Surprise! Millennial and selfie are not synonyms.
Google the word “millennial” and you’ll find articles, blog posts, and studies that leave one overarching impression: This massive class of 20 and 30-somethings is narcissistic, entitled, lazy, and – if the titles of these sources are to be believed – millennials are not to be trusted.
The fact that I’ve started this piece with an instruction to “Google” a term should tip you off that this piece is being written by a millennial herself. But before you start making assumptions, let me assure you that I’m not here to fight back or blame it all on the older generations.
Okay, okay, I’ll do some of that, but that’s not why I’m here. The breadth of the “love-to-hate-millennials” movement has me convinced that there is a deeper discussion to be had — one that goes beyond assessing whether we are truly as bad as people say.
The media has used stereotypes for every generation of Americans in the past century, especially when they were in their younger years. Americans born between 1925 and 1945 were originally dubbed “The Lost Generation.” Boomers, born between 1946-1960, were said to be a spoiled generation reluctant to grow up. Generation X, born between 1961-1980, was portrayed as a coddled generation that complained too much.
…Those generalizations evolved and dissipated over time.
“The Lost Generation” came to be known as “The Greatest Generation.” Boomers are now characterized as ambitious and hard-working. Generation X is described as skeptical but self-reliant. So it comes as no surprise that millennials, who are now in their 20s and 30s, are being characterized as narcissistic, entitled, and lazy.
It won’t be long until we millennials are characterized in a more positive light.
It would be easy enough to blame society’s rage against the millennials on the aging generations that came before us. It often feels as though they’re sitting high in their ivory towers, rewriting history. That way, we could carry on, trusting that we will have a chance to rebrand ourselves when we’re older and have a new, younger generation of screw-ups to judge.
Alternatively, we can take a look at the factors that led to these characterizations. Rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame, we can focus on what lies ahead.What has the past taught us? What do we want the future to look like? Most importantly, what power do we have now, using all these traits – desirable and undesirable alike – to shape the next generation?
Millennials Are Narcissistic
Today’s “selfie” obsessed culture has done very little for the public’s opinion of millennials. However, selfie or no selfie, the term “narcissist” is without a doubt the most important and regularly used word in the millennial basher’s lexicon.
In 2013, TIME writer Joel Stein wrote an article titled, “Millennials: The Me, Me, Me Generation” which immediately placed this generation under a condemnatory microscope and surveyed the landscape for anyone daring to work with or befriend a millennial.
In it, he cited an NIH study proclaiming that the incidence of narcissism is three times higher for individuals in their 20s than those 65 and older. He also claimed that between 1982 (when Gen Xers were entering adulthood) and 2009, narcissism among college students increased 58%.
A closer look at this revealed some flaws: Researchers gathered the data via face-to-face interviews, relying heavily on participants’ memories and honesty in reporting their answers. After further review,a 2010 paper from NIH stated definitively that the incidence of narcissism is not increasing among college students, but simply that all generations are more narcissistic than their elders when they’re in their younger years. (Apparently, older generations weren’t inclined to remember, let alone report on, the egos of days past).
As Brooke Lea Foster says in her article, The Persistent Myth of the Narcissistic Millennial, “These traits are simply the hallmarks of early adulthood – it’s often the first time people are putting themselves out there, applying for jobs and meeting potential life partners. Overconfidence is how people muscle through the big changes.”
Regardless of whether or not we deserve to be relentlessly labeled as narcissists, the criticism goes hand in hand with another common judgment of the anti-millennial movement: we’re all overly entitled.
Which brings me to my next point…
Millennials Are Entitled
Studies show that 40% of millennials expect a promotion every one to two years, a statistic critics love to rely on in labeling us “entitled.” In his article, Stein mocked millennials, saying, “If you want to sell seminars to middle managers, make them about how to deal with young employees who email the CEO directly and beg off projects they find boring.”
More so than any other generation, millennials are eager for fulfilling and meaningful careers.
And with the rise of technology and so many companies that have built their success off of innovation, the days of “paying your dues” to advance your career are gone. We live in a world of showing results in your job, not in a world of showing “face time” at your job.
Look at the founders of successful tech companies like Facebook, Tumblr, and Snapchat: Did Mark Zuckerberg find success by punching the clock day after day, waiting for the big boss to pay a visit to his cubicle? Of course not.
The status quo might have been good enough for Boomers or Generation Xers, but it’s not for millennials.Millennials want to work for companies that are on the cutting edge. They want to work for companies that allow them to contribute and showcase their talent. Most of all, they want to work for bosses who believe in them because they’re hard-working and smart, not because they’ve been with the company for a decade.
We believe in merit, and we value growth.
While Baby Boomers and Gen-Xersmay be aware of this shift in mindset, many aren’t factoring it into workplace culture.
“This generation has the highest likelihood of having unmet expectations with respect to their careers and the lowest levels of satisfaction with their careers at the stage that they’re at,” says Sean Lyons, co-editor of Managing the New Workforce: International Perspectives on the Millennial Generation. “It is sort of a crisis of unmet expectations.”
In a very real sense, the impatience about getting promoted is not based on groundless entitlement or an over-inflated sense of talent or value. Say what you will about our capabilities, but our eagerness to get ahead has another motivator: Student loan repayment.
Student Loans = “Failure To Launch”
Millennials are saddled with exorbitant student loan debt: the average student loan debt of a 1993 graduate was around $15,000, which jumped to $27,500 in 2011.
Nearly a third of Millennials said they would sell an organ to get rid of their student loans; 56% say they put off big ticket purchases like cars and homes and even marriage because of student loan debt.
