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What's the Benefit of Criticizing Millennials?

Want to talk about Millennials? Then let's change the tone of the conversation.

The following are Wiki descriptions of three cultural references I discuss in this blog:

1. Generation Y, "also known as the Millennial Generation, is the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates for when Generation Y starts and ends. Commentators use beginning birth dates from the early 1980s to the early 2000s." [Source

2. Generation X, "commonly abbreviated to Gen X, is the generation born after the Western Post–World War II baby boom. Demographers, historians and commentators use beginning birth dates from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. The term was popularized by Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture." [Source]

3. Baby Boomer, "A baby boomer is a person who was born during the demographic Post–World War II baby boom between the years 1946 and 1964, according to the U.S. Census Bureau." [Source]

Note: For the sake of referencing recent discussions about birth cohorts, I will refer to the above labels even though I don't necessarily endorse their connotative stereotypes.

 

Before me sits a stack of a dozen "Millennial" articles and op-eds from some of today's most influential media sites—Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Forbes, Psychology Today, CNN, TIME, and The New York Times. Last week the comment threads were palpitating once again in response to a blog posted on Wait But Why and reposted to Huffington Post. The title of that blog is Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy and it did indeed make a lot of Generation Y'ers very unhappy.

I'm not a Millennial, I'm a Gen X'er. Perhaps I shouldn't even be writing about this topic—I'm not a social scientist or a research psychologist and I'm not hopping on the bandwagon to spark debate. But then again, maybe I should be writing this. Maybe it's my turn to step in with a voice of my generation. Who better, really, than a representative from the so-called slackers? My friends and I paved the way for this kind of discussion years ago; although, at the time it, was happening on MTV and in Richard Linklater movies.

I grew up listening to heavy metal, then alternative rock, with hair down the middle of my back, toting around a dog-eared copy of Douglas Coupland's Generation X. My role models were Beavis and Butthead and I enrolled in vocational classes because my prospects for attaining a 4-year degree seemed laughable. My cohort was making the future of America look pretty bleak and the doom-and-gloomers were gobbling all about it, just as people are whining about Gen Y today.

But lo and behold, we grew up, as kids tend to do, and we started caring about the world. I managed to get accepted into college where professors—Baby Boomers, I might add—seemed to think I had potential. They championed me to work hard and eventually I listened. They, along with my family, lifted me up and I earned that mythical 4-year degree. Then a Master's degree, the first in my family. The same story can be told for so many of my friends—the nurses, social workers, scientists, doctors, managers, writers, and other contributors to today's society. Unfortunately, some of those Gen X'ers and Baby Boomers seem to have forgotten how this scenario plays out. Even some of the Milliennials, now of age to be the content providers for large media sites, are jabbing at their own kind. 

My question to all of the generational critics is, Why? Why the labels and stereotypes? What genuine purpose does it serve humanity to brand two decades worth of humans with these lazy constructs? It would be different if it were the industrial psychologists and social researchers who were getting all the attention for spreading cohort-based best practices to teachers, trainers, and parents. But that's not what creates buzz. It's the Millennial bashing that we can't seem to get enough of. Isn't this just more feather-ruffling conjecture that serves our ego and boosts article virality? Let's admit it writers, we're addicted to the clicks and controversy.

This is an age-old argument where there always seems to be some meat left on the bones. How about that hip-gyrating, girl-corrupting Elvis? Any comparisons to our twerking Miley? And those shaggy-haired Beatles with their rock and roll music and increasingly bizarre outfits, weren't they just a gateway to Lady Gaga? The generational argument has been occurring for, well, generations. But wasn't there some humble pie to be eaten when Paul McCartney was knighted by the Queen? Well, Lady Gaga, a Millennial, started an influential foundation at the age of 25 with the mission of "creating a safe community that helps connect young people with the skills and opportunities they need to build a kind, braver world." [Source] So if she can do that at 25, who cares if she wears a meat dress?

I can hear the buts: But don't you see all the spoiled kids running amok? Don't you see kids these days disrespecting authority, acting entitled, and avoiding hard work? Of course! Just like when we Gen X'ers were coming up and their Baby Boomer parents before them. I don't care what age you are, you're alive and breathing so there's a good chance you were no picnic as a young adult.

Eventually the Beatle-loving hippies exchanged their Birkenstocks for Rockports and took to the boardrooms and classrooms. Members of my generation ended up being the leaders of social enterprise and technological advancement. Just like us, the Millennials will have to step up to solve the problems we've left them: partisan deadlock, global warming, crumbling infrastructure, boundless greed, and ideological warfare. They will, that is, if we mirror civility and respect rather than kicking sand in their faces before they've even had a chance to be kids. To live a little, make mistakes, and find themselves—just like the rest of us wanted for ourselves at that age.

For years we've talked about how kids are impressionable—to television, video games, violence. So let's stop giving them the impression that we only see them as selfish brats. They're listening. We don't treat our own kids that way, right? We love our own kids, it's everybody else's kids who are the brats. We empathize for our own sons and daughters who are struggling to find a job in a down economy, but it's everybody else's kids who lazily sit around acting entitled to receive high pay for a low work ethic...to regurgitate some of the recent arguments.

Don't get me wrong, my defense does not somehow let the so-called Millennials off the hook, nor does it suggest there are not differences among generations. My purpose is not to do a line audit of all the arguments, but to encourage a change of tone in the conversation. Our culture has shifted tremendously since the days of Elvis and the Beatles. We can't bring back "a simpler time," so let's start adapting to the reality of the moment lest we slump further into a nation of curmudgeons. Maybe the reality seems like a lot to swallow, but it would help if we look at the facts rather than make them up. I suggest exploring articles by Dr. Jean Twenge to gain a better understanding of research-based generational differences and how we can apply them. Additionally, this article on Psychology Today contains links to some the oft-cited research about Millennial trends.

I also invite the hot-topic content providers and frustrated hiring managers to join me in making a commitment to curb the stereotypes. Be wary of spreading biased conjecture for the sake of viral content or, worse, cynical venting. Come on guys, venting is just too easy. We all get angry, we all get frustrated, but we all have to coexist. So support your argument with facts and give us a reasonable call to action. Cynicism does nothing to benefit understanding and compassion for our fellow humans. If we don't have that, what's the point of it all?

If we want our society to improve, let's give a concerted effort to mirror the behavior we admire and lift up those who come after us, just like our mentors and leaders lifted us. Let's hear from the teachers who can help us understand the learning styles and strategies of today's students. Let's hear from the smart satirists who can make light of the subject and give us a laugh while teaching us something about ourselves. Let's hear from open-minded executives who are willing to adapt to cultural shifts and then offer tips for helping young employees succeed. You can be tough, and you can also be kind.

Curious about how this topic has shown up in the news recently? Below are some articles I've come across in larger media outlets: 

 [List Updated 1/9/14]

 

Brad Waters MSW, LCSW provides career-life coaching and consultation to clients internationally via phone and Skype. He helps people explore career direction and take action on career transitions. Brad holds a Master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan and Master's certification in Holistic Health Care from Western Michigan University. Brad is also a personal development writer whose books are available on Amazon and BradWatersMSW.com

Copyright, 2013 Brad Waters. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.

 

Brad Waters, L.C.S.W. is a career and well-being expert based in Chicago. He is also a freelance writer with a background in social work and holistic health care.

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