In the last week or so, I have seen a number of people–friends of my own age–posting a piece about why Millennials are unhappy. The piece rubbed me the wrong way from the start, in part because a) I’m not unhappy and b) it oversimplifies the problems and the solutions.
Then a couple of months ago, Millennials were informed that LEED certifications and free-range strawberries aren’t going to fix the economy. This from a man who refers to us as the “Guilty Generation,” because our rampant volunteerism is clearly derived from a sense of guilt that we feel. Andy Kessler, however, suffers from a serious condition we Millennials call “having one’s head up one’s ass.”
Fact is: the authors of those pieces, and others writing about us, know very little about us.
In Joel Stein’s cover piece for Time magazine, he labeled the Millennial generation (kids born in the mid- to late-80s to about the year 2000) as the “Me Me Me Generation.” Putting on our heads not only the dismissive title of “Most Narcissitic” but also the duty of saving whoever “us all” is. We are not superheroes. We are probably not even the world-changing heroes we still see ourselves as. But, we are the kinds of people you would want next to you in a full-scale zombie apocalypse.
Thus far, the bulk of the writing I have seen about Millennials has been done by people of Generation X or older; most of it negative, some simply condescending (I appreciate the sentiment, Trace Moore of The Jezebel, but I don’t really need a pat on the head to know the New York Times doesn’t really know me). So, I have put myself in a position many of my fellow Millennials find uncomfortable: talking about myself.
We can take a moment for that last line to sink in; it is largely intended to fly in the face of Stein’s piece, although in the context of Facebook and Twitter–which I will get to in a few short paragraphs, it may seem entirely absurd. My hypothesis is that Stein and many of the other seeming anti-Millennial writers are looking at the whole thing wrong. At the end of the day, most of the people writing about Millennials are really looking to the wrong places to figure us out. I would suggest, as an alternative, one of the places we grew up: The TV.
The HBO show “Girls” has Lena Dunham in a place she seems uncomfortable being: the voice of a generation. We are equally uncomfortable being defined by a program on premium cable, i.e., a program many of us don’t watch. In the same way, I feel somewhat uncomfortable standing up to speak for as varied and diverse a group as the Millennials, but I’m more annoyed now than I am shy.
Now, to Stein’s credit, there are hard numbers and science to back his claims up; Kessler, on the other hand, needs neither facts nor figures to back up his opinion-editorial. I may be more in the anecdotal evidence category myself, but I have something unique to the discussion: I am in fact a Millennial. At the same time, I will leave that to other experts, such as the Atlantic’s Elspeth Reeve, who points out that every generation has been called selfish at some point. I will, however, do my best to provide what good anecdotal evidence can provide: context.
One understands a culture best, I believe, by looking at its monsters. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a classic example of the Victorian fear of becoming overcome by one’s passions (we do, perhaps, over-characterize them as a sexless generation, although to call them starchy, at least according to my reading, is fair). The vampire has not aged extremely well, and I don’t believe Stephanie Mayer did them any favors with her saga. But, I don’t believe they are the relevant monster for our generation. I think that, and you may already have guessed where this is going, that title goes to the humble, shuffling zombie.
With the massive success of “The Walking Dead,” and the recurring hordes-of-undead motif in a lot of pop culture media, I think it’s fair to say zombies are the “in” horror. On their own, however, an individual zombie is not much of a threat: It takes just one shot to the head, or a well-placed decapitating blow to disarm one–as any aficionado of the genre will tell you. However, get a mass of them together, and they are a force to be reckoned with. The strength of the Zombie is in its numbers; the strength of the zombie survivor is in his/her individual skills and ability to work together. To put the metaphor simply: that which Millennials fear is conformity, and what we pride is individuality.
That is the thesis I’ll be working from, so I those already feeling this is tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) can probably skip to the end. I will pause and acknowledge that not only that point above, but also the schlocky/cult film aspect to zombies which makes them appeal not only to Millennials, but to Gen Xers and other generations. I am not claiming the zombie movie for Millennials, only saying really that people who write them probably know us better than Time or the New York Times.