These are seriously scary statistics. However, critics tend to focus more on the consequences than the cause, and the fact that financial problems have driven us home to live with our parents is a constant source of ire.
We’ve all read it before: critics roasting millennials for living with their parents—calling us immature and irresponsible. The truth? We’re broke because we invested in ourselves.
Here is where it is hard to deny that the circumstances millennials walked into upon graduating college were far different from those of the Boomers and Gen Xers before us.
We entered adulthood during the worst recession since the Great Depression, with devastating consequences. The overall unemployment rate has been high in recent years, but millennials have been hit the hardest.
Forget that we can’t afford to buy cars or homes. With the economic conditions we’ve faced in recent years, we can’t even afford rent.This isn’t a case of failure to launch; it’s desperation. It’s necessity.
Still not buying it? How about this: the total student loan debt in the U.S. is $1.2 trillion, with 2014 graduates carrying an average debt of $33,000.
Hello, Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers: did you start your life with $33,000 of debt?
Millennials have reported in overwhelming numbers that we have postponed major life events because of our concerns about student loan debt. Two Federal Reserve board economists hypothesize that student loan debt was a major cause of the increase of adult children moving back home in recent years.
For the vast majority of students, racking up the debt was unavoidable:research still tends to show that a person’s education level is the single most significant factor in determining their income-earning abilities. Most of us grew up with the understanding that if you have the opportunity for education, you take it. It was wise advice from our parents; after all, a college education used to provide a solid path to better job opportunities, and in turn, financial security.
It’s now become commonplace that 30% of the U.S. population holds a bachelor’s degree. Amongearlier generations, not so much… In 1960,10% of the population held a bachelor’s degree or higher, yet today10% have bachelors and advanced degrees. Now, job-seekers wishing to stand out in certain fields have to pursue postgraduate programs, as more employers are now requiring them in order to stand out as a qualified candidate.
Meanwhile, the cost of tuition in America has skyrocketed over the decades, increasing an alarming 225% from the 1984-1985 school year to the 2014-2015 school year for four-year public schools.
In real dollars, that’s an increase of 1120% from 1978 to 2012. No, that’s not a typo – we’re talking an increase of one thousand, one hundred and twenty percent!!!!!
With many unable to support themselves and cover the swelling cost of tuition, student loans are the only viable option to pay for their education. It’s a huge gamble, however: Rack up insane fees and interest on loans that will furnish you with the degree you need to get a job that pays enough to pay it all back…Or forgo higher education and pretty much give up any hope of ever landing a desirable job.
So, to circle back on the so called “entitlement”that motivates millennials to seek promotions, hopefully these statistics give you a better sense of the financial rut we’re trying to climb out of.Money in our bank accounts won’t solve all of our problems – and it probably won’t get the older generations off our backs entirely – but it’s a critical element of paying off our debts and leaving mom and dad’s basement once and for all.
How we choose to proceed with the current social discourse about millennials hinges on how many optimists choose to participate in shaping the discussion. After all, every facet of our character as a group is subject to a multitude of interpretations.
Eric Chester, author of Employing Generation “Why?” seems to applaud our approach, or at a minimum, our chutzpah: “They refuse to blindly conform to traditional standards and time-honoured institutions. Instead, they boldly ask, why?” On the flip side, some of the more hardened criticsblame our refusal to go along with tradition on a lack of effort or laziness, sometimes even going so far as to suggest that we aren’t involved in our workplaces or in our communities. In other words, we’re apathetic.
Although specific forms of engagement vary, millennials have matched older generations in volunteering and consumer activism. In addition, we want to make a difference: Eighty-eight percent of millennials females and 82% of millennial males reported that it’s important to be engaged in work that gives back to the community. A 2006 UCLA study of hundreds of thousands of college freshmenfound that 66.3% thought it was important to help others, an increase from 62.4% in 2004 and the highest percentage recorded in 25 years.
If that doesn’t convince you, an incredible 84% of millennials reported making a charitable donation in 2014. Millennials get involved in philanthropic causes because they are motivated by service. High school seniors today are more likely than their predecessors to state that they want to contribute to society.
Moreover, millennials are spearheading the use of social media for civic engagement, which is reshaping our definition of “community” altogether. Our lives are less rooted in geography and stability than our parents’ lives were. Unlike our parents, we don’t live peacefully with our neighbors on suburban cul-de-sacs; we don’t dream of white picket fences. We use technology to participate with the chaotic, diverse world around us; we live one major civil rights and humanitarian crisis to the next. Technology has armed us with knowledge and understanding of how other people live in societies and socioeconomic classes and countries around the world.
We are more aware of the plight of others – friends and strangers alike – than ever before, and this access and awareness is shaping our belief systems and our choices in unprecedented ways.
Joel Stein called millennials narcissistic, lazy, and self-centered. I disagree with his opinions, but beyond the name-calling there is an undeniable change that will take hold in the years to come. Millennials will make up 75% of the workforce in the next decade. Even when we are frustrated by lack of enthusiasm and encouragement from our older peers, we know that they know, deep down, the strength of the tide they’re up against.
I’m reluctant to end by giving Stein any credit, but it turns out he was right about something he said early on in his piece about why older generations fear millennials: we don’t need them.
Do older generations have exquisite wisdom to offer the workforce? Of course.
But Baby Boomers, take note. We have the numbers, the tools, and the passion for greatness. We have technology finesse and an addiction to executing big, innovative ideas.
However much we’ve been knocked around by our rough entry into adulthood, our battle wounds—the insults— have made us stronger. Louder. Hungrier.
Consider yourself warned.
This first appeared in Forbes.