Stories of the Self

Exploring meaning, nostalgia, and continuity of identity

Some Musings about the Millennials: The Conflation of Public and Private Identity?

The notion that privacy is a "right" is likely lost on the Millennial.

During the 1990s, social psychologists wrote about "the saturated self" (Gergen 1991), in reference to identity in the postmodern era. Key characteristics of postmodernism, such as fragmentation, incoherence, instability, and multiple realities, were in stark contrast to the modernist paradigm of universal truth, coherence, and rationality. The availability of new communication technologies and a bombardment of social stimuli were said to threaten the notion of a stable, authentic self. As someone interested in studying self construction processes and ways in which individuals attempt to maintain continuity of identity, I found that these postmodern notions provided fertile ground for research and also for lively discussions in the classroom.

Well, in recent semesters of my social psychology classes, I am discovering that when I discuss concepts such as the "saturated self" or the "mutable self," these terms do not seem to provoke much concern or interest among members of the Millennial Generation (that is, those born between 1982 and 2002). Their "selves" may be saturated, but they don't recognize it because this has been their experience since day one. The self in flux is normative for them. Thus, my "modern" notions of what is involved in constructing a coherent self and maintaining continuity of identity in these postmodern times (and the assertion that this is an important task for each of us) may not be viewed as a worthwhile or necessarily relevant topic of study among this generation of students. Key questions I have include: How are Millennials' individual identities constructed? Might we be witnessing/experiencing significant changes in certain aspects of self-construction with the current generation of young people? Is the distinction between "private identity" and "public identity" relevant among Millennials? It is this latter question that is the primary subject of this essay.

An important characteristic of the Millennial Generation is the phenomenon of "public" (as opposed to, and maybe even in place of, "private") identity. Let's face it: Members of the Millennial Generation are typically not real familiar with solitude. The notion that privacy is a "right" that individuals should have is likely lost on the Millennial. It simply has not been the reality for members of this generation to be afforded the experience of true solitude or a sense of privacy. After all, these are young people who have been subjected to security measures in various forms and in numerous settings (schools, airports, malls). In many settings, the words, "This Area Under Constant Surveillance," are posted. We hear about both parents and youth using "webcams" to capture everyday behaviors. Furthermore, Millennials have been socialized to do things in groups. Sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) distinguished between "back stage" and "front stage." While the front stage is where one "performs" for a social "audience," the back stage is where the individual plans and prepares for the performance, hidden from the audience. For Millennials we have to wonder if the back stage truly exists. Or, is it the case that it's all front stage?

Another factor affecting private/public identity is the popularity of social networking sites. The individual managing his/her Facebook or MySpace account can choose what to share and what not to share. One gets the impression that many Millennials are comfortable with widely broadcasting their interests and experiences. There is, it seems, an open invitation for the public to view one's self. This phenomenon is also manifested in the manner that many people use cell phones. What would seem to be very private matters are often discussed in public by individuals talking on their cell phones in public spaces where others can't help but eavesdrop. The private/public distinction is blurred. At least to those of us in "older" generations, this seems to be the case.

While it seems like it is worthwhile to consider both personal and public repercussions of an absence of privacy or solitude, these experiences and characteristics among Millennials may facilitate a greater focus on collective identity than on personal identity. Howe and Strauss (2000) identify, as key characteristics of Millennials, conformity, team-orientation, and collaboration. This generation has a global outlook on life. The Internet has opened the world to Millennials. They have observed political and economic events which make it very clear that we all share the planet and must work together to ensure any kind of humane continuance of life here. There is evidence that members of this generation want to work toward building something good and beneficial not just for their own enjoyment or sense of individual success, but for the good of the group. The question of whether the distinction between private and public identity has any relevance for Millennials might be accompanied by the question of whether such a distinction really matters.

Janelle Wilson, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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