by Akim Reinhardt
Generational analysis, when done poorly, is half-a-notch above astrology: All the people born at this time are like this!
Of course there's plenty of good generational research and analysis by demographers and other social scientists. However, most people don't delve into that stuff. Most people simply absorb generational analysis from popular culture. That's unfortunate, because you can often get more penetrating insights from a Chinese restaurant paper place mat.
Worse yet, a lot of pop culture generational analysis is passively racist and classist. You know who we're really talking about when we say “Baby Boomers,” right? It's hardly every American born between 1946-1964. Black people? Latinos? Most immigrants? The deeply impoverished? Pushaw. For the most part, we're just talking about the white MCAU (middle class and up), and whoever can pass through their circles. And we're not even talking about them smartly. By and large, we just rehash dumb stereotypes. This generation sacrificed. That generation navel gazed. Bla bla bla.
For example, when I Googled “Baby Boomers are,” the auto complete came up:
When I Googled “Millennials are,” the auto complete came up:
Indeed, pop culture generational analysis is often so shallow, haphazard, and/or commercialized, that it typically only blathers about every other generation. There's an accordion discourse, which fixates on alternating generations (Greatest, Boomers, Millennials) while largely ignoring the generations between them (Silent, X, Z). As a result, Baby Boomers dominated popular discourse for a long time.
However, Baby Boomers have recently been knocked off their demographic perch. There are now more Millennials than boomers in the U.S. population, and these relative youngens are increasingly the subject of America's generational fascination. As such, they catch a lot of flak, much of it head smackingly stupid. I recently came across a stunning example of this vapid chatter while drinking a blueberry beer in a Lake Placid tavern.
Yes, that Lake Placid, two-time Winter Olympic town and scene of the 1980 Miracle on Ice. And yes, blueberry beer. It was actually quite good, thank you very much, Judgy McJudgerson.
As I sat at the bar sipping and waiting for my lunch companions, ESPN played on the TV with subtitles and no sound. I haven't had cable since 2003, so ESPN, even on mute, is kind of novel to me.
The show's topic was American professional sports leagues' struggle to attract Millennial viewers. The NFL, NHL, NBA, and Major League Baseball are apparently all pulling their hair trying to figure out how to lure younger fans.
Turns out the average baseball fan is 55 years old.
Fifty-five? Shit, that's not even Generation X. That's straight up Boom. Clearly not a signpost of long term fiscal health. What's a business to do?
A caption on the screen noted that some of the leagues are experimenting with making free WiFi available within the stadiums so that . . . wait for it . . . they could appeal to Millennials' short attention spans.
First off, maybe try not insulting the potential customers you're aiming to entice. Seriously. No wonder your business is nose diving.
But beyond that, really? Millennials aren't going to sporting events because they have short attentions spans?
Well guess what? They're not going to McDonald's either, and I'm pretty sure nobody slings a burger and fries faster than a goddamned McDonald's.
I don't know. Could it possibly be that sports leagues and fast food chains are losing Millennial customers for the exact same reason: they're both serving up a shitty product?
Maybe a lot of Millennials don't like burgers that taste like sawdust, and maybe they also don't like watching games that take over three hours, are chock full of commercials and time outs, and frequently showcase players just standing around. Maybe personality defects are not the reason why Millennials show less interest in American spectator sports than Gen Xers and Boomers. Maybe it's just because the games are mediocre entertainment products, and here in the 21st century there are a whole lotta better ways to spend one's time.
Could it simply be that most Millennials are more discerning consumers than most members of prior generations, at least in some regards? Could it be that they've come of age during an era of unparalleled consumer choice? That they've had the chance to decide between more than just Coke and Pepsi, Bud and Miller, Camel and Marlborough, Mickey Dee and the BK Lounge, between 3 car companies, 3 TV networks, and 3 brands of jeans?
Millennials, it seems, have more discriminating palates than prior generations. But oddly enough, instead of getting a pat on the back, they actually get blamed for not buying all kinds of garbage. So much so, that a fairly silly Harvard study concluded that Millennials hate capitalism.
Honestly, I honestly can't imagine anything sillier. And of course it almost goes without saying that the poll was highly flawed. For example, it didn't bother to define “capitalism” or “socialism” for a pool of respondents who grew up after the Cold War. Respondents also included younger people who are actually Generation Z, not Millennials.
But shortcomings be damned, we have a headline!
News coverage of the flawed Harvard poll was quick to point fingers. How dare they not buy enough stuff!
[Insert head slapping sound here]
Did anyone stop to note that Millennials are carrying more debt than any generation before them? Because that fact alone emphatically refutes the hair brained notion that they're not buying stuff. They're just buying different stuff. And that's what seems to really upset some critics, who in turn then blame Millennials for sticking the shiv of parsimony into a host of sacred 20th century cows.
The popular culture's instinct to blame Millennials for all sorts of things is really quite amazing. One of the first five auto completes I got searching just the word “Millennials” was “are killing.”
Put a space after “Millennials are killing,” and your autocomplete choices are:
Tens of millions of 20- and 30-somethings spitefully refusing to eat lunch is quite the image. It made me curious about what else they might be blamed for. From the above possibilities, I went with “Millennials are killing the,” added a space, and the autocomplete offered up:
Yiff Industry (Apparently, To Yiff is the verb for what furries do.)
Clearly, there's a theme. And it doesn't involve an oversized marmot suit. Society is changing, and Millennials are not as prone to purchase certain cultural products as prior generations were. Heaven forbid, they're less likely to drop gobs of cash on diamond rings, Sandals resorts, golf outings, and other things that suck or are a waste of time. The nerve of these tattooed whippersnappers!
Funny thing though, I thought that's how markets actually work.
