Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Defense of Millennials

One effect of working for 25 years in an job dominated by twenty-somethings is that I keep getting older while my co-workers stay the same age. When I first entered the job force in my teens, I was a Gen Xer surrounded by older Gen Xers. In print, we were touted by the Boomers as cynical, hopeless, frustrated and unmotivated, over-educated, underemployed, and yes, selfish. Ah, but time is a great equalizer. We have grown from bored, philosophical convenience store clerks and angsty Nirvana concert-goers into a generation that is widely characterized as happy, free thinking, balanced, family oriented... and hard working. Yet Gen X seems to have forgotten that we were once on the offensive, and are ourselves leading the attack on the new kids, tearing them down in print articles with titles like The Millennial in the Basement and A Generation of Idle Trophy Kids.

The Millennials. Gen Y. The Trophy Kids. The Me-Me-Me Generation. The Selfies. Everyone feels like the most important person in the room. Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, famously famous for being brats. Rhetorical articles cite analyses which conclude that Millennials are far less inclined to be civic minded, and more apt to possess a delusional sense of entitlement. They are hastening the end times through laziness and self-absorption! Word on the street is that 30 is the new 18, that Millennials are too self-involved, too entitled and too lazy to go out and work. They're waiting in their helicopter mamas' houses for the trophy to land in their laps, the way it did after every pee wee soccer tournament of their youth, regardless of performance. I've read multiple articles in the last weeks about the narcissism of an entire generation, and while I agree that it makes for amusing copy, and maybe it is true in the wealthy suburbs of the Big City, I can't agree that it has been my experience.

I am a Gen Xer surrounded by Gen Y and I can attest that, though it may sometimes come in response to a nip on the haunch from an Alpha, these puppies are as hard working as any I've seen. Also, I find them to be creative, industrious and very, very sweet. Maybe things are different on the coasts. Maybe what I'm seeing is the product of a lengthy lineage soaked in Mid-Western ethic. Nevertheless, I'm going to take a crack at unraveling the blanket of myth that 6 million twenty-somethings are sitting around their parents houses snapping pictures of themselves in $200.00 vintage jean jackets.

Millennials Think They're Special Because of All Those Trophies
Sure, some of them. But I thought I was special when I was twenty-five. I was smart and pretty and got a lot of validation from people about how smart and pretty I was. So I felt smart and pretty and special, and I'd never gotten a single trophy in my whole life. But I was special. Still am special (somewhat less smart and pretty, those decay a bit with age). So's everyone else. Everybody is special. Everyone is someone to somebody. Including Paris Hilton (maybe not her, actually). I suspect that the Millennials, more than any generation before them, are aware that everyone is special. After all, everybody got the same damn trophies. Sort of takes the luster off your own. The argument that we ruined 6 million kids with cheap plastic trophies is stupid. They didn't even keep them. They knew when they lost.

Millennials Are Not Civic Minded
And when we were twenty, we were all out crusading to save the world, right? I remember when I was twenty-one and I spent that summer campaigning for Prop Blahblahblah. Wait... No. I didn't do that. I occasionally wondered what I was going to do with my life (wasted time, I'm still a waitress) or which boy I was going to chase after (no matter, he got away). Semesters at school flew by so quickly and there was work and there were new bands to see and beers to try. It's even harder for these poor Gen Yers. We expect them to know which products are fair trade and what foods are sustainably sourced and then we make fun of them for not knowing about good wine!?

Jesus. Lighten up a little, man.

Do you understand the absolute mess that these guys have exposure to? They are painfully aware of the mess they're inheriting. We Gen Xers, with our breezy internet-free adolescence and early adulthood, we had to go out and buy magazines and newspapers if we wanted to know how fucked everything was. New kids would be like: what is this black shit all over my fingertips?? The Millennials are under a constant inundation of negative information. A barrage of ink-free headlines every day comes across their twitter feeds: drastic climate change, bloody conflict in countries that don't seem so far away anymore, daily murders in every city in America, massive food and water shortages, people doing horrible things to each other, environmental destruction at the hands of corporations... where exactly do we expect them to start? I'm sure many of them will get around to their own private crusades, just not necessarily in their mid-twenties.

Millennials Can't Face Adulthood
The image of the hipster evading the work force, compiling his Spotify playlist while surrounded by PBR cans in the posh basement apartment beneath his mom's kitchen is one of the more common projections of the recent articles I've read that criticize Millennials. I haven't met this guy. I guess he just stays there in the basement. The twenty-somethings that I work with do just that. They work. Some of them work damn hard. Some of them work damn hard while they're still in school. Some of them work damn hard and then play damn hard the rest of the time. Yeah, maybe some of them don't work all that hard, but I'd say the proportion is perfectly relative to the co-workers of my twenties.

