To be a millennial is to hear constantly about how awful your generation is.
And to agree, kind of politely.
I was out at party a while ago, listening to some people in their 40s talk about hiring millennials, and how they are all entitled. This is the word that comes up over and over. After a certain number of minutes into the conversation (10? 15? I’m a pushover) I found myself agreeing that, yes, 25-year-olds are just doing drugs in their parents’ basement because they hate the mere idea of working. Meth, probably. At least Adderall. Probably something stolen out of their parents’ medicine cabinets because those unemployed losers can’t get money to buy their own drugs to fuel their Lena Dunham-esque sex romps. “I’m like you,” I wanted to say, “by which I mean I am an employed non-meth addict.”
And that’s just what people at a party think. Journalists think we’re much worse. Wall Streeters bemoan that only 32 percent of millennials consider themselves entrepreneurial (compared to 41 percent of Gen-Xers, and 45 percent of baby boomers). Time thinks we’re narcissists. The Christian Science Monitor is nervous that “The Millennial Generation Could Kill the NFL” – because, sissies that we are, we really don’t like seeing people suffer long-term brain damage. Meanwhile, the New York Times says -- more or less every week -- that we probably don’t have much of a shot in the real world.
So, at a party with respectable older people in tweed jackets I will immediately agree that we are terrible. I will do that as though I can somehow trick them into thinking I am 45 by agreeing, and then maybe they will hire me.
Then, later, at home, I remember that I am 26 and pretty much everyone I know in my age bracket is … really very nice.
OK, admittedly, people do live at home. But that’s only because we really like our parents. And why shouldn’t we?
Millennials were born in a time of "baby on board" stickers, Amber alerts, and helicopter parenting. “Baby Boom” and “Three Men and a Baby” had replaced “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” At school and sport events, everyone got a prize, and everyone was told they were a very special winner.
To this day I believe my mother has a list of ways to compliment your child on the bulletin board. I still tease her about the time she attempted to use “You’re really flying now!”
Which is to say – I am 26 and I laugh with my mother. I also chat with her nearly every day – just like 80 percent of millennials. As for rampant drug abuse – honestly, it’s is very hard to go on a week-long bender if your mother expects you to check in every day.
And despite the reports on the decadence of the young, we’re really pretty tame. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) conducts a youth risk surveillance survey that tracks various risk-taking behaviors among youths. Those include unintentional injuries and violence; tobacco use; alcohol and other drug use; sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection; unhealthy dietary behaviors; and physical inactivity. Neil Howe, the author of “Millennials Rising,” notes that millennials are shown to be more risk averse than their predecessors in almost every category. The only risk factor that has increased with this generation is “obesity.”
So, it’s actually much more likely that the guy in the tweed jacket at the party was a decadent layabout in his youth than it is likely to be true of a millennial.
In part, that might be because parents remain a huge part of millennials’ lives well into adulthood. “Sex and the City,” a show that dealt with Gen-Xers, barely touched on a single protagonist’s parents. Miranda’s mother died, and the back of the head of Charlotte’s father seemed to appear at her wedding, but it’s hard to say whether Carrie Bradshaw even had parents. In “Girls,” a show about millennials, relationships with parents prove as important as romantic relationships. Entire episodes are dedicated to them.
Neil Howe notes that the trend of millennials living at home post-college was on the uptick even before the great meltdown of 2008. It’s not even particularly uncool anymore. At the Grammy Awards, the band Fun., famous for their song “We are Young,” thanked their parents “for letting us live at home for a very long time.”
And millennials are grateful for this support. They know their parents have invested a huge amount in them and, with that backing, comes a pressure not to screw up.
Greg, a 27-year-old working in real estate, says, “Most people I know have parents who are generally supportive of their kids financially or otherwise. They gave their kid a new car on their 16th birthday instead of buying themselves a new motorcycle. When kids get out into the real world, they realize how hard it is to actually make a buck. They really appreciate the generosity of their parents. Not wanting to disappoint them [comes with that]. I just don't think parents 30 years ago gave as much of a shit about their kids, for whatever reason.”
Neil Howe agrees, and notes that millennials tend to like and trust authority figures in general. He remarks on a study wherein he talked to high school principals who recounted that if you wanted to punish a Gen-Xer, you told them, “If you keep this up, you’re going to go to the counselor!” Then they’d stop, outraged at the idea that they couldn’t take care of themselves. Millennials will be delighted to go to the counselor, because they think the counselor will make them happier and better adjusted.
No wonder I will immediately defer to the opinion of anyone older at a party.
Howe also notes that he conducted a study where millennials and Gen-Xers were asked how they would feel if their mother’s baking recipe was featured in a public forum, like a magazine. Gen-Xers largely replied “embarrassed.” Millennials overwhelmingly replied “proud.” Megan Zilis, a 29-year-old publicist, confirms, “I would take a screen shot of the article and post it on every social network I'm currently logged into. Which is all of them. And my mom makes the best cookies. From scratch! Topped with homemade frosting.”
