A Message to the Millennial Generation from Generation X

Generation X.  Alone, apathetic, and analog.

Generation X. Alone, apathetic, and analog.

I spend a great deal of time with Millennials – college students who were born in the early 1990s. There’s been a great deal of literature and research on this generation, much of it critical, some of it unfair. While it’s too early to pass judgment on the Millennials, I have noticed some stark differences between this generation and my own.

Here are five observations about the Millennial Generation compared to Generation X.

1. Revenge of the Nerds – For my generation, computers were the domain of nerds. There were movies made about computer nerds, most of them using nerds for fodder while others turned them into unlikely heroes. But if you were into computers during the 1980’s you were an outcast, sandwiched somewhere between the Dungeons & Dragons club and the Thespians.

The Millennial Generation was born into a world of computers, never having known the analog world. Computers are basically an extension of their personalities and realities. They sometimes are overly dependent on computers for knowledge, social connectedness, and fulfillment. Psychologists now warn of a new syndrome – “social media addiction” – that seems prevalent among young people. I’ve had students who don’t seem able to turn off their electronic devices.

Technology defines the Millennial generation. They don’t worry about the nerd thing. To the contrary, they’ve recreated society to the extent that nerd-ism is now the norm. Lewis and Gilbert were right – their time has come. It’s called the Millennial Generation.

2. There’s No App for Loneliness – If you grew up as a member of Generation X and struggled with teenage angst you probably found solace in solitude, independence, and loneliness. The typical teenage movie from the 1980’s depicts a conflicted teen walking alone down the middle of the street at night (you can add pouring rain if you like) trying to figure out life (usually with a song from Simple Minds or Tears for Fears as the soundtrack). Loneliness was part of Generation X. We were independent. We were individuals. We were latch-key kids.

The Millennial Generation is quite the opposite. Their whole world revolves around connectedness – social media, extracurricular activities, group work, or school gatherings. It’s a whole generation of people whose after-school activities were so overly programmed that they never learned to be by themselves. If they experience teen angst, they share it online, seeking feedback and validation from others. If my generation’s greatest fear was not figuring out “who we were,” the Millennial generation’s greatest fear is being alone.

If introspection is a thing of the past, we need to change our college reading lists. I can’t help but wonder how the Millennial Mind will shape the future of poetry, literature, song, and film. I can’t imagine a Millennial Thoreau.

3. Slackers vs. Superstars – We read and hear a lot of complaints about this generation’s work ethic. That’s nothing new. My generation was accused of being slackers – bitter loners who didn’t want to work for “the man” because of some perceived injustice. We weren’t accused of having delusions of grandeur. We were just accused of being disaffected.

The Millennial generation is quite the opposite. They have tremendous ambition and optimism about the future. What they lack is the patience to pursue long-term goals. This is a common problem in youth, but this generation seems to suffer from greater need for immediate validation. I recently read a Wall Street Journal article highlighting two twenty-somethings who had moved on to “Plan B” after their respective career goals of “corporate executive” and “national security expert” didn’t pan out by age 25. In an age of instant feedback and gratification, the Milliennial generation lacks diligence. They want success now, like the trophy they got in soccer just for showing up.

No matter how many selfies you post on Instagram, you’re not really famous until you actually achieve something. Achieving something of value takes time, unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, but he’s only marginally Millennial.

4. We’re All in This Together – Generation X grew up in a time period defined by cliques. The movies of the 80’s were built around these stereotypes – the jocks, cheerleaders, druggies, cool kids, preppies, and nerds. My high school seemed segregated by these groups. We didn’t really interact much, except when forced to by a class assignment or detention on a Saturday morning (which sounds like an interesting plot for a movie).

The Millennials seem much less divided socially than previous generations. They are quick to embrace people of different backgrounds and abilities. Race is practically a non-issue. At the university where I teach (recently designated at the 6th most diverse in the nation) there is very little discussion of racial issues mainly because people don’t tend to think in those terms. They just see each other as people, as classmates. My recent interaction with students at a weekend function highlights the diversity which is the norm for this generation. We were competing in a Dragon Boat contest, and the student crew of our boat consisted of students who were Asian, Latino, African-American, and White. They tended to segregate themselves in terms of their majors rather than skin color.

Maybe this really is the post-racial generation. If so, it will be interesting to see how politicians who have made their careers on racial issues will adapt to these future voters.

5. Pessimism vs Optimism –The one great strength of the Millennials is their perpetual optimism. My generation seemed mired in cynicism. The TV series Friends is good example of jaded Gen X’ers trying to figure out life while struggling to succeed in dead-end careers.

The Millennials maintain a more positive outlook on life. They seek a healthier balance between work and family. They don’t want to “make it” as much as they want to “make a difference.” That’s a noble endeavor, though it comes at a price.     I’ve known several Millennials turn down or leave good paying jobs because it felt too constraining or there didn’t appear much room for growth. One student told me that the job “didn’t feed his soul.” My response was “yeah, but it feeds your family.”   Maybe that’s my X’er cynicism talking.

Young adults today have the optimism of the Greatest Generation and the idealism of the Baby Boomers. As an X’er I feel like the middle child of a family who got none of the good qualities of the older and younger siblings. We X’ers have done alright, but we’re trapped between our college days and retirement. And we’re tired.   We wish you Millennials the best of luck, but your optimism, your conviviality, and idealism makes us even more tired. You need to put away your smart phones, spend some time alone, and maybe get cynical once in a blue moon.

As one of the leading philosophers of my generation once noted, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

9 responses

  1. I may be talking to a different set of millennials, but my students seem pretty pessimistic, or at least apathetic, about their ability to make a difference in the political sphere.

    • I’d second apathy regarding politics. Most of them don’t want to vote because its not worth their time. Most of them, however, would like to be judges or work in the White House. The celebrity part of politics appeals to them. The actual mundane work part of politics turns them off.

  2. Great piece, Chris. I’m happy to report that my 16 year old loves John Hughes’ films and owns a “Where’s Ferris?” t-shirt. I’m not sure if she is a true Millenial or not. ;- )

  3. Maybe we Gen X’ers would be happier and less jaded if we hadn’t been completely leapfrogged by everyone from marketers to businesses looking for employees. They think we can’t learn new skills – hell, that is our specialty. We get no respect from anyone, no welcome anywhere, and not enough pay for the loyalty we have shown in our workplaces when continually told to “do more with less” and assimilate fired or laid off workers’ tasks into our own with no raise in pay – over and over during the recession years. Seriously, a catch-up bonus and 10% raise for all of us would go a long way toward easing our cynicism and “disloyalty.” Treat a Gen X person to lunch today.

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