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In Defense of Generation Y

August 17, 2010

gen y girl textingThe (scatterbrained) kids are all right

***

“I try to use my iPhone as little as possible,” a woman said to me last week at the very charming Jane Restaurant, in the West Village. When I asked her why, she continued with all the emphatic flare of an evangelist on Adderall. “Whenever you’re online, texting, playing games, instant messaging, whatever, you’re not in the here and now. And not being in the here and now causes stress on the body. The long-term effects of that really concern me.”

I agreed with her completely, of course—indeed, the conversation would not have been the least bit noteworthy had this particular woman been, like me, a thirty-something technology skeptic who adapted to the Internet slowly and with curmudgeonly resistance. But she wasn’t. In fact, at 21, she was barely old enough to remember when the Internet did not exist.

The discussion took place at an industry mixer held by a nonprofit organization that finds internships for journalism students. Editors and publishers from various news outlets were encouraged to attend the event, so the interns in town for the summer could drink, mingle, and trade war stories with seasoned journalism-industry types. However, being one of the few editors who actually showed up to the thing, I nearly bolted rather than face the uncomfortable proposition of having to make small talk with a roomful of 18- to 22-year-olds.

For a change, I’m glad I didn’t bolt. What began as an evening of clumsy discourse, turned into—after several swigs of the complementary raspberry champagne—an unexpectedly elucidating lesson in the complexities of the generation known as the Millennials.

In other words, I got schooled on Generation Y, the rapidly maturing cohort born roughly between 1982 and 2001. Although the idealistic punk in me despises the type of shallow pop-demography that fosters generational labels, the lazy writer in me finds such labels undeniably useful. That said, I do prefer the descriptive “Millennial Generation” to the more widely used, though insultingly derivative, “Generation Y” —a term cooked up by a writer no doubt lazier than myself. Say what you will about the kids who follow Generation X, they at least deserve a buzzy moniker of their own. They also deserve, as I discovered after mixing it up with them last week, far more credit than the stereotypes often assigned to them.

First, it’s important to understand what makes the Millennials a unique cohort. While I’m a big believer that people are essentially the same in any generation, it is fair to assume that the majority of people born after, say, 1985 grew up in a drastically different world than did those of us who remember when music came on cassette tapes and Howie Mandel had hair. By the time the younger Millennials hit puberty, the Internet had long since unleashed its vast labyrinths of connectivity and interactivity, while many vestiges of Ye Olde Three-Dimensional World—writing utensils, land lines, brick-and-mortar businesses—were, if not eradicated, at least relegated to quaintness.

To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to how information technology might affect the collective characteristics of the first generation to grow up with it. That the Internet’s culture of vanity and instant gratification could have negative effects on developing minds almost goes without saying, and in fact the Millennials may be the first generation whose members came of age with their own prefabricated set of stereotypes. (One could have predicted such books as Jean Twenge’s Generation Me years before it was published, in 2006.) Nevertheless, as stereotypes spread like wildfire, I was just as quick to assume, unjustly, that the Millennials are as the Old Guard portrays them: scatterbrained, media-addicted narcissists, with white earbuds permanently sutured to their auditory canals, who communicate almost exclusively through text messages and references to the Harry Potter movies. I did not peg them as being particularly ambitious, nor did I imagine their lifetime goals involved anything more than accumulating Twitter followers and maybe auditioning for one of those reality shows with the mean chefs.

Mind you, I still contend that as we advance toward crotchetiness we earn the prerogative to pigeonhole the younger generations, at least to some extent. It’s kind of a rite of passage for curmudgeons. Consider that not so long ago, the baby boomers accused my own cohort of being little more than a generation of cynical, apathetic, videogame-playing underachievers—and to a large degree they were right. However, just as the onset of Gen-X adulthood, typified by a mellower Will Ferrell and a more sensitive Queen Latifah, forced our elders to reevaluate their stereotypes, I am now forced to reevaluate mine. And, judging from the conversations I had with the fresh-faced youngsters at last week’s event, I was dead wrong.

These kids were thoughtful, alert, aware of their unique position on the cusp of a changing world, and, most notably, worried about their future. True, they are more self-centered than previous generations, but narcissism has been on the rise for decades, and the aging process always has a way of tempering overblown egos. And if the Millennials are, ultimately, less introspective than Generation X, it’s not for lack of character, but rather because there is simply too much else to focus on. While the economically prosperous Clinton years left many Xers to brood over the meaninglessness of American opulence, the subsequent groundswell of financial collapse, post-9/11 paranoia, and endless digital distractions has created an environment in which young people have little time to think, much less brood. And even though the Millennials are often criticized for their inflated sense of entitlement, the reality is they are being handed a world in utter shambles. As they enter the workforce, the Great Recession is staring them bull-eyed in the face, with no sign of letting up. The Internet, over the last decade, has dismantled entire industries. Guess who will be left to pick up the pieces? It’s the Millennials who will face the unenviable task of maintaining social and economic sustainability in the post-three-dimensional world, and many of the kids I spoke with are pretty damn scared about that.

Since the mid-1990s, most of the talk about changing technology has focused on how to adapt to it. The Millennials are the first generation whose members face the opposite decision—not how to adapt to technology, but whether or not they should simply reject it. The Internet, to them, is not new media. It’s just something that exists, no different than radios, TVs, automobiles, and hotdogs on a stick. As the pioneering computer scientist Alan Kay once said, “Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.”

