Culture  What’s a millennial?

A closer look at the ‘me’ generation and its stereotypes

Imagine a young person, somewhere between the ages of approximately 18 and 34. Having grown up in the digital era, they are addicted to technology, and probably never let their smartphone out of their sight. They are somehow both overly ambitious and unmotivated, as they’ve been raised to believe that they can do anything, but are not used to working hard because of their easy access to information through technology. They are likely in massive debt from student loans, or will be soon enough, upon graduating from college. They may still live with their parents, and are probably struggling to find a job. Throw in a few hashtags and Instagram filters, and there you have it: the picture-perfect image of a millennial.

Or a millennial in the eyes of Western society, at least. Countless published criticisms of today’s young adult population accuse our generation of falling victim to the digital era – resulting in the lazy, distracted, self-absorbed, and entitled “millennials.” I have heard these accusations, among others, thrown at my age group more times than I can count.

Statistic Canada’s 2011 Census determined that 9.1 million people (that is, 27 per cent of the population in 2011) fall into the “Generation Y” age range. Aside from how difficult it is to name any single characteristic that unifies all millennials, the boundaries of this age range are fuzzy, making it unclear to whom exactly these generational criticisms are directed. Stamping generic labels upon every individual around this age treats “Generation Y” as one cohesive unit. To ignore individual variations in race, gender and sexual identity, class, personal history, and other key aspects of one’s identity is to make unfair generalizations based on a loose age grouping.

I was raised Unitarian Universalist – a liberal religion that focuses on tolerance and the human right to spiritual autonomy – and despite how comfortable I grew in my congregation, I frequently felt a divide between the youth and adult members there. Though the leadership made attempts to involve youth in congregational happenings, I regularly felt as though our presence at services and events was a disruption more than everything else. During youth group meetings, we regularly had mature and insightful discussions on anything from ethics to politics to sexuality. I often wished more adults in our congregation had been able to sit in on these conversations to witness what us young people were capable of and interested in. Rather, we only felt like an underrepresented, even underprivileged, demographic within our own congregation, only known to the older group as rambunctious and apathetic teenagers.

While there are certainly aspects of the millennial ‘type’ that resonate with me, these stereotypes, for the most part, seem to indicate what my life looks like, not who I am. I’m certainly familiar with the recent graduate stereotype, someone faced with crippling college debt as well as fierce competition for low-paying entry jobs. I am from the U.S. – the land of exorbitantly-priced higher education – so I am no stranger to the realities of today’s college market and its repercussions for students. Growing up in the suburbs, I knew lots of neighbouring families with children five to ten years older than me. While I was making my way through elementary school, one by one, they all began to leave home for university. And four to five years later, they each started to return home, jobless and in debt.

This focus on the plight of the millennial, however, occludes the real issues – like what brought about this stereotype of the twenty-something who moves back home. The popular concern is over whether we will get jobs, not why there are no jobs for us in the first place. The argument that we millennials are harming our own professional careers with our characteristic laziness and entitlement suggests that professional success results solely from hard work and dedication – the age-old myth of meritocracy.

The notion of meritocracy, which is particularly (though certainly not exclusively) popular within right-wing economic circles, fails to get at the truth of the matter.

The millennial stereotype often ignores the experiences of marginalized communities – the image of a twenty-something with a BA still living at home, for example, excludes those who cannot afford university in the first place.

Not only is this generational caricature inaccurate, but in ignoring socioeconomic backgrounds, it allows for pundits to ignore social context and place the blame on us.

In today’s job market, class, race, gender, and sexual identity (among other key factors) all have the power to hold a person back from the success their hard work deserves – no matter what generation the individual belongs to. The generational label, and all of the implications that come with it, ignore the experiences of underprivileged demographics and obscure the effects of other sociological factors on personal and professional development.

As time moves on, the conversation is shifting away from millennials and toward Generation Z, those currently under the age of 18. Labels like ‘apathetic,’ ‘attention deficit,’ and ‘overly preoccupied with social media’ have all been slapped onto this age group. Do these criticisms sound familiar?

These newfound denunciations of the up-and-coming Generation Z are a mere repetition of those faced by millennials. Throughout history, most young generations have engaged in a kind of cultural rebellion against their parents’ cohort in an attempt to declare independence. Millennials are subject to criticism from older generations for our reliance on technology just as baby boomers were heavily criticized for Woodstock and their hippie tendencies – every generation feels anxious about the next.

Living arguably right in between two generations, I cannot say I identify strongly with the labels placed on either. As an 18-year-old, I can arguably identify as a member of Generation Z as feasibly as I could a millennial, proof of the arbitrary construction of generations. As a McGill student, I am part of the privileged community to whom the “millennial” label exclusively refers. Though my life is undoubtedly shaped by my era, these effects are not unique to me, nor to anyone in my age range. There is no “one millennial,” but there are certainly issues that all millennials will have to face – climate change, a harsh job market, and the pressures of globalization.

If a generation must be defined, it cannot be by a set of stereotyped personality traits, but rather the set of social, political, and historical conditions it is faced with – and how it handles them. So while baby boomers will continue to lament our Instagram accounts and Tinder dates, shallow criticisms of the millennial generation are nothing compared to what we are about to take on.