Recent polls have shown that millennials are less patriotic, less religious and less interested in having children than previous generations. Many seem fascinated with the concept of millennials, believing that they are extraordinarily unique and the forerunners of fundamental shifts in the way we think and live. Given the attention that has been paid to this age group, it’s important to examine it with some care.
The term “millennial” applies to those born between 1980 and 1996. The oldest millennials are now approaching 40, while the youngest are 23. It is difficult to think of those in their early 20s and those about to turn 40 as being part of the same generation. Not only has the former group lived almost twice as long as the latter, but more important, they are at different points in their lives, one just entering the job market filled with a sense of self-worth and the other having worked for 15 or 20 years and discovered the limits of self-worth.
A generation is an arbitrary concept. Each stage of life is characterized by certain attitudes toward politics or culture. Millennials, for example, are generally thought to be progressive, yet the very definition of how a millennial lives and thinks is in its own way peculiarly biased by class, race and nationality, among other things. A 30-year-old American working for Goldman Sachs in New York experiences life differently than a 30-year-old housemaid in Georgia. And both experience life differently than a 30-year-old living in Tibet or Namibia. Generations are meant to be global classifications, but the experience of being 30 is very different depending on the place in which one lives and class to which one belongs. Even if we confine the discussion to the United States, there are vast differences between people belonging to the same generation depending on geography, economic circumstances and so on.
When people speak of millennials, I get the sense that they’re referring to college graduates, working flexible hours and playing video games while toying with the idea of socialism. Such people are certainly included in this group, but it must be remembered that 70 percent of high school graduates enter college and only about 60 percent of those who start college actually graduate. That means that less than half of all millennials finish college, which means that more than half of the generation is experiencing a very different life than the stereotype might represent.
I’m a member of the baby-boom generation that was regarded much the same as the millennials are now, as an extraordinarily unique group that would change everything and could not be understood by those who were older. We were perhaps best characterized by lyrics from a Bob Dylan song: “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land and don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” This is true of all generations, some with more justification than others. Each generation encompassed a vast array of differences, and more important, each generation changed as they grew older. The baby boomers thought they had developed a new theory of sexuality accompanied by mind-liberating drugs. That, at least, was how they were seen, although the vast majority did not get invited to the party.
Our adolescence and young adulthood was filled with arrogance and certainty. We then married and reinvented our parents’ lives – which we swore we wouldn’t do. We disappeared into the joys and tedium of having children, and when we came out of that, as with our parents, we discovered that we were no longer young or cool and that we were caught in professions that carried with them their own agony. I remember living in New York City in the 1960s and thinking that what we were doing there had never happened before, only to discover that our lives were a repeat of the endless drama of being human. By now, the oldest millennials have learned that lesson, as have those who never got to participate in the myth of the millennial.
This was all understood before the modern Enlightenment. Plato and the Bible are filled with the eternal process of life. But the Enlightenment introduced the concept of progress, the idea that humanity is on a path to perfection and that every generation stands on the shoulders of the preceding one, seeing more and farther than before. At the heart of this knowledge was science and technology. These were the critical benchmarks of the evolution of humanity.
We live in a culture created by the Enlightenment. The ancients used to regard age and wisdom as linked. The Enlightenment turned time into something more. Those who came later may not have been wiser, but by definition, they were more knowledgeable about nature, science and technology than their parents. Rather than seeking the wisdom of age, they cherished the knowledge they had and conceded the irrelevance of those who were older. The proof for this was the development of technology that previous generations didn’t have.
Millennials are the latest in a line of generations from the past century, all of which were assumed to be bringing new ways of living and thinking, things that Dylan said their parents couldn’t understand. The things they bring are certainly new but not always better. I still insist that the Blackberry was far better than the iPhone. But then, it is the role of a baby boomer, which had to be the coolest generation of all time, to cede the field to the new cool generation, which all too soon will be replaced by the next generation.
There really is no such thing as a millennial. Differences in ages, cultures and classes make it impossible to fit so many people into one group. The baby boomers too were a myth. Many forget that those who fought in Vietnam were also boomers, yet they didn’t fit into the widely accepted definition of a boomer.
The danger in the concepts of boomers and millennials is that they create an illusion about what the future will hold. They imagine that the dreams of 20- and 30-year-olds will come to fruition. And these concepts exclude so many members of those generations who never have the opportunity to dream the dreams of the mythical generation.
What we want our lives to be and what they will be are very different. All the polls that ask millennials what they want now will reveal the dreams we all had before the reality of life set in. But one thing is certain. In another generation, the children of the millennials will laugh at the primitive video games of their parents and the idea of social media, promising that this time, it will all be different.