Last week when I wrote about pubs, I mentioned that I like millennials. Let’s get back to that for a bit. Because I’m in my fifties, and even I’m getting tired of the crap millennials are taking lately.
First, it would help to define the term, which is a tricky thing. I used the highly scientific method of entering “how old are millennials” into Google and clicking on the first article that came up, which you can access here. I read it, it seemed to make sense, so we’ll define “millennials” as people born between 1982 and 2004. That way, I can avoid using terms like “young people” or “kids these days” which I don’t like because they make me sound exactly my age, which I don’t like to think about.
Here’s the lowdown on millennials: they’re lazy and they’re entitled. They grew up having everything handed to them, so they don’t know what it’s like to earn anything. They get trophies for attendance and participation. Their parents do everything for them: argue better grades for them, get them excused from stuff they don’t like or that makes them uncomfortable, get them off the bench and into the game, do their homework, fight their battles, make them feel “special” and “unique,” enable, excuse, and overvalue them. They spend all their time indoors and online. They’re unprepared for real life. They’re spoiled.
Now, the sample size of millennials I personally know is relatively small. It includes The Knucklehead and a few of his friends. It includes the staff at my former pub, which is pretty much run by millennials. It includes friends of mine. And none of those people fit the stereotype they’re being hammered into. The millennials I know are hardworking people of conscience. They have goals for their own lives and for their communities, and they’re struggling to reach both. They do so with the knowledge that with any slip they make, mainstream society is gleefully ready to reinforce its own prejudices.
And that’s starting to really piss me off.
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Sure, there have been generational battles as long as their have been generations, but this one feels more acute. Probably it has a lot to do with the technology of the age we live in. Thanks to social media, we’re able to scour the planet for the tiniest stories of privilege, some fully-formed, some half-stories or outright falsehoods, pool them into the same reservoir, and them fire-hose them at people in proof of our argument. In previous generations we had both less immediate access and better filters, so a torrent of the same kind would have carried a higher level of credibility. Now, anything you want can carry that volume. But it doesn’t make it so.
What also confounds me is that we somehow treat millennials as both victim and cause of their own upbringing. We chastise them for the way we assume they’ve been brought up while we simultaneously expect them to rise above that. If it’s true that this entire generation has been handed their formative years on a silver platter, shouldn’t they be deserving of our pity instead? Shouldn’t we be apologizing to them? Shouldn’t we view any legitimate success as an extraordinary feat of overcoming utter lack of preparation?
Or maybe they haven’t had it so easy growing up after all. My parents had to struggle to help with college, but they weren’t faced with anything like the costs The Knucklehead and his friends face. Here’s a question millennials have to ask that my generation never would have considered: Is higher education in fact a bad investment?
And if our kids have more than we did growing up, well, whose fault is that, exactly? Who gave them that stuff? And before we turn the vitriol loose on their parents, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Isn’t our entire consumer society geared toward making us feel guilty if we don’t buy our kids stuff? How do I as a parent walk that line between giving him a head start and giving him too much? When my kid’s baseball coach, for example, tells him he needs a $200 aluminum baseball bat, and every other kid on the team has a $200 aluminum baseball bat, how do I know whether or not to get him one? It seems excessive to me, but when I was a kid, $10 for sneakers seemed excessive to my old man, so maybe I’m as wrong now as he was then. How do I tell? And that’s just one of a thousand economic decisions I have to make as a parent.
Cell phones. We freak out when we see kids and poor people with cell phones, which we always assume are state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line, platinum devices. Oh, we can spot them from a mile away! We never had fancy-pants cell phones when we were growing up!
Because they hadn’t been invented yet. Because we didn’t need them.
The Knucklehead routinely had coaches and teachers texting him throughout high school with changes in game times, homework assignments, practice sites. Schools assume they will be able to reach a parent at a moment’s notice. Does a high school student need to have a cell phone today? No. In the same way I didn’t need to have a bicycle when I was growing up. I could have gotten by without it. But my academic life, work life, extracurricular life, and social life would have been severely restricted without one. Cell phones for students (and the working poor and single parent while we’re at it) aren’t the luxury items we imagine them to be.
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Something isn’t adding up. The millennials I know, the people of integrity I’m lucky enough to have in my life, could not be products of that kind of privilege. Or if they are, they’ve performed a Herculean feat of somehow self-teaching self-reliance the moment they hit the working world. Oh, sure, I know a few brats, but they don’t really strike me as anything new. They remind me of a few kids I knew back in high school in the ’70s that were good old-fashioned a-holes. They don’t strike me as being particularly prevalent or anything new.
I get particularly worked up about this because I really think we need these people. We rely on younger generations and we always have. I was reminded of this last year when – seemingly out of the blue, for my generation – the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Anyone my age was a little stunned; we hadn’t seen this coming, not this quickly, not in our lifetimes. Was this also the product of generations of people working, suffering, lobbying, protesting to earn this civil right? Absolutely. But we needed the push that millennials gave us. We would have waited. We would have waited until more people are on board. We would have waited until we could have made a more seamless transition. We would have waited until society was ready and the change wouldn’t have been so messy. We would have waited for the time to be right.
We needed our millennials to push us off the cliff, or we might have been waiting forever. We needed their impatience, their rush to judgment. We needed that. It made the transition to full marriage equality much messier, more cantankerous, possibly more painful, but I don’t think we would have moved without them. And as you look back, you see the same thing in almost every important societal movement. Civil rights. The suffrage movement. How many American (and Asian) lives were saved because dirty, filthy, un-American hippies kept pressure on our government to end that war now? Would that consciousness have ever crept into the vast middle-aged middle-class voters had not the 1970s’ version of millennials not made such a howling stink about it?
The millennial generation is less racist than we are. In general, they tend to be less homophobic. They tend to understand and accept the reality of climate change. They have gone to school with classmates who are Muslim. They, better than we, understand that economic progress, or even safety, is not a birthright.
They didn’t nominate Trump.
Millennials need our guidance and maturity more than they know. But we need their energy, their brashness, and their conscience. They are our future. Maybe that scares you, but I find consolation in that. As a group, I’ve seen more hope, more acceptance, more excitement, and more attention directed outward than I do in my own generation. They’re my children, they’re my moral peers, they’re my friends. I need them, and I value them.
So, lay off!