The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation

I was in graduate school when I first heard the term “millennial.” It was at a conference. The session was about how to serve millennial students, because they have different characteristics than the Generation X students that went before them. It was here that I first started hearing things like “millennials need to be recognized for participation,” “millennials feel they are special,” “millennials are sheltered,” “millennials are likely to have helicopter parents,” and more. Society as a whole loves to hate on the millennial generation (those born between 1980-1999), calling us “special snowflakes” and sarcastically referring to us as “social justice warriors,” calling us out for “being offended by everything” and, everybody’s favorite, pointing out how very entitled we are.

Here’s the secret: We’re not.

millennial late for work.jpg

The negative opinions directed at millennials are a perfect example, on an enormous societal scale, of cultural gaslighting.

What’s Gaslighting?

Glad you asked. I learned about gaslighting within the last couple years as I explored topics surrounding emotional abuse and narcissism. Gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of making someone question their own sanity. It’s an emotional abuse tactic. It can also be described as “the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality” (as defined in this article from Everyday Feminism).

Have you ever gotten into an argument with a parent, boss, or romantic partner about something they’ve done that upset you, but by the end of the argument, YOU’RE the one apologizing for hurting their feelings? This is often a result of gaslighting. They flip it around and become the victim, and your original feelings never get resolved because the conversation always descends into the other person’s victimization.

As one example from my life, when I first faced up to the fact that my first marriage was in real trouble and I was considering divorce, I (very calmly) asked my ex-husband if he’d consider marriage counseling. His response? “I cannot believe you can even ask that of me.” He was so offended by the suggestion that something was wrong that I questioned the validity of my feelings. “Oh my god,” I thought, “I must be terrible. Is anything even wrong or are my expectations just crazy?” This is an example of gaslighting.

Now imagine a similar scenario where you are applying for a job, but the job requires a college degree, but you can’t pay for a college degree without a job so you end up taking out massive loans. Then when you graduate, you still can’t get a job without experience. So you end up in a minimum wage job (or three), making ends meet and barely making your loan payments. You say something like, “the minimum wage needs to be raised, people can’t live like this,” only to receive a barrage of old, crotchety white people yelling at you about how gosh-darn ENTITLED you are, and how THEY got a college education working part time and how it’s your fault for taking out the loans in the first place.

This is what I’m talking about. Generations before us completely drove the bus into a lake and it’s somehow our fault everybody’s drowning.


What are Millennials really like?

So if millennials aren’t a bunch of spoiled brats with an entitlement mentality who need a trophy just for putting on pants in the morning, what are they?

I am in a Facebook group of geeky women (mostly moms) from around the world, and our group is capped at 500 members. When it was discovered that two of our members were actively fighting to get out of physically and emotionally abusive marriages and needed money for legal help and deposits for moving, the group arranged a massive auction and hundreds of members donated their belongings and purchased in the auction to raise thousands of dollars.

When another member of that same group was faced with an unimaginable loss and an enormous bill, we had more auctions and helped her get through the worst moment of her life as best we could.

I have shipped pet supplies, groceries, books, clothing, and more to broke friends whose kids and cats were hungry, who have experienced loss and just couldn’t get up to “adult,” and to people who needed to receive a message to pull themselves out of a bad place.

I see us raising money for funeral expenses, medical bills, emergency surgeries for beloved pets, and more. I see us trading services or goods for other services or goods. I see us sending money via PayPal to make somebody’s day a little easier. I see us buying things from work-at-home-moms on Etsy or Facebook rather than support large corporate stores.

Once, I could feel a cold coming on but I was out of grocery budget, and a friend shipped me a box of tea from Amazon. I’ve sent her groceries and pet supplies when her budget was tapped. This is our generation.

We barter and trade, we lift each other up when we need it, and we empower each other. We have each other’s back.


But what are they reeeeally like?

Anecdotal evidence aside, here’s some science.

First of all, it’s important to note that there are some 80 million people in the millennial generation, making us the largest cohort in history. This makes us very fun and easy to study. I pulled some data from a 2012 report from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Millennials are tech-savvy, having been raised in the most technologically advancing decades of recent human history. We are optimistic (41% report satisfaction with the way the country is performing, compared to 26% of people over 30). Please note that this data was from 2012 and if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that fewer millennials are pleased with how the country is doing at this particular moment in time. 2016 has been rough.

