Pew Research Center announced in April 2020 that the Millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as the largest generation in America. In May 2019, a Gallup Article stated that Millennials make the largest percentage of the workforce and they represent $1 trillion in consumer spending.
I was born in 1982, so I sit at the leading edge of this generation that was born between 1981 and 1996. I have been curious as to why we were so heavily criticized long before we were even in a position worthy of such criticism. When I began to understand the impact our generation will have on the future, the level of scrutiny began to make more sense.
For context, I just turned 38. I graduated high school as part of the Class of 2000, the first class of the new millennium. We are among the few in history who know how to operate a rotary phone and to perfectly program a smartphone.
Watching the Class of 2020 graduate, I was thinking about how much has changed over the 20 years of my adulthood. What can I say to the kids graduating now that is grounded in what I know?
I remember my Class of 2000 commencement speeches with clarity: Our future was heralded as unusually bright. Yet here is something I never openly shared: All of my adult life, I listened to older people say that they wish everything would “go back to normal.” I have no idea what normal is nor what it is supposed to look like. There has been little in my frame of lived social experience that suggests things will ever be normal. So, I stopped holding my breath years ago.
Life has always seen challenges. Technology, commerce, and industry were surging. During my first year of adulthood, however, I would be foolish to say this progress had anything to do with me. My parents gave me the best life lessons they could. They made clear that I had to make my own way. So off I went.
In my second year of adulthood, 9/11 hit. We mourned. My parents mourned that I would never know what life was like before terrorism changed everything. Another depressing fact is our generation was first in experiencing random mass shootings.
These things are not normal, we were told as kids. As a parent now, I will never accept tragedy and violence as normal. Yet I tell my kids straight that bad things happen, and we are working very hard to change it.
By 2003, it was a global war. Our generation filled the ranks of service to the brim. You may have joined me, or you may have stayed home, at college, at work, often both. We kept in touch through MySpace, and then Facebook. Soon, that little social media thing blew up. It kind of reshaped world history. We Millennials were the early adopters and are still its biggest fans.
By 2008, the economic recession hit. A lot of people lost jobs. We were in our mid-20s, trying to gain our bearings, hoping to raise families. By then, our eyes were open to many things.
Through these years, I kept hearing older generations say, “I wish things would just go back to normal.” Normal compared to what, exactly, I remember wondering. Ambiguity is all I have ever been used to.
“Those Millennials.” The criticism began to reach our ears in our early 30s. It was common on and off from 2010 to 2018. “Entitled,” “spoiled,” “lazy.” “They want everything handed to them”.
I can recall this much from memory. I never knew how to respond so I took in the criticism silently, as did my peers. Most of us did.
I always wondered what triggered the criticism. Maybe how we turned our cameras on ourselves? We did, after all, invent the selfie. We shaped our lives for our cameras, took social media perfection to new heights. I guess to those outside looking in, it was assumed we were only paying attention to ourselves.
Though in fairness, about my 15th year of adulthood, I began to see where some of the criticism was right.
Absolutely not. That’s never been the case.
Not quite… it’s complicated. We became aware, perhaps, of advantages granted by technology. It gave us access to things we were told we had to wait in line for. We know exactly want the algorithms wanted. Sometimes we play ball. Sometimes we don’t care.
But I thought spoiled means you expect to get everything you want. Except, we actually aren’t interested in material things.
Yet, we do care. We may care too much. Maybe we want people’s approval. We care what others think and what they say. We care a lot about how others are doing. Even if we don’t like them. Which is strange. Understandably, this backstory is hard to gather from smiling selfies.
I watched this story develop over many years because of participation ribbons. I remember being wholly baffled the first time I heard this. I was in the workplace. An older gentleman seemed to think I was giving them throughout my life and it made me “entitled”. That was my first notification.
I can only presume where that notion came from. But it’s prevalent according to whoever has been writing stories about us for almost a decade. (This piece is a first step towards rewriting that.)
This person’s remark about ribbons seemed to imply that Millennials were even remotely motivated by the same things he was. I took his criticism, probably dismissing him quietly as surely as he had done publicly. I admit I am still curious why participation trophies were so important to him.
I will say that I try to give recognition to other people as often as I can. Whether a kid or an adult; it’s a better way of doing business. When I interact with younger generations, I make sure they know I am listening to them. If you think Millennials are something, the kids coming behind us—Genertion Z—are going to change everything.
In 2018, the shift that I had been long hoping for actually happened. Research about Millennials finally caught up: Pew Research Center, Rand, and Brookings Institute have great materials – to name a few. In business journals, Millennials are now being described as “Diverse,” “connected,” “authentic,” “transparent,” and “collaborative”. Do we still want instant gratification? Honestly, yes. Yes, and we know the world does not work that way. Yes, and we are willing to work hard for what we want in our lives and the lives of other people.
There are many points about ambiguity and uncertainty that I have not even addressed. The future is open and scary. Yet I find no point in being paralyzed by this ambiguity. It is truly all I have known. Maybe the war that began in year one of my adulthood truly is the forever war.
Something really interesting happened in year 20, though. (It may be thanks to the global pandemic when our lives are less distracted.) We are beginning to resolve the optics between our real lives and social media lives. It was too exhausting.
The second surprising observation was this: We turned the selfie camera in the opposite direction. We began filming our lives and our world as we witnessed it. We shone a light on things that were really uncomfortable, without filters and without apology.
Our lives changed. Our culture changed. If our lives change and our culture changes for the better, is not the world also changing? Whatever world we inherited, it doesn’t matter anymore. The new normal will never feel uncertain. Our generation is actually equipped for this.
Millennials, we are up.
Millennials compared to Silent Generation
Millennials are worth $1 trillion in consumer spending
Millennials largest in labor force
Millennials facts according to Brookings Institute
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