Last week, as I mingled with the people who will be running the world sooner than we think, I gained a new perspective on the future of America. I’m glad I stuck around. Admittedly, not all of the young people I met were as lively in conversation as the aforementioned evangelical iPhone moderate, but I was nevertheless quite gratified that no one, throughout the entire evening, interrupted me to send a text. And Harry Potter? His name never even came up.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2010 5:55 am

    I’m amused by how you identify Will Ferrel and Queen Latifah as redeeming the reputation of Generation X; I’m still awaiting the Baby Boomer messiah myself.

    But you’re right–the Millennials are entering adulthood in a far scarier and more immediately drastic world than we could have ever imagined. They’re also much more self-aware and understand the importance of community in a way we never did.

    While I’m still an Xer of the Kurt Kobain school, I don’t feel sorry for myself anymore–OK, at least not as much. I needed that. Thank you.

  2. August 17, 2010 10:46 am

    as long as you are a good parent to them and you give them the love that they deserve it will always be alright.

  3. thewritersroad permalink
    September 29, 2010 5:11 pm

    Well written sir! I’m old enough to remember when almost no one even had a cell phone, let alone be on the web or use email. My 8 yr old nephew comes over and immediately grabs my iPhone to play skateboard vid games while he’s on my mega computer downloading Justin Bieber songs. He’s never NOT heard of cell phones and the internet. Now it’s a backdrop and foreground part of our culture. I would love to have a glimpse into the future and see what an article like this from you would look like ten years from now. See you on Twitter! Again,well written.

    • September 30, 2010 6:33 am

      Thank you for the compliment! Let’s hope I’m around another 10 years to find fault with the future. I think I’ll still be waiting for flying cars.

  4. Siun permalink
    October 1, 2010 10:26 pm

    Chris, very interesting and well written. As one of the oldies (and I’m amused to read that you put yourself in that category as well….believe me, you’re not!!) I tend to look at the younger generation and see a very confident, self assured group ready to take up the challenge and rule the world. But from the above, looks like they are as unsure of themselves as we were.
    With the mess they will inherit … escaping from the here and now might be the perfect anecdote.

    • October 1, 2010 11:28 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Siun! I guess age is always relative. That I remember typewriters, broadcast TV and landlines makes me feel like I grew up in the stone age.

  5. October 8, 2010 9:35 am

    As a member of these ‘Millennials’, I agree. I suspect that we are more cynical for better reason while also being forced to make our own way in the world to a greater extent than before, especially (or at least especially surprising) with college graduates. Yet we have many more tools, mostly encompassed by “The Internet”, with which to do so. Of course, how successful that turns out to be turns on the question of how doomed we all are in the coming decades. It’ll be fun to watch.

  6. October 29, 2010 1:18 am

    Worried about long-term effects. Worried about the future. Sounds like Generation (W)orry. They should toughen up a little, some mandatory military service would do them good. Back in my day, we had to walk uphill both ways to get anywhere.
    My friend came over recently to bring her son to Comic Con. Can you believe at 19 years old he didn’t even TRY to sneak into a bar for after-parties? wtf. I tried to set ’em straight, but you know kids, they just don’t listen…

  7. October 30, 2010 10:57 pm

    I saw my old typewriter in a thrift store and nearly fell over with laughter. I think, on the whole, each generation views the next as annoying and shallow. However, I always think about how I’m a living relic-and one day-when I die-I will have died a relic of my time. Haha.

  8. Madeline permalink
    July 12, 2011 7:41 am

    Well, as I’ve been identified as an anti-iPhone evangelist in this post, I feel full-disclosure would be warranted here–I’m typing this on my iPhone 🙂

    But actually I didn’t have one yet when that conversation happened. But even a regular phone was enough to provide me with a lot of reasons to wonder about the mental health effects of my generation being so plugged in that we’re sort of tapped-out most of the time.

    And yes, a lot of us are terrified. For me personally, sometimes growing up felt like being stuck at the sidelines of a soccer match while policies, interest groups, economies and other forces kicked around the world I’d be inheriting–and left me with an environment that might never recover.

    And in my own generation I think I’ve been seeing a lot of divided consciousness (there’s a good TED talk sort of about this from a guy who woke up from a coma)…sometimes I seriously worry about what will happen to us if our consciousness keeps becoming increasingly fragmented.

    But, I’ve also been incredibly inspired by some of the things my generation has done with the tools at hand.

    And yes, I’ve gone to the dark side by getting the iPhone. But I did find that TED talk on it while I was at the gym…oh, and in case you wanted the latest news on HP, I was listening to NPR the other day (on my iPhone of course) and learned that there’s a whole music genre called wizard rock–over 500 bands, and all they do is sing Harry-Potter-themed songs 😉

  9. July 20, 2011 2:50 am

    Well, it’s nice to hear from you, Madeline. I don’t think iPhones are the dark side, by the way. Like any new technology, it all comes down to how people use it. I was struck by how much you seemed to realize that last summer, which is why I wrote the post. Hope all is well!

  10. February 26, 2014 5:24 pm

    Hi there!

    I enjoyed this post. There seems to be a generation stereotype when it comes to addiction to smart phones.

    I think like most everything, balance is key. If you are too busy staring at your phone to even say more than ‘uh-huh’ to the person you are going out with, then it is a problem. But it’s okay to check a Tweet or two here and there in between conversation. I think. I don’t like to be on my phone too much when I’m out, because I don’t like to ignore people.

    But I’m not offended when people have to check their messages. I only get offended if they are spending more time on their phone then they do talking.

    Cheers,

    Claire

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