“Young people are more tolerant of races and groups than older generations (47% vs. 19%) with 45% agreeing with preferential treatment to improve the position of minorities.” Not only are millennials the largest demographic, we’re also the most diverse. We are 60% non-Hispanic white (compared to 70% for older generations), 19% Hispanic, 14% black, 4% Asian, and 3% mixed race. Eleven percent of us are born to an immigrant parent. So the generation that hears “Why are you kids so offended by everything these days,” is offended because we’re sick and tired of seeing minorities vilified and punished by systemic racism within the system.

Millennials are multi-taskers. Multi-tasking is actually harmful to the brain and leads to a huge decrease in productivity. But, you know, we gotta work all these jobs and get everything done, lest we die penniless in the gutter.

Millennials are engaged and expressive: 75% have a social networking profile, 20% have posted a video of themselves online, 38% have 1-6 tattoos, 23% have non-earlobe piercings. The research indicates a trend toward “self-promoting,” which some skew to mean that millennials are self-confident (OH NO, THE HORROR) and self-absorbed. Others take this data to conclude that millennials are identifying their passions and making their own path instead of following others’ paths for them.

Millennials get their news from TV (65%) and online sources (59%).

Millennials may be the first generation in over 100 years to have a decrease of their average lifespan.

Millennials have a high graduation rate from high school (72% in 2012) and college enrollment rate (68% in 2012). Over half (58%) of millennials that enroll in a four-year college graduate within six years.

Millennials have an average of $25,000 in student loans. There is more student loan debt than credit card debt in the United States. Tuition rates are rising faster than inflation. However, enrollment continues to increase and there is a trend that jobs are paying more for more educated applicants.

On and on and on and on. Read the full report linked above for more statistics and research.


Millennials struggle with mental health

Most millennials I know struggle with mental illness to some degree. Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and more. I wonder how much of that anxiety comes from being told that wanting a living wage, affordable college, or adequate healthcare means that you’re being a spoiled entitled brat. It really doesn’t. The generations before us HAD a living wage, affordable college, and adequate healthcare. But now, inflation has far surpassed the minimum wage, college tuition and loan interest rates are through the proverbial roof, and medical bills are the top cause of bankruptcy in America.

These things were not caused by millennials, but after being raised on a steady diet of “you’re entitled,” we don’t even need to hear it from other people.  We believe it about ourselves. As a society, we now romanticize struggle, busy-ness, and “the hustle.” If you’re not losing sleep and working two or three jobs, you must not want it enough.

What if we’re actually not crazy? What if wanting to work one full-time job and have the ends not only meet but actually overlap a little is NOT an entitled pipe dream?

The sheer stress of existing in today’s world is enough to give anybody an anxiety disorder. Add  the fact that we’re told over and over again how we need to just bootstrap it, because generations before us handled life just fine, and you have a recipe for disaster. The generations before us could afford college tuition on minimum wage and didn’t have bosses who expect us to be tied to our devices at all hours.

I often feel this way about our financial goals. I have a full-time job and bring in extra income from freelance marketing work and resume writing. I make “good money” by most standards. And I catch myself thinking I should be working a part time job in the evenings or on the weekends to make our financial goals happen faster. But at what cost? I know for a fact that my mental health would suffer if I did that. I can’t even imagine the psychological stress of people who have to work multiple jobs just to meet their basic needs. We’ve got people working two or three jobs to feed their families that they barely see. That’s not even getting into the cost of child care.


More reading on millennials and mental health:

Conclusions (for now)

The millennial generation has been tasked with fixing the broken system we inherited and chastised for not doing it right or for daring to suggest improvements.

If you think we’re doing a bad job, ask yourself how it got this way in the first place.

The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation

386 thoughts on “The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation

  1. romanceandotherfairytales says:

    Every generation thinks the one following is less-than. I’m a college professor and a parent, and what I see is very different than the critics. I see a generation that is more involved in solving the problems of our planet and our political system than buying a house and acquiring “things.” The students that come through my classroom are highly intelligent and opinionated. Yay! I don’t want a student to regurgitate the textbook. I want them to think! What I see is hope, because this generation is more willing to fight for social, economic, and political justice than ever before.

