Thursday, December 10, 2015

It's Time to Move Past 'Millennials'

(from the December 10, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Let me say at the outset that I work with the age group of human beings who are called “millennials.” I put that in quotes to show that it is a coined label and not necessarily a real word.

The term comes from the word for a period of 1,000 years because this group of people is the generation that would be the first to grow into adulthood in the new millennium, the 2000s. The term was invented by “demographers.” I put that term in quotes because they annoy me.

Demographers annoy me because putting a label on a group of people simply because they coincidentally came into the world at the same time is one thing. But the tendency to describe this group and ascribe characterizations to all of them seems like a colossal over-generalization. Millennials, for example, have been called lazy, entitled, self-absorbed and other things that they would not want on a resume.

As a college professor, I have seen these negative attributes among some of my students. But I have also seen these attributes among people decades older. I often tell my students I defend them as a group, because I have seen work ethic, integrity, creativity, civility, and humility among them that is not only encouraging, but inspiring.

So, I’m against these generational labels. As for myself, I was born in the year on the cusp of two generational labels. I am neither a “boomer” nor a “buster.” I am just some guy, a man who defies definition.

It seems like the rest of the world is moving beyond such age group labels too. If they are not moving beyond labeling, they are moving beyond a fascination with millennials that has led to both fawning and fretting over young people. Much space in advertising trade publications is devoted to how to reach this age group with messages. A lot of the entertainment programming is geared to appeal to them. Employers have assembled into special task forces to find ways to attract and retain young “talent,” the common term for a class of skilled workers in demand.

Perhaps all this fawning makes it easy to understand a recent malevolence towards millennials. Several ads by major national brands, and a skit on “Saturday Night Live,” have dared to mock this age group for being so na├»ve and self-absorbed. There was a meme going around on Facebook—which I could not resist sharing in spite of the millennials on my friends list—that pointed out that in 1945 18-22-year-olds stormed beaches and dropped behind enemy lines as part of a global war offense, whereas today’s 18-22-year-olds storm into their professors’ offices or drop on their parents’ couch to complain about how they suffered an offense at something someone said.

This is more than idle chatter by critics who are merely older and finally resentful of the millennials. Just last month the Wall Street Journal had a large feature called “Closed Minds on Campus,” all about the recent spate of protests on college campuses. The author pointed out that today’s student protests are not about war and major global and social issues, but inane and even imagined injustices suffered by individuals. The irony is that the university as an institution and college students as a generation are supposed to be defined by open-mindedness, cognitive exploration, challenging assumptions, and developing character. Instead, some of today’s students narrow the dialogue by creating a chilling effect on expression of a variety of ideas with hyper-sensitivity.

Of course, some of this has been enabled by colleges themselves by the culture they have created. That culture has done damage to strength of thought and consideration with its own diversity training that informs young people about “micro aggressions”—little, well-intended comments that may nevertheless be offensive. Professors in some schools are encouraged to utter “trigger warnings”—an alert that subjects to be discussed in the class about to start might be upsetting.

There is a push back, some of it from the millennials who redeem themselves from the culture that makes almost everything potentially offensive. Students at Princeton formed an Open Campus Coalition and let their president know they would not be intimidated from free speech because what they wanted to say didn’t meet the foregone determination of what is an acceptable point of view to express. Good for them. They provide proof that attitudes and behaviors vary within generations and among generations.

Family background has more to do with a person’s character than a certain age of a person. My parents had a better way of handling things that upset me. My dad, I am pretty sure, coined the phrase “Be quiet or I’ll give you something to really whine about.” My mom, on the other hand, met my complaints about some one else’s comments by saying “just don’t let it bother you” without even putting down her knitting. I remember it well for it’s lasting effect on helping me grow up; I was 5.

Is it any wonder that in this environment there is space, even a perceived need, for a blog and a resulting book called “Adulting—How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.” This used to be something we all did, as the millennials might say, organically.

I would hope that the parents of the younger siblings of millennials are taking note. We can’t have kindergarteners coming home upset about Winny the Pooh for not wearing pants, or for being named for what used to fill their diapers. What then? Tigger warnings?

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