Every time there is a conversation about millennial politics, popular culture, psychology or urban poverty, a slow-burn debate rages on in the background about millennial morality. Do millennials have their own distinct value system? Do they adopt or abhor so-called ‘traditional’ values, and whether somehow, on the whole, this present youth generation is special?
The truth is, every generation creates their own set of values and norms. They rebel, they reason, they reject, they regret, they reform and sometimes they rediscover. Eventually they may even grow old to unnervingly find themselves eerily similar to their parents in some aspects! The angry rebels of the 60s and 70s are now our grandparents and parents, and their values are today’s traditions. So yes, every generation adapts a value system that is both rooted in traditional values and reflective of the norms and shifting moralities of their youth.
So what makes this generation special? Does anything?
Lumping such a large and dynamic population of the world under one label is perhaps a mistake. In fact, I routinely hear 20-somethings referring to those only 3–4 years elder to them as the ‘previous generation’. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s try to bracket them together and understand what distinguishing features, if any, does this generation possess. It seems to me that the youth of today strive a lot more to be unique individuals than their elder counterparts. They are special perhaps mostly because they want to be. Much of the foundational needs of the ‘millennial value system’ essentially comes from a need to navigate this diversity. The need to conform and belong is constantly juxtaposed with the need to stand out. The impatience to be special demands a certain resilience to be different.
Modern communication tools — especially the internet, and especially the phone with the internet — have had a dramatic impact on all our lives. Today technology intersects with our lives in multiple ways and overall has hastened the pace at which the world around us evolves. More importantly, it has impacted the pace at which ideas and information flow.
Fundamentally, our values are a function of the formative influences and experiences we are exposed to. Previous generations were largely exposed to an influence set limited to their families and immediate communities, particularly for most of their formative years. Their values, their self-image, their sense of right and wrong and their perspective of the world was therefore reflective to a large extent of their immediate environments. Information and new ideas traveled slowly. Revolutions took years to gain momentum. Many, perhaps, faded away into oblivion without reaching critical mass.
Millennials, however, live in a world that where the pace of generation and dissipation of ideas has significantly accelerated. Their influence set is much wider. Their ‘peers’ and ‘role-models’ span continents and cultures. They are exposed to ideas from across of the world. Their opinions and rebellions have a lot more voice, and the impact of this voice has been for everyone to see. Modern day revolutions have happened over Twitter and Facebook.
Closer home, structural barriers that have long existed in the Indian society are being questioned and broken down everyday. As people interact with each other, they co-create a new set of norms that make sense to them. More and more youth think of themselves as global citizens of the world, and fight for causes that transverse their immediate spheres of existence.
None of this is to say that millennials are necessarily better or smarter than the previous generations. Nor that traditional values are wrong and need to be rejected, and I think by and large this generation recognizes that. There are traditional values that must be preserved — such as respect of elders, family bonding, importance of hard work. But there are also those traditions that need to be questioned, instead of being blindly accepted as the gospel truth, such as traditional gender roles, social inequality or a refusal to accept alternate sexuality. Finally, there are those traditions and values that millennials would need to negotiate and create for themselves, which are the big challenges and questions of our time — our relationship with the environment, intergenerational responsibility and economic inequality across the globe to name a few.
The world we live in today is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Navigating it demands more of all of us. There is little in the world today that is undisputed or without an alternate point of view — but honestly, that’s not new. The diversity of opinions has always existed — what’s new is our access to it and the availability of these platforms where we can meet new people and get exposed to their alternate perspectives. To use these well and to be able to collaborate effectively to create positive change actually requires the same fundamental human values that have always held, through the centuries — fairness, kindness, honesty, mutual respect and tolerance.
Finally, I would like to personally believe that millennials are special, and the reason I am so optimistic about their ability to navigate this world and adapt and adopt a superior value set is because this generation, more than any other generation, asks why. We question, instead of accepting on face value, and that makes a lot of difference. If one wants to motivate a millennial to do better at work or life, one needs to provide a good answer to their why.
At the same time, my biggest concern also is that we don’t ask why enough. We often stop at the headline on our social feed without understanding the context. We want answers, but we often give in to confirmatory biases of hearing the answers we like and ignoring the ones we don’t. We stop at the first or second why instead of asking why until we truly uncover the root cause of an issue and gain the empathy to understand an opposing perspective. Because without empathy, all you have is a debate.
I hope for more than a debate. I hope we, as millennials, ask why more often. I hope our values outlast us.