  2. Annoyed says:

    You said everything I have ever wanted to say in a nutshell! great article! It’s like we live in a world full of sadists and sociopaths. Kinda like the big brother teasing the little brother by locking him out the car and driving off, then stopping to pretend to let him in, and then driving off again. Shampoo, rinse and repeat. I’m not saying our generation is perfect, lord knows we got some doozys, but by and large most of us are trying. I think those of us born between 1980-84 should be considered cusps.

    P.s. Anyone that grew up in my household knows we didn’t grow up entitled at all. There were no “full house” hugs/”let’s talk about it”. It was ” shut up and dry your eyes before I give you something real to cry about” lol. I’m 32 btw.

  3. Douglas says:

    Great article, as a parent of 4 kids, 3 millenials, I can vouch for the awful economic and environmental circumstances they have been born into and are now apparently being lamed for much of. I was quite able to work part time while going to school full time and save enough money during school that I could spend my summer hitch-hiking around North America. When I returned in the Fall I put my saved money down for the first semester, started working and partying my way through school and repeated till I graduated. The relative costs of everything compared to wages makes that lifestyle impossible today, but sure, blame it on the kids for us letting corporations slowly squeeze the notion of a living wage, defined benefit pensions, etc out of existence.

  4. Lawrence R. says:

    The whole “you’re entitled” thing doesn’t arise much in the contexts referenced in this article as far as my observations go. Expressing the wish of wanting a living wage, affordable education and healthcare aren’t really answered with, “Ah, you’re so entitled, you Millennial!” Are they? I thought the entitled badge was awarded for the more mundane, everyday examples of unrealistically high expectations expressed by some members of this demographic. You know, complaining about normal stuff that older generations just accepted, like bosses who want us to work hard, SHOW UP consistently and on time, work without consulting phones every minute, pay attention to details and follow instructions and not simper and yowl when we’re busted for not doing so.

    Anyone who accuses you of being “entitled” for wanting basic life necessities is a jerk and you can put those people in their place if they make such absurd claims. Denying and/or avoiding the much more common and likely causes of this unwanted title is also something one should call out. Copping to a few obvious, if painful, home truths is not much to ask, is it? Can this author be a tad more truthful about what’s really going on, instead of veering rather wildly away from that herd of elephants in the room?

  5. Jen says:

    How it got this way is an easy question: Humans. Boomers, X’ers and Millenials alike, as well as ”the Greatest Generation” (self-titled, obviously, no one of this era would call people who eagerly and deliberately killed millions over race or religion ”Great” nowadays, they would be prosecuted!).
    Each of us has their positive and negative aspects, and it’s up to each of us to respect the positive points individuals bring to the world and endeavour to diffuse the negative aspects that we each bring to society.
    Incidentally, EVERY generation has huge mental health issues, it’s just becoming more recognizable in everyday life and acceptable to admit to (and thank heavens for THAT). EVERY generation complains about the one that came before and the one that comes after it (It’ll happen to you!). And EVERY generation belives that it is the most aware and helpful generation when it comes to those in need. Having a friend FedEx some medicines etc. from Amazon doesn’t rate more than Grannie walking a pot of homemade chicken soup over to a sick neighbour’s.
    P.S.: That was a pretty vague defnition of gaslighting. The reality is far, far scarier.

  6. Tor says:

    I am in the so-called Generation X. I am amazed at the utter nonsense that older generations spew about younger generations, as if they’ve completely forgotten their own childhoods — when their elders said the same things about them.

    Here’s a great quote: “We are now in the Me Decade… They begin with ‘Let’s talk about Me.’ They begin with the most delicious look inward, with considerable narcissism… Whatever [this] amounts to, for better or for worse, will have to do with this unprecedented development: the luxury, enjoyed by so many millions… of dwelling upon the self.” This is from a 1976 article about Baby Boomers.

    Or this dire warning: “Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day. Increasing urban life with its temptations, prematurities, sedentary occupations, and passive stimuli just when an active life is most needed, early emancipation and a lessening sense for both duty and discipline, the haste to know and do all befitting man’s estate before its time, the mad rush for sudden wealth and the reckless fashions….” This is from a psychologist in 1904, more than a century ago.