I have spent decades listening to economists and various apologists for capitalism extol the virtues of rational actor theory and self-correcting markets that respond to consumer choice. Well, so what then if a new generation of consumers has different tastes and priorities; isn't that how it's supposed to work?
As a tweet I recently saw, quipped: I love it when capitalists blame capitalism for the decline of capitalism.
Witty jests aside, it's just lazy, dumb, and ludicrous to suggest that Millennial consumer choices are killing capitalism (as if anyone's ever figured out how to do that), or to bemoan and moralize about their consumer choices, especially in areas as subjective and unimportant as entertainment or Do you want fries with that.
After all, it's not like Millennials are hoarding cash as part of their evil Spectre scheme to undermine the global market economy. As none other than Goldman-Sachs has pointed out, they actually spend plenty. So why all the pop culture condemnations?
I have no children, so my own interactions with Millennials are quite narrow. First and foremost, I have taught them at state universities in Nebraska, Arizona, and Maryland. I began in 1999, just as Millennials were finding their way to college campuses.
The Millennial generation is often cited as beginning in 1980, but there's no clear, agreed upon endpoint for their births (it's somewhere between 1995-2000). Either way, the youngest Millennials are just now, or shortly will be moving past traditional college age. In the near future, my classrooms will be dominated by their successors: Generation Z, one of those in between demographies that don't get talked about much.
During my nearly two decades of college teaching, I have taught mostly (but not exclusively) Millennials. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Generation Xers and Baby Boomers trying to grasp the nature of this cresting wave have often asked me if and how Millennial students are different from prior generations. After all, parents of Millennials know their own children intimately, and have some familiarity with their kids' friends, but that's a very small, insular sample size. I don't know many of them intimately, but I have taught thousands of them.
In that capacity, I have noticed some differences between Millennials and prior generations, although none of them nearly so profound as the divisions I typically see springing from ethnicity, immigration, economic class, gender, and geography.
In general, compared to the late Gen Xers I taught, as well as the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers I went to school with for many years, I have found Millennials to be both, a little better and a little worse as students. On the positive side, they tend to be less rigid, judgmental, and presumptuous, more intellectually open and flexible. They are not fixated on labels and dichotomies. They are not so obsessed, as is my generation and especially the Boomers, with the idea that there's always a right and a wrong. Without any real memories of the Cold War (many of them were actually born after it ended), they are less dogmatic, less reactionary, and less prone to jam round pegs into square holes. They seem to be more post-modern in that way, accepting people and situations as they are and on their own terms instead of instinctively and immediately seeking to categorize everything.
A lot of good comes out of that. In my experience, Millennials as a group are less racist and sexist than prior generations, and less homophobic by multiple degrees. They also seem to have more finely attuned Bull Shit Detectors. They seem less impervious to advertising, less prone to blind loyalty, and leerier of hucksters. Only about a third of them voted for Donald Trump.
At the same time, however, I have found Millennials to be a bit lacking in initiative, which is not to be confused with motivation or desire. They're not jaded slackers. Supposedly that's my generation. Rather, as a group they seem to need or desire more instruction, direction, and guidance.
Put plainly, more of them struggle when I give basic instructions like: “Go write a paper on such-and-such topic” or “Study for an essay exam on these lectures and readings.” They have wanted more details and more assurance that they were doing things properly.
I hesitate to say Millennials have required more hand-holding to get things done, because that implies a psychological or emotional fragility, which is not the case. Rather, it's simply that for whatever reason, a higher rate of them seemed either to not know how, or were reticent, to do for themselves at times. They didn't need to be pushed so much as they needed to have the path laid out for them before they began the journey. I suspect that they often knew what I meant but didn't trust themselves to just go do it on their own, and worried about being on the right track.
The common explanation for this is their supposedly sheltered, over scheduled suburban upbringing of play dates and helicopter parents. Maybe that's facile; maybe there's something to it. Either way, in the context of education, we might also be seeing the effects of a greater emphasis on high pressure standardized testing.
One odd (for my generation) outgrowth of this is that many of them actually want more exams, papers, and so forth, not fewer. They want to be pointed in the right direction, and then get more opportunities to prove they are performing well. Instead of just the two big exams and and a term paper that many middle aged people might remember their college courses revolving around, Millenials often wanted more assignments with less pressure riding on each of them.
But of course these observations certainly doesn't apply to all of Millennials in my experience, or even a majority. It's merely a larger percentage than what I experienced with older generations.
There's no need to stereotype. Plenty of Millennials I encountered did have initiative and/or were happy to have just a few, big assignments. And, sadly, a third of them really did get conned into voting for Trump. Although even 40% of those who did have quickly come around and figured out that Trump's little more than a silly little con man.
Perhaps the simplest and truest lesson is that trying to generalize about Millennials, or any other bloc of 77 million people, is probably worse than fruitless. Inevitably, the strokes become so broad that they can no longer paint a representational picture, and instead merely serve to obscure. Which is why my own perceptions, based on passing interactions with several thousand Millennials, mostly white, middle class suburbanites, are actually worth little.
However, whatever useful insights I did gain from those experiences have left me very suspicious of the stereotypical critiques that often get dumped on Millennials. Because if we're going to go down that path, then a lot of it just sounds like Boomers complaining about no longer being the center of attention, and Xers being snide.
Yes, as a group, Millennials have probably dedicated too much of their time and effort to texting, Pokemon, and irony. And I shudder every time one of them very unironically uses the word “literally” as its own antonym. But overall, I'm glad they're present and at the vanguard, and so far as I can tell, American society will be in better shape when they're running the show.
Did I mention about half of my generation voted for Trump? And don't get me started on the Boomers.
Akim Reinhardt's website is The PublicProfessor.com