At first glance, the Millennials look like anyone else, distinguishable only by their youth and the proximity of their iphones. But we know they are different—we can feel it from where we sit, just by looking at them, their group behavior, their subtle interactions. While we are watching everything around us, and making idle conversation, this is not what they are doing. Instead, they are looking down, tracking messages on their phones.
We can see it in their clothing too, simple and comfortable—jeans, tights, blazers, untucked shirts, sneakers, uniformly consistent and understated.
But this is silly, I think, there is no way I can generalize about this large group of young people, 80 million in the US alone, so I view an online article, in LiveScience, only to come up with more adjectives that do not flatter this generation.
“special, sheltered, confident, conventional, pressured, and achieving, a sense of entitlement, a tendency to overshare on social media, and frankness verging on insubordination.”
These descriptions, taken as criticisms, have led Baby Boomer parents to feel the sting of blame.
Elizabeth Dunkel, writing for Sixty and Me, says,
“We are the helicopter parents. We over scheduled them with Kumon, jazz dance, football and violin. We hovered over their homework. We fretted and fixed things before they became broken. We fostered the “participation trophy” idea, making sure everyone felt good instead of awarding achievement. Then, we hovered over them in college, texting them while they were trying to separate from us.”
But every generation is formed, not only by its parents, but by its circumstances as well. Digging a little deeper, I dip into the book that first named them—Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, and discover more. (Howe, Straus, 2000)
In assessing any generation, economics leads the way, and by all accounts, the economic reality that greeted the Millennials as they came of age was formidable:
An Economic Downturn was their financial context: Millennials faced down the financial collapse of 2009 and found a different path. (Millennials Go To College, Howe, Strauss, 2003)
Massive Unemployment greeted them at the outset: In an NPR article, Samantha Raphelson reports, “Over 12 percent of those ages 25-32 without a college degree are unemployed, and about 22 percent of that cohort are below the poverty line…In contrast, 7 percent of boomers with just a high school diploma lived in poverty in 1979.”
Soaring house prices, made buying a home an impossible dream.
Unprecedented student debt plagued them as they graduated—the average student debt has more than tripled in the last 20 years.
As if their financial woes were not enough, Millennials grew up with a rising concern about other world issues:
An Environmental Crisis had them worrying about climate change, dwindling resources, and overburdened landfills—Millennials resolved to make a difference through lifestyle changes that they believed could benefit the environment.
International Threats bombarded them with news of violent world events, as they learned to numb their fears.
But not everything is gloomy as they come of age. As Millennials grow older, they are situated to benefit from several cultural shifts:
Diversity: Millennials are the first generation to witness the impact of upscaled immigration. Growing up in mixed race communities, with friends from all corners of the world, they don’t seem to be burdened with the prejudices toward other religions and races. Overall, millennials are 55.8 percent white and nearly 30 percent minorities. In 2000 this young adult age group was 63 percent white, whereas in 1990 it was 73 percent white.
Technological Accessibility: Just as their parents were the first television generation, Millennials are the first to grow up in the Internet age. The first to play video games non-stop, the first to learn how to use a computer as children, the first to have a cell phone the minute they could be trusted not to lose them. The internet is at the heart of their lives, with social media an indispensible tool, and the background to their social connections.
A Sharing Mindset: Coming of age in an environment of reduced financial opportunities, Millennials have an interesting response, one which has already impacted our society and will for many years to come: a willingness to share. Given their lower consumer capacity, they have gravitated to sharing of goods. They live a pared down lifestyle with fewer possessions, starting a trend toward cohousing (Airbnb) and shared car ownership (Uber).
Group Oriented: Millennials are group oriented rather than being individualists. They may sacrifice their own identity to be part of the team. They prefer egalitarian leadership, not hierarchies. (Howe, Strauss, 2003)
Trust: On page 12, in The Sharing Economy, Daryl Weber puts his finger on a critical theme:
“What ultimately keeps this economy spinning—and growing—is trust. It’s the elixir that enables us to feel reassured about staying in a stranger’s home or hitching a ride from someone we’ve never met. It’s an interesting mindset of millennials and new consumers, of not necessarily needing to own their own thing. There’s a really different mentality there—less consumerism, less materialism and more of a community building approach.”
Diverse, tech savvy, trusting, team orientated, and continously socially connected: these are the characteristics that perfectly describe this new generation, poised as Jeremy Rifkin (2016) believes, on the cusp of a new paradigm shift that is shaking up the status quo. In their lifetimes, they will experience the inevitable departure from a corporate economy to a cooperative economic system, he says. This may take years to unfold, but will lead, Rifkin believes, to rejuvination of the environment, and equality for all.
Heady optimism, I think, but if it changes our current dystopian view of the future, I would happily buy into it.