    Psychologists concluded in 2010 that “finding young people to be narcissistic is an aging phenomenon, not a historical phenomenon.”

    My generation, and all the others, needs to stop dumping on the younger generations. There’s just as much narcissism and laziness in every generation.

    More quotes and the sources for the above quotes can be found here:

  7. Kathy says:

    What is the author degree in. Did she make sure she had a skill? It took me 10 years to graduate going part time. What college did you go to, a state or private? Suck it up and drive on. You created your own situation.

    • Caitlin says:

      B.A. in Psychology and Spanish, M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration, making an excellent living and still able to be pissed off about the larger state of affairs than my own personal household budget.

  8. thehistorygeek402 says:

    Historically speaking, every generation has to take the reins from the previous generation along with taking crap from said previous generation. That’s life. The Millenials are the only generation I see actually complaining about it, though. You know what 20th century generation had it worse than you? The “Greatest Generation” that had to clean up after the Great Depression AND fight in a war that was basically a continuation of the war that started in their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Did they waste time complaining about the mess left to them by their parents’ generation? Or did they just pull up their pants and do it?

    I might sound a bit harsh, I’m sorry, I’m not trying to insult you. I’m a Gen Xer but I honestly see what you’re saying, and I respect and understand that it’s a bummer, and I’m not saying you don’t have any right to voice your disappointment over it, but the thing that irks me personally is that your generation is acting like you’re the first ones to deal with crap brought on by the generation before yours. No one is saying it’s your fault that ‘everybody’s drowning.’ They are saying it’s your fault for complaining about everybody drowning as if complaining will solve it. THAT is what’s making this generation seem entitled; it comes off as you guys think you’re somehow entitled not to take on the baggage of the previous generation, which we had to take on for our parents, and they had to take on for their parents, and they had to take on from their parents and so on, and they didn’t complain about having to it, not even when what they inherited was a total mess, until now. If this generation does less complaining and more problem solving, then you’ll see more positive responses toward you.

  9. spotisadog says:

    “The generations before us HAD a living wage, affordable college, and adequate healthcare.” Hmm. I guess you’ve never heard of The Great Depression. THAT generation didn’t even HAVE a minimum wage, let alone a living wage. Less than a hundred years ago. Just saying

  10. colouryourlive says:

    It’s really painful when people like Wes Hicks fail to comprehend the moral of the story. Lemme break it down.
    Worrying, stressful, overworked lives are bad. Only stupid people work as slaves. That is what your life has been. I’m dating a guy just like you and he is FULL OF REGRET for his waste of an existance. People like me have children who still love and respect them for actually being around when they’re young. People like him do not.
    SEE the DIFFERENCE????
    Millenials don’t want to live your life because it sucks!!!
    **** that noise!

    Great article. I grew up poor and I don’t think millenials are entitled. I have no desire to jump on a gravy train for supposed happiness at the end of a long, dark tunnel of lifetime slavery to capitalism.

  11. Mark cettie says:

    You are a bigot.
    That’s not gaslighting, or name-calling or an ad hominem attack. It is succinctly empirical.

    When you said,”old, crotchety white people”, you made a millennially acceptable statement, but every bit as bigoted and racist as when my grandparents talked about the “colored people who just want welfare.”

    You even threw in some ageism for contemptible flavoring.

    Own your bigotry. Change for the better. Understand that this statement ALONE condemns you of the very thesis your post addresses.

  12. Vera Naimoli says:

    I think it is about time that parents of Millenials stand up for their kids! Yeah, we’ve all had struggles but you know I HAVE NEVER seen a time as bad as this. I am sad for my children, I worry for my children. But, my kids are busting their butt to get by and they still have pride and happiness as well they should have.

    You know what Kids? I say that YOU ARE THE TRUE SPIRIT OF AMERICA. All of these old white folks don’t realize that they are being carried on your backs. If I EVER hear someone disparaging a Millenials I will stand up and tell that person just how wrong they are. You are better than all of us put together and don’t let anyone tell you any different.

