Behind the Scenes of Millennial Sameness
It’s no secret that we, humans, are wired to put people into boxes.
From a psychological perspective, thinking about others from a collective standpoint is known as social categorization, the cognitive process by which we place individuals into social groups.
Typically, just as we categorize objects into different types, so do we categorize people based on their specific social group memberships. And once we do so, we begin to engage with them as members of a social group instead of individuals.
According to psychology, categories are essential for optimal mental functioning; because without them, we would not be able to make sense of the complex environment around them.
Oxford Research Encyclopedias states that social categorization is not only a cognitive process for understanding and explaining the world, but also a coping mechanism that helps us better organize the world.
“That is, the groups we belong to such as genders, ethnicities, religions, and nations are based on social categories, and thus phenomena such as stereotyping and person perception rest on social categorization.”
In terms of demographics, we categorize generations into the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Gen Y or Millennials, and Generation Z.
Today, the hot topic that everyone talks about revolves around millennials, the generation that, for some reason, everybody loves to hate.
Ah, millennials. We may love them or hate them, but numbers crunched by Pew Research show that “millennials are on the cusp of surpassing Baby Boomers as America’s largest living adult generation”.
Globally, we are part of an exclusive club of 1.8 billion people, which accounts for around a quarter of the world’s population.
Moreover, by 2020 we are estimated to make up 35 per cent of the global workforce.
Lifestyle-wise, the media portrays the ultimate (most likely American or European) millennial owning a bicycle instead of a car. A wellness-obsessed individual who grows his/her own tomatoes, spends too much money on speciality coffee and avocado toast and is transfixed by the gig economy.
Interestingly, the ultimate western millennial constantly questions their existence and puts emphasis on purpose and work-life balance. He/she also may have decided to leave a cushy corporate career to pursue their dream of being an entrepreneur or a digital nomad.
To some extent, all these stereotypes could apply to many of us — or not.
Because if we zoom in, we realize that each region of the world has proved to have specific influences and experiences that serve as the cultural texture for how an individual forms their own worldview.
Naturally, some major factors that define a generation remain technology, education, family, language, culture, and politics — institutions that deeply shape a generation’s core values.
What’s interesting is that in Asia, where I live right now, millennials seem to have many such traits in common with their western peers, but the context of their lives is actually very different.
This is why we should take into consideration that each of us is impacted by the societal and cultural shifts that are shaping our generation.
One such difference is the housing situation.
Whereas Westerners tend to move out when they finish college or high school, according to a CBRE survey of 5,000 millennials between the ages of 22 and 29 from APAC (China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, and Australia), 65% of millennials aspire to get a place of their own, however, 63% live with their parents.
Similarly, differences are also obvious from a social perspective.
It is known that mimicry and social influence occur actively when we look to our peers’ opinions to determine appropriate behaviour.
Influence also sometimes occurs because we believe that other people have valid knowledge about an opinion or issue, and we use that information to behave in a certain way or like certain things.
A WSJ article on The Brain Science of Conformity states that beyond the desire to belong, conformity is actually a simple process that can be described as follows.
“Oxytocin makes us more emotionally involved with members of our own group and boosts our longing to agree with them — which doesn’t involve the cognitive contortions of private conformity. Just being safely part of the crowd is enough.”
Beyond psychology, the reality is that the mentality and behaviour of any generation are deeply shaped by the economic, political, and social milieu that they live in.
In Eastern Europe, where I come from, the fall of communism in ’89 has literally liberated many countries including my homeland and transformed the dynamics of the population and economy — giving us the flexibility to live and work anywhere in Europe, and prompting us to search for better economic opportunities. This could be the reason why our generation has learned to become more open-minded, flexible and willing to relocate.
Again, while western millennials prioritize opportunities to make a social or cultural impact in the organisations they work for, it is clear that in Asia, the importance of financial stability still dominates people’s career goals. In this context, it is not shocking that traditional ideas of climbing the corporate ladder and accumulating financial wealth are still key elements of success.
Looking at the cultural context of certain regions, we can see how finances are strongly prioritized in Asia and what’s the link between them and family relationships — it’s important to note that societal and family pressures of taking care of older family members are still shaping the priorities of Asian millennials. For instance, Chinese and Singaporean governments even have laws that are making it a legal obligation to take care of elders.
Despite sameness being pervasive in each generation, I still believe that each country’s millennials are different, but because of globalization, technology, the dissemination of Western culture, and the dynamics of our era, millennials worldwide are somewhat becoming more similar to one another than to older generations within their own nations.
I’m a millennial, and I see first-hand how social conformity can be a major generational trait.
It bothers me sometimes that we are all considered the same. That we are all put in the entitled, narcissistic, and non-ethical bucket.
But truth be told, collectively, we are known to be good at multitasking and coming up with solutions. We are tech-savvy, creative, we think on our own two feet, and take pride in being problem solvers.
We are hardworking but sometimes fickle-minded because we want a healthy work-life balance. We want to make an impact on our career and personal life and simply not settle for less. Some of us even question the status quo.
Yet, we have still been touted as lazy and apathetic.
We shouldn’t take it personally though, because, in hindsight, the media has used stereotypes for every generation in the past century.
From the Forbes article A Millennial Manifesto: Why Gen Y Will Change The World, we learn that:
Americans born between 1925 and 1945 were originally dubbed “The Lost Generation.”
Baby Boomers, born between 1946–1960, were said to be a spoiled generation reluctant to grow up.
Gen X, born between 1961–1980, was portrayed as a coddled generation that complained too much.
Fast forward to our day and age, and we see how a similar approach is being used against millennials.
Time Magazine called us the Me, Me, Me Generation.
A Business Insider article claimed that millennials ruined mayonnaise.
The Washington Post blamed millennials for the 2016 election result.
Buzzfeed News dubbed us The Burnout Generation.
We have been labelled as snowflakes, an insult to describe someone who is “overly sensitive or as feeling entitled to special treatment or consideration.”
Fun fact: the term originated in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club.
Bottom line is that we continue to be the talk of the town — and Google.
But why? Simply for having a more individualistic perspective on life, career, work, politics, and society?
I beg to differ. I believe our generation, no matter where we are located, has accomplished plenty of things.
We are socially-aware. We value equality and diversity. We are eager to make a difference.
A Forbes article writes backs me up by stating that “diversity and inclusion programs in American workplaces have generated more attention over the past several years, in part because of the millennial generation; more than half of millennials would gladly take a pay cut to work for an employer who shares their values, and nearly half of millennials (47 per cent) actively look for diversity and inclusion programs in their prospective employers before finalizing a job decision.”
I think stereotyping is not key here, so let’s avoid generalizations and consider these ideas instead.
Let’s appreciate nuance.
Let’s challenge assumptions.
Let’s think critically.
And let’s embrace differences.