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.
The negative opinions directed at millennials are a perfect example, on an enormous societal scale, of cultural 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:
- Mental Health Issues and College-Age Millennials, Psychology Today
- A generation on edge: A look at millennials and mental health, Vox Magazine
- Are Millennials Really the Most Mentally Ill Generation?, Moods Magazine
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.