We know the difference between reality and fiction, which is why there wasn’t a spike in suburban car thieves after the release of the “Grand Theft Auto” series, but television, film and video games help us understand more complex issues–we learn from the mistakes and experiences of fictional people as easily as those in our lives.
In “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the Enterprise crew encounters a race that speaks in metaphors, in an episode entitled “Darmok“. While watching it, I had flashbacks to talking with my mother, making references, and her becoming frustrated by them; I also started to understand how it felt going the other way. In the same way, there is a seeming divide between us and some of the older generations who simply don’t “get” us. These are the same generations trying really hard to analyze us from afar, rather than sitting down to understand us as equals.
The fear of being another face in the crowd pushes us to do something with our lives. We have seen the slackers of Generation X, and we want to be like them, but more successful versions of them. We have both adopted their mindset, and rejected it. It is not enough to do something that you love, you have to try and do something.
As a generation, we came of age at about the same time as the internet. Facebook was becoming a thing (i.e., household name) at around the same time many of us were starting college or finishing high school. We also live in an age where TiVo and DVR are not only available, they are nearly standard in most houses (in fact, visiting relatives without the technology seems like a trip to the past). The internet turns cats and candid photos into celebrities, and anything we want is immediately available, at our fingertips.
Now we are faced with this immense human advancement, the information superhighway–to borrow a now-outdated term–is our domain. We are still trying to figure out how we fit into it, while companies are still trying to figure out how to make money from us. But we are not standing on the edge of it, shouting into the void “I am an individual, respect me for me!” We are in the middle of it, looking at each other through our Facebook and Twitter posts. While my profile may be a shrine to my wit and the things I like, it’s not for my benefit, it’s for my friends and family.
It is a question of convenience: it’s faster for me to post one update all of my friends can see than it is to call all of them and let them know individually how I’m doing. About a month ago I was in a car crash. I posted photos to Facebook, and had well-wishing comments from people I haven’t heard from in years. Many of my close friends called or texted within hours to make sure I was alright. Even people I rarely interact with on the social network were reaching out to check in on me. That said, I wasn’t posting to say “poor me,” I was posting to say “hey, so this happened, but I am well enough to post about it on Facebook.”
Through the Marathon Bombing and following manhunt, we similarly found that Twitter and police scanners were a more reliable resource for information than the traditional news media.
Our world has grown far beyond what we can see–I have friends I have never met, and have had a couple of romantic relationships that started that way. For one of the first times, we are seeing not only the extent to which we fit into the massive global puzzle, but that we have some influence on it. Is it narcissistic? I prefer to think of us as connected, self-aware, and justifiably worried about our place in the future.
We are still young, and the idealism still hasn’t been beaten out of us by disillusioning waves of politics and circumstance. We are mocked for our “slacktivism,” as we change Facebook profile pictures to support whatever is the latest cause–but we see it as taking a public stand, solidarity. I thought of my Facebook friends from the church I left, in part disagreeing with their views on gay marriage, as I switched to The Oatmeal’s bacon equality logo; I wanted them to know where I stood on marriage equality as it faced down the supreme court.
I would go as far as to say that we should stop criticizing Millennials for their idealism, and start criticizing Baby Boomers for their lack thereof. Why is it a bad thing to want the world to be a better place than it is? Why should we stop fighting for some impossible utopia? We may not live in ourselves, but we can leave a legacy behind.
We are still very much living in the world of the Baby Boomers (how many Millennials are in Congress?)
It would be cliche to say we are still finding our place in the world, even if true. It may be more accurate to say that the reams of writing about the Millennial generation are more indicative of the world trying to find its place for us. In the same way institutions like the print media are trying to find a place for the internet, and industries are trying to find a place for green technology. We are the cutting edge, if for no other reason than we are still young and idealistic. We still believe, as the Vietnam War protesters did, as the Civil Rights movement did, and as the Occupy movement still does, that we can change the world.
Which is why, in closing, I ask that we stop trying to define the Millennial generation. Time Magazine, The New York Times, even the Jezebel’s writers, please stop. We don’t really know who we are yet, but we definitely don’t need a box to grow into.
Or, maybe we really do suck. In which case, I’m sorry.