First, consider that the job market is way, way softer than it was in the 90s, a decade that saw the unemployment rate drop to 4%. Today we're supposed to be grateful to see it at 7%. These kids are stepping out on the street with their (sometimes very expensive) diplomas in hand and looking around at a work force that can't make room for all of them. I've watched many of them step way, way outside the box, starting their own ventures, scraping to capitalize on their talent and potential in a market that doesn't cushion them from cold reality. I've seen them keep their heads down and work hard.

Also consider that the parenting fads that dominated these kids childhoods encouraged parents to hold their hands and provide non-stop cheerleading at every freaking milestone, no matter how mundane. I read a lot of parenting books when my oldest kids (who are themselves at the tail end of the Millennial age range) were little, and they all pushed for parenting that would set my kids up for academic success, priming them to feel confident through academic achievement. There's nothing wrong with that, but academic success doesn't necessarily translate to life skillz, and there's a lot to learn outside the classroom. I ditched most of those books and followed my own maternal compass, which told me that I don't care how well they perform on tests. I just want them to find an author or two that they love. And I don't care if they perform at the top of their second grade class, but I want them to tie their shoes by themselves. And I don't care if they get into an ivy league school, but I do want them to be able to be able to write a paper and do a load of laundry in the same 24 hour period without having a breakdown from having so much to do. Because guess what? Someday, even if they're fucking rocket scientists, they are going to come home to a stack of bills and field trip permission slips and a bathroom floor full of wet towels and a refrigerator that is emitting a strange odor from one of the two dozen containers of leftovers in there (hint: start with the broccoli) and they're going to have to know how to handle that shit. It's my job to teach them how, and I can't do that with flashcards.

Anyway, there was a whole movement of suburban parents who weren't worried about all that in the 90s. They were like, put your baby in this Bjorn and don't put it down until it goes to college. And then in 2012 some of those kids were like, oh shit, I got great grades, but there are no jobs for people who majored in Bards of the Renaissance at Fancy Pants U, and I don't know how to do anything. Can I trade this Adderall for some Zoloft? I'll be in the basement if anyone calls.

If that scenario is playing out by the millions, as we're led to believe by hysterical Millennial-bashing journalists (psst, it's not), if twenty-somethings are taking their moms along to job interviews and seeking medication for depression and anxiety because they can't handle conflict or wash a plate or think for themselves outside a scantron, then it is the fault of well-intended but seriously misguided childhood development publications of the 90s. (My best advice is to go ahead and take the straps off the Bjorn now and teach them how to do laundry. They're probably more capable than they know.)

But I don't see it. I work with Millennials who handle multiple responsibilities without melting down. They work, some have two or three jobs, some go to school, some occasionally volunteer, and most of them still find time to get scandalously wasted and laid with decent frequency... from what I hear.

Millennials Are Obsessed With Themselves
(SO WHAT? They're pretty. Let them be.)

A couple months ago I held a baby food and diaper drive for the local assistance center. Millennials showed up with packs of diapers and cans of formula by the score. To my knowledge, none of them took a selfie on my porch of themselves making a donation. They quietly dropped off dozens of contributions for people they will never meet, and who will never be able to thank them personally or give them a trophy. That's not self-obsession. That's concern for hungry babies. For a generation of people who only care about themselves, I see an awful lot of Millennials encouraging and validating others. And not just Oh My Gawd, I loooove that headband... They ask me about my kids, my this and that, where I've been, what I saw there... things that have nothing at all to do with them.

Okay, some of them talk about themselves a whole lot, but again, not disproportionate to the norm.

Every generation looks upon the next with an air of suspicion: What if they screw it up? Oh God, I just know they're going to screw it all up. It's hard to let go. Between the lines of every essay that talks trash on Millennials is:  I'm stomping my feet, I don't want to pass the torch of youth and vigor on to those dim-witted clods in tight pants who listen to such stupid music. Take heart, Gen X. They said that about us, too. It makes us sound like a bunch of cranky-pants old people, you complaining about 6 million kids like that. It's not constructive, you shouting Get Off My Lawn! in The Boston Herald. We're not exactly washed up. I agree that youth is wasted on the wrong people. Hindsight being what it is, my own youth was squandered on a wishy-washy redhead who might have forseen the consequences of rising corporate globalization if she hadn't been so self involved. But I wouldn't take that away from her. And I won't attempt to strip it from the Me Kids, either. We were once the Me Kids, we just didn't have camera phones to prove it.

In conclusion, I think that I should have a trophy for no reason, since I never got one. A golden trophy. With my own face on it, except without the wrinkles. A golden trophy engraved with my face if my face had no wrinkles. And just go ahead and fill it up with good wine.

1 comment:

  1. As a 58 year old Mom of 2 "kids" in their 20's, may I say this is a wonderful generation of young people. Their minds are open and believe everything is possible. Are they sometimes incredibly stupid and self--centered? Well, of course they are....just as we were. But their minds work in such open and creative ways. Their definition of "family" is far superior to my parents' generation. They are, like each generation, unique. It will be interesting to stand back and watch as they age.