For years now, we've been reading trend piece after trend piece on the rise of the millennial; that narcissistic, lazy, entitled young person poised to take over the world and doom us all. Or maybe Generation Y is just a bunch of harmless teenagers and twentysomethings who have been screwed over by an economy of their parents' making; forced to take low-wage, dead-end jobs to pay off student loans, and hurled into a state of serious arrested development.
Or maybe the truth is a lot more reasonable, but also a lot more boring: millennials are a bit self-involved and a lot lost — just like all the young people who came before them and all who will come after. Still, 2013 was the year the discourse on millennials changed. Let's take a look at how the discourse over our lost generation evolved.
It's All About Us
The current, ahem, generation of discourse on millennials arguably began with Time magazine’s June cover article, Joel Stein's “The Me Me Me Generation.” In case you don’t remember the original piece or the countless responses that followed, here’s a basic summary: millennials, statistically, are full of themselves and have no respect for (or even concept of) rules and authority. They won't pay attention to things they deem boring. They're too careful and uninspired. One passage cited by many a critic of the article sums it up:
"Not only do millennials lack the kind of empathy that allows them to feel concerned for others, but they also have trouble even intellectually understanding others' points of view."
It was an argument we'd all heard before. But midway through his piece, Stein sneakily switched tracks: millennials might over-think things, but at least they have a plan. They probably check their phones every five minutes while waiting in line, but so does everybody who has a smartphone. They would probably rebel like every other generation of teenagers, but with so many cultural options available in the internet age, what's there to rebel against? Stein's piece is far from laudatory of millennials, but the article did introduce something weirdly radical to the discussion: nuance.
As it turns out, traits ascribed to millennials have actually been around pretty much since the dawn of time. Young people have always tended to be confused and self-involved ... by virtue of being young people.
Of course, rants against the youngest defined generation haven't stopped in 2013. But assertions that, for instance, more young people are still living with their parents (which is true) were at least more likely to be followed now by a quick note about the economy's unfriendliness to new job seekers (also true). For instance, the Wall Street Journal's "10 Things Generation Y Won't Tell You," looked to be typical get-off-my-lawn discourse. But wait! The author notes that while all millennials are fame-hungry gold-diggers that they are also "saving and investing more, and starting earlier, than boomers."
A Plea for Sanity in 2013
Welcome to 2013, the year where everything's made up and the timelines don't matter. This year, Boomers seemed to remember what it was like to be young, and the millennials realized that their parents were once like them, too. The difference? Boomers didn't have phones to record every moment of their confused youth for posterity. Even a writer at Thought Catalog (which can often represent the worst of the perceived navel-gazing millennial mindset) tells of a friend who admitted that if her predecessors had Instagram in their youth, they would have taken just as many pictures of their own food.
This new paradigm in the millennial discussion is summed up beautifully in a Washington Post blog post from October, "Please Stop Having Dumb Opinions About Millennials." With a lot of sarcasm and a few pictures (those kids sure do love their pictures), 25-year-old Alexandra Petri revealed to the world what it's like in the millennial trenches. But instead of complaining how much her predecessors had messed up her world, or blaming her peers for their difficulties, she spoke truth to angst. It's possibly the most boring but also most necessary of arguments in the shifting, but still polarized, discourse: "The truth, in fact, lies somewhere between these extremes."
We're pleased to report that the recommendation seems to have been taken seriously on all sides. Even the Boston Globe's rage-inducing November op-ed, "A Generation of Idle Trophy Kids," is careful to note that although six million members of Generation Y are neither in school nor at work, that still leaves 85 percent of them occupied.
A response to the Globe's anti-millennial piece, published that same day, went to greater lengths to prove that the millennial-bashing has gone too far with the opening paragraph:
It’s easy enough to lump an entire generation together and label them lazy... Fine, we’ll take responsibility for Miley Cyrus. But Generation Y is the most educated and ethnically, culturally diverse one in the country’s history.
In other words, while it may be easy to group all these crazy kids together as one idle unit, it's not going to get you very far.
After all, in thirty years, the narcissistic twentysomethings of today will no doubt be yelling at the narcissistic twentysomethings of the future to get off their virtual lawns. But with more discussion and a little luck, they won't be lumping all those twentysomethings together. In his article, Stein claimed of Gen Y: "They are not only the biggest generation we've ever known but maybe the last large birth grouping that will be easy to generalize about." Let's hope so.