    With love,
    Mom of Millenials

  13. Wolfcat says:

    Very late Gen X, here. I totally understand the issues. You try and you try and when you fail, people are like “but I did it 20 years ago…”

    I remember once my mother asked me why I couldn’t save money and pay for doctor’s appointments while working full time in an office (~$9/hr). I went through all of it, including numbers regarding my paychecks, bills, and even the income for the poverty line. She literally sat there a moment then said, “maybe that’s why all the cops in town are on welfare.”

    It’s a complete and utter disconnect from the real world of wages and costs for a lot of people who got themselves settled before wages started falling (in relation to cost of living).

  14. GenX Female Entrepeneur says:

    Not 100% in agreement with you. I do think since I am a business owner who employs both Millennials and Generation X’ers (like myself) i do see a huge difference in work ethic and yes, entitlement. As you stated the Millennials are stumped as to how they would possibly go to school and be able to also work. Multi-tasking is not one of their strengths. They are overwhelmed easily and I can see how they have mental health issues for they have not had to earn their way like the Boomers and Gen X’ers have. They have not been in a war or have parents who have. As I am first generation american and have parents who were in WWII and a father who was in a concentration camp for many years, I think indeed the millennials will have a tough road ahead since many of the executives and CEO’s are all GenX. Anything more than a 40 hour work week to a millennial is torture.

    And when you talk about bailing people out during hard times, those of us who are GenX went to school, paid for it ourselves while working one or two jobs, have had bad marriages and bailed ourselves out, and how does one learn if they are bailed out time after time? They don’t. The enabling that you encourage is something that we as Americans have to look forward to in an entire new workforce that is crippled with laziness and entitlement. No one makes this up. There is a reason why many of us say this. It is because we employ the millennials and struggle with trying to give them the values that we have, the stringent work ethic, the strength of standing on their own without running to their parents. To no avail.

    You may say whatever you like, yet being in the trenches in the workforce with this generation is not only frustrating, yet it is like babysitting.

  15. John says:

    An interesting article, although not entirely accurate.

    I was born in 1963, I am considered the tail-end of the Boomer generation. I worked three jobs in my twenties, just to make ends meet. You seem to represent that as an affliction that only your generation has to deal with.

    Another incorrect assumption that you have made is regarding post-secondary education. I could not afford formal post-secondary, with or without loans. I did take a trade course in my mid-twenties. It took me years in a logging camp to save enough money for the course. Even then I had to work full time, at nights, while going to school during the day to pay my rent and bills. So, forgive me when I say that you are way off base.

    I think that you are making far too many assumptions when you pin these concerns to a single generation. I believe that most people, regardless of their generation, struggle through their twenties. That is certainly the time in life that I was broke and struggling, as I tried to establish myself. Is it possible that what you consider a ‘Millennial’ affliction is actually an affliction that we all go through ‘at that age’?

    The reality is that many millennials will be productive, and will get what they hope from this world. Many millennials will not. Everyone has a choice. As much as things have changed, much remains the same. It takes focus and hard work to succeed.

  16. roguemillennials says:

    Thanks for sharing! Lots of us Millennials in it together! And I agree, most of us are optimistic about reform – together, we can make a lot happen to improve the world.

  17. Wheezy says:

    Thanks for your article. I was wondering why younger people seem so uptight and conservative. You didn’t really answer my question but did give me another perspective.

    My college tuition tripled by my 3rd year, and that was 25 years ago. I struggled to get by, too, but admittedly it was a lot more affordable than it is now, and housing was much cheaper. Still, we had fun. We had roommates, we lived on the cheap and had fun.

    Millenials seem determined not to have fun despite their problems. My friends and I- we were not careerists, we dumpster dived food and cooked soup and served it for free in a nearby park-seriously, and 27 years later it is still happening. We started freeboxes to share free clothes and items. Many of us started squats, here in the U.S. and in Europe. Yes, I am saying that for a spell in my early 20’s my food, clothing and housing were all free and I lived in Europe. Was I stylish? You betcha, Did I eat organic vegan fusion cuisine, of course but I grew my own vegetables and supplemented it with dumpster dive. I also lived in some very cool areas.

    Baby boomers hated Gen X because we seemed directionless and didn’t have “leaders”. Yes, LOL, old people were really into their leaders. I’m glad we weren’t. We were all our own leaders.

    I’m sad that things have gotten harder for young people. I hope you guys find it better and easier as time goes on.

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