Millennials Are Embracing Anger — And That’s A Good Thing

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Millennials are turning anger into inspiration and using it as fuel to take action.

I was out recently with a group of friends when, over wine and spaghetti, the conversation turned to feminism. Everyone at the table — a mix of millennials and Gen Xers — said she thought of herself as a feminist, but several were skeptical of the way the movement was represented online. “Everyone just seems so angry on social media,” one said, shaking her head.

I understood her point, but I also empathized with the outrage — wasn’t she tired of being catcalled and having her ideas repeated by male coworkers in meetings? Couldn’t she imagine wanting to yell a little about hearing everyone from talk show hosts to the president joke about sexual assault? Letting it slide and “leaning in” didn’t seem to be working, so why not try being honest about how these things made us feel? Ignoring and hiding our anger wasn’t getting our point across, so why not let some of it out?

“Well,” she said carefully, looking more at the table than at me. “You are a great example of what I mean. Your posts make you seem so angry.”

Ignoring and hiding our anger wasn’t getting our point across, so why not let some of it out?

I admit, I use the occasional caps lock to get a point across, and I don’t have a ton of patience on my personal wall for people who play devil’s advocate. So this wasn’t the first time someone had called attention to my acknowledgment of my own negative emotions as a flaw, a potential turn-off to more “level-headed” people. I’m sure it’s true to an extent, but for every person who has unfriended me or chewed me out in a private message, two or three have told me they’ve learned something or felt “seen” by my posts. Depending on how you curate your news feeds and media diet, it’s likely you’ve recently had an experience like mine — or my friend’s.

Maybe you’ve found yourself typing in all caps about fascism, or being criticized for a taking a passionate tone about public education or Black lives, or been un-friended for posting “angry” anti-Trump memes.

More and more of us are protesting, boycotting, calling out, and sharing memes that reflect our anger about politics and social issues. In response, the more conflict-averse among us ask for pictures of kittens and puppies instead, and copy and paste pleas to “break up the negativity” in their feeds. We make calls to our senators, and right-wing outlets describe it using words like “harassment” rather than “civic engagement.” We take to the streets with cardboard signs, and commentators and in-laws call it a “riot.” Scroll through your news feed or cable channels and you’ll easily find fights over what social media is for, what government is for, even over what streets and sidewalks are for (i.e. protesting or driving even if it means mowing down protesters).

Almost everyone is angry about something right now, and if you’re a member of the millennial generation, it’s likely become part of your identity — whether you identify with it personally or not.

How did we get here? To answer that question, many have taken the simplest route: pointing fingers at the supposed weakness of the youngest politically and economically active generation. Millennials — people roughly between the ages of 20 and 36 — are often held up as the angriest generation (also the laziest, most entitled, and most sensitive). “Generation Me,” we’ve been called, especially since the advent of social media and the selfie. Writers like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind” in The Atlantic) and cultural pundits like Piers Morgan pontificate about how millennials are weak-willed, entitled, and addicted to outrage.

It’s true that more and more of us are protesting, boycotting, and sharing our rage on social media about things that seem wrong or inauthentic to us, from companies or politicians that don’t support our values to caught-on-tape incidences of discrimination and abuse. Fifty-six percent of young adults consider themselves activists in some way, and about half consider it an important part of who they are, according to advertising firm TBWA Worldwide. And of course, though it’s hard to pin down just how many, some of us are trolls, badgering strangers and friends alike with comments and other behavior that ranges from annoying to dangerous.

The truth is that anger exists among people of all generations — just take a look at some of the coverage of campaign rallies on both sides of the political divides around the world in 2016, or the Thanksgiving tables of many American families. Millennials certainly aren’t the only ones who get upset about bad sports calls, and we aren’t alone in experiencing road rage, though fewer of us are driving. If there’s something different about millennials’ relationship to anger, it might be simply that we have an easier time recognizing and expressing it.

The truth is that anger exists among people of all generations.

“I feel like we just have more mediums to respond to cultural events, and we are used to posting, commenting, and generating ‘thinkpieces’ on the fly,” says Ebony Murphy-Root, a self-described “old millennial” at 34.

That response has become so associated with millennials that Kat Tanaka Okopnik, a member of Generation X, says she’s often “accused of being a millennial” when she refuses to mask her anger when posting on social media.

All people — not just millennials — want to belong to part of a group and to empathize with our group mates, explains Dean Burnett, author of The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head Is Really Up To. This tendency makes us more likely to form an “aroused mob” when anger is part of the mix, and “social networks exacerbate this, making it easier to communicate with large, like-minded groups and focus on others with their anger.”

“Anger is a very social emotion,” Burnett says . “Someone who is angry prompts corresponding reactions in the brains of those around them, either making them more calm in order to neutralize the angry person, or making them angry in turn.”

