So, have you heard about this Millennial Generation? <Insert sarcasm here>. Of course you have. We all have. Repeatedly. Over and over and over and over…you get the drift. We’ve been reading, listening or watching stories about the Millennials longer than some of them have been alive and most of those stories focus on gross generalizations like “they’re more entitled than previous generations” or “they’re soft – participation trophies have made them emotionally fragile and needy” or “they think they’re too good for entry-level positions.” Well, as the parent of three millennials and as an employee of a trade association that trains literally hundreds of millennials every year, I can tell you that I find these generalizations to be sheer and utter bullshit.
Here’s what I see when I see Millennials these days; young adults who have the same character traits that their parents and grandparents had when they were the same age – impatience, brashness, exuberance, some misguided swagger, a belief that their parents and grandparents are out of touch and a bedrock belief that their generation will fix what their predecessors screwed up.
I also see a huge group of young adults whose world is very different from their parents and grandparents and who are reacting in the same way that I sincerely believe we older adults would have if we were in their shoes today. They are starting families far later than we Xers did, but that’s a very logical thing to do when you’re saddled with student debt, wages are stagnant, rents are soaring and the barriers to homeownership are much higher than they were 20 years ago?
Later household formation has a ripple effect. Huge numbers of them are reaching 30-35 years of age without having experienced many of the rites of passage that their parents – and grandparents in particular – experienced between 18-30. They haven’t gotten married or had kids so they haven’t had to learn what it’s like to lose control of their own daily lives. If most of us older folks are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that our young, single selves exhibited the same traits as those we disparage in Millennials; we just had a shorter window of time to do so.
And there’s the not-so-small matter of the changes in society between our coming of age and the Millennials’. In an interview with Rolling Stone, newly-minted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, probably the most prominent Millennial-aged politician in the United States right now, makes this observation in response to the question, “What do you think you know that the old guard doesn’t?”:
One of the things that I bring to the table is a visceral understanding that people under 40 have been shaped by an entirely different set of events. We’ve literally grown up in different Americas. They were shaped by a Cold War America, a post-World War II America; and we are an Iraq War America, a 9/11 America, a hyper-capitalism-has-never-worked-for-us, Great Recession America. People are used to talking about millennials as if we’re teenagers. We’re in our thirties now. We’re raising kids and getting married and having families, and we have mortgages and student-loan debt. It’s important that [Congress is] in touch. People tend to interpret this as me railing against older people and being ageist. But that’s not what this is about. It’s a problem of representation. We don’t have enough intergenerational representation. We largely have one generation. That’s not to say that one generation should be out of power, it’s that others should be here as well.
You don’t have to agree with her politics in order to recognize and accept the reality that she’s pointing out: the world these young adults grew up in is very different than the world their parents and grandparents did. Again, this is nothing new. The world we Gen Xers came of age in was very different from the world that many Baby Boomers (especially the older ones) and the World War II Generation came of age in. We were all influenced by our environments and in retrospect, our behavior at that time was exactly what you’d expect. I think in 20 years we’ll say the same is true of the Millennials, so let’s just admit that in principle they’re like every generation that preceded them and we’re like every generation that preceded us – grumpy old(er) people who wish those young folks would quiet down, watch how it’s done, and wait their turn.
The reality is this: all of us are playing the same roles our ancestors played, we’re just using wearing different looking costumes and dancing to different sounding music. What we older folks need to remember is that part of our role is to be ready to help our successors because we know how hard and cruel the lessons of life can be and when they get to the other side of those lessons they’re going to be just like us. Actually, based on what I’m seeing I think they’ll be better than us, and for the sake of our world, I hope I’m right.