Millennials are indolent, entitled narcissists who are wiping out entire economies and setting fire to the American dream. Or are they the future of the human world as a result of the very nature of linear time? Either way, everyone on the internet has a pet theory about what sets the millennial generation apart, and I’m not about to ride the bench through such a gold rush. As I write this, another article seems to be making the rounds about how millennials have ruined vacation, a criticism many of us probably remember our parents leveling at us since our childhoods. However, the truth is that every one of these articles spectacularly misses the point of what really sets millennials apart, and there are four simple ways in which the millennial generation differ profoundly from the rest of the population.
Why in the world did you click on that absurd headline? Are you looking to reinforce your preconceived dislike of millennials? Are you a defensive millennial looking for yet another article to ridicule for its hypocritical critiques? Both camps have a target-rich environment for that sort of thing, but I’m sure it would be overly reductive of me to divide my entire potential audience, whom I’ve never met, into just two categories.
This is the part where I look pointedly, singularly at you. At the people writing — and reading — all these damn articles. At myself.
Nevertheless, our minds inherently seek to understand, to identify patterns, to make more sense of the world in which we live by classifying what we experience. But when we try to classify groups that are too large with too much certainty, that’s where we get into trouble. Fundamentally, generational distinctions are just another in a long line of lazy efforts to categorize ourselves and, to a much greater extent, others. Instead of listing four illusory distinctions of the strawman du jour, I offer up four equally troublesome ways of carving up humanity.
1) Big data
Maybe you’ve run into a similar situation: I went shopping for glasses online once, and to this day, at least one banner ad on every website I visit tries to sell me those glasses frames. I don’t know if Larry Page thinks that I didn’t buy them or if they think that I like to have a fresh pair each time I wake up in the morning, but as little as I know about their decision making, I am certain that they know even less about mine1.
People associate Big Data with the prophetic powers of Nostradamus — arguing that telephone metadata can determine individuals’ ties to extremist groups, or that Amazon’s extensive data on consumer demography can reveal what individuals might pay for a product. The key word in both of those examples is “individual.” Put simply, using vast quantities of data to draw conclusions about individuals based on nuanced profiles only works when the stakes are exceptionally low2. But the best way to use this data is to look for larger trends and avoid drawing conclusions about individuals altogether.
Analysts who mistake aggregates for individuals or vice versa generally throw usefulness out the window. It’s all well and good to identify changing social trends from generation to generation, but those who then use such changes to reinforce their dislike of actual humans are either disingenuous or obtuse. Similarly, irresponsible users of big data prefer to draw from the huge, unstructured swaths of data available in the information age which tends to have one of two results: Either they make claims that they already held, or they make claims general enough to garner broad acceptance.
Not unlike many astrologers.
Which brings me to my next point. Let me get a quick disclaimer out of the way first though: I’m not trying to harsh your mellow if you’re sincerely invested in the contingent cosmologies of astrology. I’ve seen enough episodes of Three’s Company to know that reality is subjective, and I don’t propose to have all the answers as to what is and isn’t real.
But the zodiac does play neatly into our pattern-seeking inclinations, offering easy answers that are recognizable but unbound by dedication to the truth. There’s a slight difference in stakes between a baby boomer refraining from hiring me for the grocery store produce section during one of my long, lazy periods of unemployment because they Know about the poor work ethic of millennials and the fact that I Know that Mattie can be a huge bummer to hang out with because she’s such a Gemini.
Still even astrologers recognize the limited generalizability of horoscopes, so different cultures have their own. Western civilization has the Ptolemaic zodiac, East Asia has the shēngxiào, and college freshmen have Myers-Briggs3.
In this way, global cultural divisions split even otherwise supposedly iron-clad categories. If I’m being honest (something I rarely do while trying to tell jokes4), even adherents of generational distinctions consider them to be limited to national and cultural boundaries. Still, none of us are so foolish as to draw conclusions about individuals based on perceptions we have about entire nations. I hope not, anyway. The 19th century was a long time ago.
For those who cleave to the idea of nationalistic monocultures, a perfect opportunity presented itself just recently. As an avid cycling fan and quadrennial volleyball spectator, I naturally paid close attention to the Olympics in recent weeks. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like I’m particularly more agile than any given non-American just because the US gymnastics team was so dominant, just as I think I’m not generally more petulantly entitled than someone conceived in the euphoria of VJ Day.
Another thing the Olympic games demonstrate is that society perceives a very deep and binary gender divide. No categorical distinction is more broad than splitting the planet’s population into two halves, and as such, no categorical distinction is more meaningless from a practicality standpoint. Despite that, gender essentialist claims seep into every aspect of our society, never pausing to distinguish between what is congenital and what is acculturated by societal forces.
One need look no further than the monumental difficulties faced by Caster Semenya, the phenomenal South African runner. Semenya’s body produces more testosterone than the International Olympic Committee considers common for a female body, despite the fact that nothing is common about Olympic athletes’ bodies in the first place. Perhaps upset about her impressive results, the Committee (and some observers) have called her gender into question and thus the legitimacy of her accolades. These critics cite her body chemistry as proof of either a man competing in a woman’s event or a woman doping, not recognizing the irony of bringing up unusual individual metrics to reinforce a broad aggregate distinction.
I don’t mean to deny the significance and meaning that a person’s gender identity can represent, I only assert the following: No, Drake.
You cannot beat Serena.
Not even if she were playing with her left.
In groups as diverse as entire generations of people, we often find it difficult to make distinctions that are both broad and meaningfully accurate. As is so often the case, differences within groups are likely more profound than differences between groups. Millennials, then, are not inherently different than anyone else in society.
With that in mind, I hope you’ll reconsider your rejection of my Facebook invite to stop by the used-bookstore-cum-craft-cocktail-dispensary to see my normcore fifth wave ska revivalist band, Skanker Things, dad.
1 In actuality, I subsist entirely by eating tortoise-shell colored acrylic.
2 Granted, using such distinctions for generationally-based internet name calling is fairly low-stakes, especially if it’s an improvement upon the monumentally low bar of misspelled racial slurs and indiscriminate gendered insults. I hope we can aspire to more, though.
3 Don’t @ me.
4 If you’ve laughed at any of these “jokes,” please @ me.