We’re proud of our parents, and want to make them proud of us. That means that while we might not feel the same horror at living in our parents' basement, we also really want to get a job.
Some of that trust in the older generation and authority figures might explain the tendency of well-educated millennials to gravitate toward the Occupy Wall Street movement (80 percent involved in the movement had a bachelor’s degree or higher). We weren’t just angry, we were shocked that the older generation wasn’t looking out for us the way we’d always trusted them to.
That doesn’t mean so much that we’re “entitled” as it means that we’re “trusting.” For very logical reasons, given our general upbringings. We’re trusting, and we’re pretty damn nice.
The emphasis on social media enhances those bonds. Keeping up with everyone we know all the time -- on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram -- means that millennials feel a tremendous sense of connection to everyone in their peer group. And no, they are not posting pictures of joyless orgies in their parents’ basement.
“My generation is so concerned with capturing the moment we say we're living in, that we remain sober enough to take and edit a selfie,” says Lindsay Kaplan, a 28-year-old working in marketing. “After all, it's impossible to get fully carried away if you want to take a photo and post it on Facebook.”
Anti-drug PSAs have altered in recent years to reflect that change in focus. The messages used to discourage Gen-Xers showed how drugs would damage you, personally. “This is your brain on drugs” accompanied by an egg frying. The ads shown to millennials depict drug users hurting their friends or family. The “Smoking Pot Hurts More Than Just You” PSAs indicate that if you do drugs with your friends, burns will appear all over your brother (because in a questionable Madison Avenue leap your reefer smoking buddy is, in an unexplained, never noted subplot, a witch?). On a more effective note, Darren Aronofsky’s anti-drug PSA shows a sobbing mother bandaging the wrists of her daughter who has cut herself while high on meth.
Millennials end up mimicking our worried parents in our treatment of one another. We are all little miniature helicopters regarding our acquaintances. If you posted a picture of yourself doing meth on Facebook, 20 different friends would rapidly Like it -- to remind you that you’re still a winner! -- and then send hurried messages reading, “You doing OK, buddy?”
Everyone who has ever cared about you from high school onward is monitoring your life. Or, at least, as much of it as you are willing to share. If millennials have learned nothing else from their parents, they’ve learned to be endlessly supportive. People will Like your updates if you announce you’re getting married. They’ll also Like it if you managed to prepare a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and want to share that photograph.
When you have that much support coming from your friends and family, you don’t need to look for it from random sexual encounters.
Nate Freeman, the 24-year-old journalist who wrote “Sexless and the City” for the New York Observer about the millennial crowd taking less of an interest in sex, explains, “While certain twenty-somethings to this day describe in detail to my face how they've disproved my theory, the factors getting in the way of sex still remain. Or, maybe, they've multiplied. Why take a girl home when you can put up a Vine of some day-glo graffiti? Why start some foreplay when you can check in to a hip place on Foursquare? There are fuck buddies, and there is masturbation, but there are also ... well, there are also phones.”
The distractions of iPhones and social media, and attachment to parents, are all very well, but the most defining factor regarding millennials’ risk-averse tendencies may still be the economy.
My friend Dan explained, “Millennials are tamer than previous generations. I’ve heard stories from my older industry peers about racking up DUIs like parking tickets and clients doing rails of coke off boardroom tables during meetings. How am I tearing it up at the age of 26? Well, I just got a Dyson vacuum. That's pretty dope. If I acted as reckless as the Old Guard I might never get to use my Dyson again. I’d be unemployed.”
There’s a decent chance that’s true. The national rate of unemployment among millennials is 13 percent. And a 2009 Yale study indicated that students who graduate during a recession should still expect to earn 10 percent less after a decade of work than they might otherwise have earned.
For all their being dismissed as entitled, millennials have to channel more and more of their resources toward succeeding in any field.
Jason Ritzke, a 25-year-old operations manager in broadcast television, says he and his wife sent out 400 job applications and received four interviews. He managed to find a job. She’s still looking. He doesn’t take many risks as a result. He says, “As difficulty scales, as it becomes more and more difficult to elevate yourself, you find yourself giving up things. You find yourself asking, ‘Can I ride this bike without a helmet? What will happen to my wife if I lose my job? Can she provide for herself? Can she get a job fast enough to do it?’ Every day I have to lean on every single one of my faculties at work to haul myself just a tiny bit higher. Then I come home and work to fight the forces of entropy on my life, to fix things, to pay bills. I do everything by the straight and narrow because the penalties for falling off the track are so steep.”
Does he wish he was out partying? Maybe a little. Does he feel less cool because he’s not doing so?
“Do I feel lame?” asks Jason. “No. I feel like Hercules.”
And he’s not alone. So we may not be the greatest generation. But we are a pretty nice generation.
If only we could start standing up for ourselves at cocktail parties.