I think it’s about time we lay off millennials.
For one, there really isn’t such a thing as a millennial to begin with. Of all people, Americans should understand the difficulty implicit in cultural taxonomy– I spent a lot of time in a book that was too long for traditional publishers proposing the existence of a patchwork culture bound together by kitchen twine and Krazy Glue, and devoted a final chapter that acknowledged that the real beauty of America is that understanding ourselves is necessarily incomplete. But even in a more homogeneous culture it is a dangerous project to undertake. Sure, people born during certain periods in history learn and act according to new cultural realities, and so they are bound to have certain things in common. But there is such variance in thought and opinion and behavior in the world right now that organizing people into tidy categories is obscene. And at a time when technology is evolving at such a breakneck pace, what is a “generation” anymore, anyway? The things people can do and the ways they can communicate with an iPhone 8 are radically different than what they could do with an iPhone 5, for instance, and these capabilities alone are– for better or for worse (and I think we can list singing poop emojis as worse)– changing the way children are coming of age, changing how they analyze the world, and changing the way they behave. Add in everything else that is constantly shifting, and you might as well establish sub-phylums that group people within just a few years, so different has a 15-year-old’s experience been than a 12-year-old’s.
But that really isn’t the point I want to make here. What I want to do is explode the idea of the lazy, entitled, self-centered, tech-obsessed millennial. Because it’s just silly. (Not to mention lazy, undisciplined, get-off-my-lawn reasoning.)
Here’s the thing. When I was traveling across America, I never once thought of the idea that a young person I came across might be a millennial, and as such might be understood through a specific cultural lens. But lately, as I’ve been recalling these things, I realize that those I did meet who fit this category rarely adhered to the stereotypes that had been assigned to them. Instead, they were very often compassionate, thoughtful, and generous. Some had been to war. More than a few were devoted activists. Many were struggling with poverty. Others were working incredibly hard on farms, in coal mines, and in office buildings. In the heart of the worst recession in decades, I don’t recall a single one talking about how they should have been hired as an executive straight off. I can’t think of any of them complaining that other people should be doing things for them. And what many have taken as entitled arrogance I generally found to be measured confidence. If anything, millennials believe– or believed, at least– in the meritocracy more than any “generation” in American history. They believe that if they are smart, talented, and work their asses off they should rewarded accordingly. And they have found it very bitter to discover that this is not always the case. I dare say the majority of Americans in history have had this experience, regardless of when they were born.
And speaking of Americans in history, perhaps the best thing to do in regards to undermining the validity of the millennial stereotypes is to remember our “Greatest Generation” not as they were in the autumn of 1945, but as they were before the war (and to an even greater extent, before the onset of the Depression). That is, to remember them when they were routinely being decried by older generations for their laziness, for their lack of perspective, for their frivolity, and– most prescient of all– for their weak dedication to their country and the principles that guide it. There’s nothing like one or two national cataclysms to turn spoiled, no-good brats into paragons of virtue, is there?
What’s amazing is that many of the people of the generation that sacrificed during the war became the very people who criticized the “baby boomers” in the 1960s– you know, the people who fought a war their politicians knew was unwinnable, who struggled and often died in the name of civil rights, who put men on the moon– those sorts of trivial, unnoteworthy things. And the people that did these things turned around and went after my generation– all we’ve done to disprove them is fight two of the longest wars in American history, tear asunder many of the pillars of sexual discrimination, and reshape the idea of gender identity in America (incomplete as this work has been)– what do we want, an award? And here many of us are, happy to join those who came before us in narrating the fall of Western civilization because we’re not as proficient with Snapchat as people who are younger than us are, too pigheaded– err, I mean, experienced and erudite– to consider any explanation for this deeper than “it’s stupid and they’re stupid for using it.”
Look. We may or may not be fine moving forward. Like all people in history have, we face serious problems that are difficult to solve. And we’ve added the understanding that not only can we end the world by blowing it the hell up, but also by prioritizing modern conveniences over environmental necessities. I don’t blame people for their urge to panic, and I understand the psychology of wistfully recalling the halcyon days where some of the problems we now face didn’t seem so pressing (even as others did). But there’s no excuse for blaming “millennials” wholesale because you refuse to work through your problems logically. They’re most assuredly not a problem. They’re a resource, not a drain. Because they’re Americans. And on the whole, that has almost always been a good thing.