What’s Wrong With Millennials? Nothing.
By Rob Huckins
It finally happened. The Baby Boomers became second-place. The Millennial Generation became the largest group of Americans this year (75.9 million) edging out the Boomers (74.9 million). Millennials currently endure some of the most large scale generational loathing of any demographic group based upon birth year. Lazy. Entitled. Crass. Soft. These are some of the nicer things said about this group of Americans whose membership requires one to be between 18 and 35 years old (1981–1998). This latest demographic news will undoubtedly lather up the generational angst of older Americans worried the country is going to hell in a hand basket, a commonly held trope among those nearing or of Social Security-eligibility age.
Social media has largely replaced “traditional” media as the battlefield of choice when it comes to Millennial-bashing, a dynamic symbolic of this generational tug of war considering social media was mostly created by Boomers (at least in terms of the infrastructure making it possible) yet the platform was mastered and subsequently abandoned by Millennials when warranted (young people largely fled Facebook once it became infested by their grandparents typing in all caps while posting political memes). Millennial-bashing is not limited to older folks, as even Millennials themselves occasionally engage in online video confessionals lamenting “what’s happened to their generation” in some act of self-loathing greeted with glee by Boomers eager to see anyone under forty with views similar to their own.
All this hand-wringing and generational mud slinging is reductive at best and at its worst, damaging. Boomers appear quick to forget how they were once viewed by their elders, the group now routinely called The Greatest Generation for their efforts in whipping the Great Depression and winning World War II while following all that up with building the country we know today. In many ways, aside from Bill Gates and some other luminaries, what do we have to show for the Boomers being around for this long? Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (with their mixed legacies) best exemplify what Boomers have given us for White House leadership (not to mention our increasingly gridlocked and leadership-challenged Congress). Most of the strife we see in our country — political, environmental, economic, societal and otherwise — cannot be placed at the feet of Millennials. They had nothing to do with creating any of this mess. But in the cruelest of generational card tricks, Millennials will own all of these troubles and more. And if everything works out in the end, Millennials will have saved our nation from collapse, not caused it.
According to the most recent Pew Center projections, Millennials will peak at just over 80 million people by 2036, about the time most in this group are in their early forties and mid-fifties. In recent history, this is when a generation takes “ownership” of the country, establishing its own cultural norms and laws and rules to live by, essentially shaping the nation for years to come. The Greatest Generation certainly did it. Boomers gave it their best shot (thank goodness we got the Internet out of the deal, at least). And soon, Millennials will have their shot. Interestingly, Generation X (those aged 36 to 50), occupies an interesting bridge role in all this since they stand to bear very little of the fruit planted by The Greatest Generation but may not be around long enough to successfully counteract this trend. There simply may not be enough time given the gravity of the problems we face over the next two or three decades. The best Xers can do is support Millennials in their future endeavors, encouraging them to blaze their own trail to solving the world’s ills. God knows they’ll need all the help they can get. The environment is at a true tipping point, one we may have already passed, leaving the literal and figurative clean up to those born after 1980. Politics are a mess, with partisan divisions so embedded it seems naive to think they can be knocked aside anytime soon. The economy has made huge strides from the brink of global disaster in 2008 but remains grossly out of whack and precarious to the slightest of adjustments. Social norms and cultural values are undergoing a wide scale gut check with new parameters and territory being explored and fought over. We haven’t even mentioned foreign policy issues like terrorism yet.
These are just the large-scale “headline” issues, a cursory run-down of the biggest challenges without the subheadings and all their complexities. Although these areas all need significant attention, the real point of no turning back comes in about twenty years. Thirty, tops. This is when Millennials will be the age Boomers are now. The question then will be what will we have to show for their efforts? The Greatest Generation was borne out of dire circumstances, events they did not create but overcame anyway, helping to forge the foundation of a great and powerful nation along the way. The Boomers arguably got more benefits from the cradle onward than any generation in American history yet seem earnestly peeved than anyone after them would want the same thing. This is contradictory and hypocritical not to mention futile. Millennials, like their grandparents and great parents, inherit conditions they had no hand in creating yet will have to solve, not just for our own national prosperity but for our very survival. The bet here is they will.
Voters for decades have bemoaned the limitations of two party politics, and Millennials may end up actually making this happen. Millennial views of the two likely nominees for the upcoming presidential election are dismal. Hillary Clinton easily crushes Donald Trump among Millennials in a general election (61% to 25%, respectively, according to the most recent Pew Center data) but this is cosmetic, a lesser of two evils perspective. Clinton and Trump both suffer significant negative ratings among Millennials (67% and 75%, respectively) and only Bernie Sanders enjoyed a positive rating among this age group, but just barely (54%). The moral of this story? Wait out these people and work on the next generation’s leaders. It’s coming. A third party may take root due to these unique circumstances and the Millennials ability to just outnumber everyone else. Polls show most Millennials don’t care enough about same sex marriage and other prominent social issues which concern Boomers to do much either way about them. They will either continue the path to more progressive legislation connected with social issues or simply not bother to oppose it; not out of apathy but out of channeling their energies into other areas. As a whole, Millennials demonstrate a larger capacity for charitable efforts and a broader global view of citizenship than any of their generational predecessors, and since they will largely not benefit from the inherent economic advantages enjoyed by many of their elders, Millennials may choose to at least secure some basic material advantages (education or health care) while focusing on expanding economic benefits to a wider range of citizens. Everyone else had their chance; soon it will be up to them.
This is not to say all Millennials will strive for greatness or a cause larger than themselves. What generation does? Anyone who thinks everyone born in time to be part of The Greatest Generation was truly great is delusional and naive. Generations are made up ultimately of millions of individuals, people who have their own desires, goals, needs and viewpoints. Millennials are no different in this respect and shouldn’t be held any higher in this standard than anyone before them. Some Millennials are selfish, crass, entitled and boorish. So are a lot of people from every generation. If you inherited a multi-trillion dollar debt you had no role in creating you might feel some anger, too. There will be stumbles along the way, mistakes and missteps from which they will hopefully learn. But as a generation, Millennials will face collective challenges we haven’t seen since World War II, hurdles which will require collective action to overcome. Boomers and Xers may have faced the first sprouts of these problems but they will be gone before they turn into the trees which will eventually require mass clearing for our survival as a nation. Criticism of Millennials has become tiresome and largely pointless, a reductive act aimed at disparaging a younger group using evidence of a largely anecdotal and unreliably predictive nature. At this point, Boomers are pretty much yelling at Millennial kids to get off their collective lawns. The problem with this approach is their criticism is aimed at the group which will end up having to fix the lawn anyway. Whether they walked on it or not.