By Chris Sick
Have you seen the Internet lately? Turns out, it’s mostly horrible. True, a lot of it is pornography, but not nearly enough of it to offset the staggering number of largely useless opinion writing. In any given 24 hours, you can find a near infinite amount of breathless analysis and opinion about something happening in the world that is, most likely, nowhere near as important as the author is going to attempt to tell you it is.
A favorite topic of many of these writers is the vagaries of the Millennial generation. Aged 18 to 34, Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers, the dominant generation in the U.S. for the last 40 or so years. At 75 million strong the Millennials, significantly more than the slightly-stunted Generation X, are now becoming the dominant force driving economics, policy, and culture in the U.S.
Which means a lot of people are spilling a lot of ink and wasting a lot of time trying to explain who they are, what they want, and how to get their money. The Millennials think piece is a genre unto itself, so prevalent that it’s quickly become easy fodder for parody from the parts of the Internet that still have a sense of humor. Which seem fewer every day.
Millennials – marketing companies and reporters alike insist – are very, very different from past generations. They don’t want cars and houses, they prefer cities and care about the environment. At work they are entitled, needy, and demanding, expecting everything and bringing nothing to the table. They’re politically confused. Hell, Millennials are so widely reviled that they don’t even like themselves very much.
Let’s start with a simple bit of clarification to make sure we’re all on the same page moving forward: Millennials, turns out, are people. They’re, ultimately, just like everyone else. They’re not some special subspecies of unique American the likes of which has never existed before and needs to be deeply examined by science. And anyone trying to tell you otherwise is either willfully obtuse, an idiot, trying to sell you something, or a combination of all of three.
In fact, as the Millennial cohort has begun to age into its 30s, what’s become most noteworthy is how frighteningly similar to previous generations they are. To the extent that it was noteworthy that Millennials were not buying houses as young as prior generations had, and eschewing other large purchases like cars, it’s far more important to consider the incredible economic hardship that this generation came of age in. Much of the Millennial generation was entering the workforce at a time when the entire global economy was metaphorically burning to the ground.
In fact, let’s go a step further and, just for a second, recognize that what we explain as the behavior or characteristics of a given “generation” is generally a shitty sort of shorthand to answer the question of “what are middle class white dudes up to?” Which, for most of this country’s history was a pretty important question. By design and intention, no one else really mattered, and that structure has misshaped the ways we think about generational age cohorts.
Our current understanding of studying generations is largely attributable to the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe. The two highly-accomplished men used their own model of generational cohorts to explain the history of the United States back to the 1500s and into the future in their seminal book, Generations. This bit of pop-sociology maps a narrative arc onto the history of the U.S. and, attempts to plot that arc into the future.
But the problem with this sort of thinking is that it tells us there’s an easily discoverable “story” behind each generation; that once understood helps contextualize and explain their actions. But we’re talking about 75 million American citizens. There’s no single story that’s going to make sense of them. And when your job is to hit word counts and generally know what the fuck you’re talking about – I can tell you firsthand – the impulse always is to oversell a conclusion and undersell the confusion.
Which is why you can chart the aging of the Millennial cohort by the speed at which the media and analysts revise their previous opinions as to how remarkably different this generation really is. The truth is, if you’re trying to understand why Millennials are moving to cities and not buying cars and houses or starting families, look at the unprecedented amounts of student debt they’re carrying. Examine how many of them are still struggling to find early employment and how that can damage workers’ earning potential well into their future.
The kids are alright, generally speaking, or at the very least they’re no more horrible than any other prior generation of Americans. However, unlike prior generations of Americans, they face a structure that leaves them inherently disadvantaged: encouraging them to undertake crippling debt to attain an education that comes with no guarantee of gainful employment.
It would be ideal to think that this next generation of Americans is somehow uniquely special, that they don’t want good jobs, nice homes, and families. It would excuse a country that is failing the promise to its youth to give them – at the very least – the opportunities to achieve more and live better than their parents. It would excuse the Baby Boomers, as they retire to their golden years supported by younger workers, for the world they’ve left behind. Making it a tempting excuse, and a pleasing fantasy, but no more true than any of the other bullshit we’ve been telling ourselves about the new generation.
Turns out they’re alright, it’s the system that’s the problem.