This hints at the “outrage machine” so many have derided. But we have a tendency to look back at our history and see it as much more calm and civil than it ever was.

Anger isn’t a uniquely millennial trait; if anything, it’s our comfort with — and methods of — expressing and wielding our anger that are unique.

Life has, of course, never been fair, but people born between the early 1980s and late 1990s have inherited and experienced a unique set of challenges in a world that wasn’t fully prepared to address them.

As children we experienced 9/11, the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and the Iraq War, either through personal connections or constant media coverage, while our brains were still developing. We had no name or road map for the fear and rage that followed, and neither did our parents or grandparents, whose wars and crises were unique in their own ways.

We graduated high school at a time when college costs had reached their then-highest level (and that cost has continued to rise). Most of those who went to college took on massive debt to do so, and then graduated into the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression. Income inequality reached its highest point since the Depression in 2013, fueling over the ensuing years strikes, protests, reform movements, and a whole lot of resentment. Meanwhile, hate crimes and hate group membership have also been on the rise, and police shootings of unarmed people of color — and the difficulty of achieving justice in the aftermath — have gained increasing attention. Opioid abuse — whether in the form of heroin or prescription drugs– is on the rise, especially among young adults.

And for the first time, some studies suggest that today’s young adults may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. As far back as 2013 researchers were declaring millennials the “most stressed” demographic in the country.

For the first time, some studies suggest that today’s young adults may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Now, anger in America has reached a fever pitch. There is a sense that we are on the verge of either creating a collection of powerful movements fueled by anger and outrage, or becoming more divided and dangerous than ever as a culture. It seems clear that which way we go will depend on our ability to recognize our anger for what it is and find ways to employ it productively without letting it destroy us. Millennials, thanks to our adaptability and technological savvy, may be uniquely suited to addressing this challenge. Behind the thinkpiece links and all-caps rants, we are turning anger into inspiration and using it as fuel to take action.

“When you look at the protests that millennials have done and compare them to the protests of the 1960s, it’s hard not to look at millennials and think, wow, these people are channeling their anger in useful ways,” says Amy Lynch, a writer and speaker on generational conflict and communication and author of the Generational Edge blog.

We are turning anger into inspiration and using it as fuel to take action.

She points out that during the 1960s and 1970s, the vast majority of people were on the outside of the activism — they either didn’t pay much attention, or didn’t get involved. In our world of constant updates and instantaneous reactions, most millennials are unlikely to have that same luxury, even when things don’t directly affect us. And thanks to a relentless news cycle and unprecedented access to information of all kinds, the things that do affect us have been laid bare.

“Millennials and boomers share idealism as a generational trait, but it looks different,” says Lynch. “Boomers yell and scream about things — just look at Washington right now. Millennials say, ‘This is a mess. How do we fix this?’ and they roll up their sleeves and go to work.”

When Mechi Estevez-Cruz, 27, first told members of her community in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, that she planned to start a tourism company that directly addressed the ethics of experiencing another culture, some told her she was wasting her time.

“Mechi, you can’t talk to people like that, no one will listen,” she recalls them saying. But, angered by seeing so many foreigners disrespect the people and culture of her home, she was determined to do something about it.

“I knew I couldn’t just teach Dominican culture classes — unfortunately there isn’t much demand because people think we have no culture or cultural consciousness,” she said. “I was upset to see how foreign people acted as if we owed them for their presence and as a result needed to lower prices, et cetera.”

So Estevez-Cruz founded Una Vaina Bien Spanish, a school that specializes in teaching people about Dominican culture, food, language, the perils of tourism and how to travel through a community like Cabarete in a more ethical and empathetic way.

“I seek to educate people that we have a rich history and culture, and that we deserve to be respected on our land,” she said. And locals and tourists alike have been receptive to her no-sugar-coating approach. “So far, I’ve had no complaints.”

Like Mechi Estevez-Cruz, many millennials have launched startups aimed at channeling their frustration — generally considered a negative feeling — into something positive and mission-driven. There was very little acknowledgment in the travel industry that not all travelers are white, so award-winning entrepreneur Zim Ugochukwu created Travel Noire. Kiah Williams, 28, is redistributing unused medicine and Jen Anderson, 27, and Jane Mitchell, 28, are providing housing for young people released from prison. And action does not replace expression — in almost every case the mission is clear, and it doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that some kind of frustration was a major motivator.

While there’s some evidence that anger can lead to stress and harm relationships, when managed properly, embracing anger can actually increase optimism, creativity, and performance, according to Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, authors of The Upside of Your Darkside. In fact, experts say the positivity-policed culture many millennials grew up in has likely done us more harm than good. Instead, psychologists like Susan David of Harvard Medical School suggest striving for authenticity, which is right up millennials’ alley.

