where an individual lies on the political spectrum. This disparity is easily discerned when reading criticism of Sasse’s book. Emma Green of The Atlantic, despite pointing out various flaws, gives Sasse credit for his idealism, saying that he has “identified the right project for America: rehabilitating a shared moral language”. Jennifer Szalai, writing for The New York Times, however, is less open to what she sees as blind romanticism. She points out that Sasse ignores all external forces, including economic scarcity, racism and sexism, with his suggestion that self-reliance is the only factor for determining success.
Other criticisms based on political orientation can be found in the very assumption that there is anything wrong with the current generation – to mourn the loss of a ‘greater’ past and aim to recreate it is becoming a distinctly conservative tendency (see “Make America Great Again”, or “Take Back Control”). This prompts one to entertain the thought that it could be a conservative desire to condemn the more liberal youth which sparked the entire debate about millennials — but that would perhaps be too absolutist. The tendency of older generations to bemoan the defects of millennials cannot entirely be attributed to their own emotional or political biases, and, indeed, many of their arguments are compelling.
It is wiser to simply accept this tendency as one of the factors which help to perpetuate the current notoriety of millennials and to consider the probability of its setting in motion a deeper wheel of self-fulfilling prophecies.
It cannot be ruled out that such extensive lamenting can lead millennials to consider ourselves problematic – such is the impression given by popular culture, anyway. An interesting example would be the contentious TV show Girls, in which the four main characters wander around New York, manipulating and consistently failing at connecting with one another. “I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” says Hannah Horvath, the character played by Lena Dunham (pictured).
So, where does this leave us? Being aware of the complexities illuminates their context. It reminds us, rather predictably, to be wary of generalisations that often say a lot more about their speakers than the topic at hand. To speak is to share a) who you are, and b) what you think. The former infinitely enriches the complexities of any discussion.
Photograph: David Shankbone via Flickr and Creative Commons