Monday, June 06, 2011

Caught My Eye: Yet Another Discussion of the Flawed Millenials

In the past week, I’ve read a few pieces that address the strengths and flaws of millenials.

One was a paper from a master’s student.  Like much work by early researchers, despite the endless flurry of statistics, this one relied  more on emotion than fact in drawing its arguments.  The earnest student cited statistic after statistic to make the case that young people are heavy users of social media.

The student tried to put this into a broader social perspective.  Among the many points raised were that social media lets adolescents interact with strangers online without the knowledge of their parents.

I pointed out that it’s only in the last 20 or 30 years that young people have been housebound and monitored like prisoners.  100 years ago, many 15 and 16 year olds were already married.  Of those who weren’t, many were 1 of 7 or 8 or 10 or 15 children (like my grandparents).  With that many children, parents did simply could not follow the doings of each child the way they can when they have just 1 or 2 children.

This historical perspective is what seems to get lost in all of these discussions about Millenials.

One important part of the historical perspective is that we tend to forget that nearly every emerging generation in the past 100 years has been decried for one reason or another.

In her essay, A Generation of Slackers? Not So Much (, New York Times, May 28, 2011), Catherine Rampell notes that
It’s worth remembering that to some extent, these accusations of laziness and narcissism in “kids these days” are nothing new — they’ve been levied against Generation X, Baby Boomers and many generations before them. Even Aristotle and Plato were said to have expressed similar feelings about the slacker youth of their times. 
In other words, one of the issues that is often lost in our quickness to judge the rising generation is the historical perspective.  This perspective could balance conclusions in several ways:

  • Placing the family situation of young people into the larger perspective of time.  Some of the issues that people raise are unique to this generation.  Consider parents’ involvement with their adolescents.  Parents always loved their adolescents but, as a  result of several generations of slow change as well as longer education cycles, longer life spans, and smaller families, they are playing a guardian role longer than in the past and often with more attentiveness to this role.  So role-based expectations have also shifted.  What parents expect to know about their Millenial children might differ from what parents expected to know about their Boomer and Generation X children, much less what parents expected to know about their Depression-era children.  
  • Placing social phenomena attributed to the current generation into the larger perspective of time.  For example, an applicant for a degree program once said that we had a responsibility to study educational technology because of all the social phenomena affecting children.  I asked which phenomena.  She first mentioned crime—“there’s so much crime these days.”  But crime rates in the past decade have been far lower than those 20 to 40 years ago.  Perhaps the perception of crime is high but that’s not the same as actual physical threats.  

Somehow, the discussions about Millenials seems to lack this type of perspective.  The truth is:

  • Growing up always has its struggles.  What differs across time and people is what each person struggled with.  
  • Part of those struggles arise from the times in which the young people were born and raised.  Some were born and raised in hard times; others during years of relative peace and prosperity.  This has a general effect on people because it establishes some of the social norms and values that guide people the rest of their lives.
  • Some of those struggles have nothing to do with the times; they have everything to do with the individual circumstances.  Some people grew up in relatively comfortable home situations (define comfort however you choose); others had difficult circumstances (define difficult however you choose, too).   This happened  in every generation until now and is likely to continue in every generation to come.  
  • Young people tend to have a higher level of comfort adopting new technologies (though this is not universal).  In this generation, it’s social media.  In previous generations, it was AOL Instant Messenger, personal computers in general and even telephones.  Yet no matter how strong the presumed attachment of the young people to these technologies, the technologies are only a part of their lives.  They do not define them.

So many people who write and research generational issues seem to lose this perspective.

Certainly journalists should write about young people and researchers should study them.  How young people adopt technology could affect the way that people use it tomorrow.

But more than technology (which is what I study) or attitudinal issues of millenials, the primary reason that journalists should write about Millenials and resesarchers should study them is that we apparently have forgotten the experience ourselves as we have aged.

And perhaps it’s that lack of empathy that prevents us from embracing Millenials.  Rampell suggested this at the beginning of her essay:
YOU’D think there would be a little sympathy. This month, college graduates are jumping into the job market, only to land on their parents’ couches: the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds is a whopping 17.6 percent.
The reaction from many older Americans? This generation had it coming.

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