When managed properly, embracing anger can actually increase optimism, creativity, and performance.

But in trying to break down barriers, millennial entrepreneurs and activists threaten longstanding norms that some members of even our own generation aren’t quite ready to give up. Expressing so-called negative emotions publicly can be dangerous for many people, especially women and people of color, who are disproportionately targeted by “trolls” and other abusers and harassers, both online and off.

“It is a more delicate dance for African American women,” says Dr. Jeanette Walley-Jean, an associate professor of psychology and director of integrative studies at Clayton State University who has written about the “angry black woman” trope. “Anger is a place of power in our society, so when it is demonstrated by white men, it is generally perceived favorably, or at a minimum, acceptable. When anybody else demonstrates anger, depending on who they’re demonstrating it to, it can have a negative connotation. Black people’s anger about police brutality, for example, gets coded as aggression versus white women or other groups of power that can be perceived more favorably.”

Walley-Jean points to the example of Black Lives Matter, a movement that has clearly succeeded in getting people talking about police brutality and empathizing with victims, and helped usher in change in local criminal justice systems around the country. However, BLM’s marches have often been depicted in the news and on social media as disruptive even when all participants are peaceful, while the Women’s March on Washington, where participation was largely dominated by white women, received direct comparisons and praise for the lack of scuffles with police.

Expressing so-called negative emotions publicly can be dangerous for many people, especially women and people of color.

“Anger is a positive emotion — it motivates us to do something,” says Walley-Jean. “There are some really significant things going on in our world that warrant that response, and I appreciate that millennials are attuned to that, and connected enough to be angry. People are finding ways to use their anger to affect change wherever they are, whatever that looks like for them.”

Societal limits on whether, how, and when we can feel and express anger do nothing to make anger or its underlying causes disappear. The dismissive and sometimes demonizing way terms like “angry” and “outraged” continue to be used, especially when describing women and people of color, suggest that our culture, while arguably great at recognizing anger, still has a way to go toward understanding it. But it’s arguably millennials who are leading the way in that direction.

“I’ve been doing this thing lately where I write odes to things I’m supposed to feel ashamed of,” says poet Olivia Gatwood in an introduction to her spoken word poem, “Ode To My Bitch Face.” “Laughter is a foreign language to your dry ice tongue,” she chants. “Resting bitch face they call you, but there is nothing restful about you, no.”

The poem is an ode but also a lament, a complaint turned tool to fight the patriarchy, and a not-subtle embrace of the Resting Bitch Face moniker often used to describe the expression on a woman’s face when she’s going about her business without smiling. This effort to enthusiastically reclaim something intended as a put-down is part of a bigger movement among millennials — especially millennial women — to unapologetically embrace emotions we’ve been taught view with shame, and at times highlight them to help make our lived experiences more vivid to those who misunderstand or deny them.

In addition to poetry, protest, and the increasingly personal nature of social media, this trend can also be seen in the explosion of personal essays, which many millennials have effectively been writing for years, beginning with LiveJournal diaries or personal blogs. The growth of the personal essay has garnered some well-deserved criticism of online publications for exposing some writers to the wolf pack that is the comment section, but it has also helped to normalize vulnerability, encouraging us to express our negative emotions and experiences as well as the positive. It’s how I have been able to imagine — at least in some small way — what it’s like to grow up extremely poor, to have an abortion, to be a Black person in an all-White neighborhood.

Essays and social media posts are the only exposure that some people have to the lived experiences of people whose lives are vastly different. And when what we read makes us angry — “How could that have happened?” “Why is this allowed?” “How could someone be so cruel?” — it can make us take action.

Healthy anger, experts say, allows us to respond rather than react, and that’s something millennials are embracing.

We are at a precarious place as we attempt to use the same emotion that got us here to propel ourselves to someplace better, but there’s a strong argument to be made that we should push forward, for our own future and that of the next generation.

In Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra attempts to explain the many different events that have led to such hostility, aggression, and tendency toward destruction in both the U.S. and the U.K. that led to the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote. Mishra argues that instead of retreating from this intense emotionalism, we need to face it head on.

“With so many of our landmarks in ruins, we can barely see where we are headed, let alone chart a path. But even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul,” he writes. “The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideas of freedom, equality, and prosperity.”

Author’s photo of the wall of love in the Union Square subway station just after the election.

Amid the memes and rants, millennials are working through our anger together in public, sounding a call to action for this very same sentiment. Rather than suppressing our emotions in order to attack social and political issues impartially, we’re embracing those feelings and their power to bring people together.

Mixed in with “Love Trumps Hate” and “Not My President,” there’s another phrase you’ll see on many protest signs: “Try empathy.” For us, it’s not a replacement for anger; they’re both vital components for our survival.