By Adam Pearse
What word comes to mind when you hear ‘millennial’? Lazy, Selfish, Entitled? I wouldn’t blame you because these are some of the terms that embody the millennial generation for most of the population. They are themes that are constantly echoed by media organisations around the globe. In 2013, the USA’s ‘Time’ Magazine famously plastered ‘The ME ME ME Generation’ onto their front page, describing how the newest generation was only in it for themselves and had no respect for their elders. What I’m here to tell you is that these millennials don’t exist. Now, before I lose any respect I had from my older readers, let me be clear that people like this do exist. There are people in this world that only care about themselves and have no thought for those whom they hurt. However, these are not traits confined to one generation and the whole concept of generational thinking is regressive at best. So why were millennials branded with these degrading attributes to begin with?
To answer this question, I had to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth – a baby boomer. That’s right, a member of a generation, born between 1940 and 1960, that tanked the economy, decimated the environment and made buying a house as unattainable as having completely dry washing in a Palmerston North winter. Luckily for me, this one had a doctorate in philosophy. Introducing Associate Professor Paul Toulson, a man that has studied human behaviour for decades and has a considerable interest in what makes a generation tick.
Toulson sees that generational thinking as a whole is problematic and that when we attribute values to a group of people, we mix the use of generations instead of age.
“The problem with the generational model, it is a gross abstraction of reality. It’s not actually real and it’s not much use from that point of view. You can say that if you have an old person that their wants and needs as far as work is concerned are quite different from somebody just starting but that’s an age thing, not a generational thing,” he says.
Generational terms such as millennials are a fairly recent phenomenon. Originating in the late 19th Century, those born from 1880 until 1900 were the ‘lost generation’. Those from 1900-1920, the ‘greatest generation’, 1920-1940 the ‘silent generation, 1940-1960 the ‘baby boomers’, 1960-1980 ‘generation X’ and finally the millennials, those people that reached the age of 21 after the millennium.
Toulson rejects the notion that these generations are able to say anything about a person and that all they are, are stereotypes.
“All a generation is, is a stereotype. Not all stereotypes are bad. If the stereotype is good like that the new generation, the millennials are not lazy they are independent, they’ve got a much better feeling of balance than we do, this is all good stuff. That’s more a reflection of someone’s age rather than their generational group.”
When posed the question of whether millennials are lazy and selfish, Toulson responded in a manner that suited his title as an esteemed professor.
“I think that is absolute bullshit.
“They are not lazy or selfish. They are no more lazy and selfish than people of my age when we were that age. There is a big idea being promulgated that millennials are very narcissistic. That is absolute crap. Absolute crap. They are no more narcissistic than some of the young people I knew.”
Toulson believes the generation you were born in tells you very little about the person you are and can only allude to the kind of world you grew up in.
“If you knew what generation they belong to, you would actually know what the state of the world was at the time. So, you know that millennials were born into a world of computers, they grew up with them whereas with a baby boomer, we didn’t have computers. Computers were a feature of science fiction. We didn’t even have space travel,” he says.
“A lot of science fiction is becoming reality now but it was very much fiction then. So, that’s about the only thing that you can say is that if they’re a millennial, you immediately put them in a millennial box as far as when they came into the world and what the conditions were like. Of course, each age or each generation has its own features.”
Toulson sees millennials today as contradicting their narcissistic and selfish brand in that they portray a moral code more virtuous than the one held by generations before them and it is only through the media that this brand persists.
“Young people now, have a much better value system than we had when I was young. I can remember when I was in my 20’s and all we thought about was screwing girls and having a good time. Now, I’m noticing that with a lot of young people, they have a much stronger moral structure than we had and they focus on other things rather than food, booze and sex which were the gods of those days.
“You’ve still got a bit of that that goes around and of course the press seizes on this and blows it all up. The media seizes on often half-truths but never the full truth because the media tends to seize on what is sensational, what will sell.”
He says millennials face challenges that previous generations have never had to face particularly in relation to the advancements in technology where young people are more vulnerable to the horrors of the world.
“I think it’s tough being a millennial. A millennial now can get online and view anything on the world wide web and see the absolute horror of what’s going on in the world. Once people were actually shielded from that but now, anything goes.”
Toulson postulates that this exposure to disturbing material and the truths of the world has inflicted an anxiety onto the youngest generation.
“There is some evidence to suggest that for a lot of young people, there is a lot of anxiety around. I believe that if you have a look at the root cause of drug addiction, the driving force is anxiety. This is why, particularly youth, are much more vulnerable nowadays than they were in the old days even when the economic times were even tougher.
“If you look at history, there is nothing new in human behaviour but there has been a huge change and that’s the change in technology. Technology is changing so quickly that it is actually raising the levels of anxiety.”
However, Toulson does not see this anxiety as a weakness and has the belief that the millennial generation has the ability to lead the world into a brighter future.
“The millennial generation definitely deserves more respect from older generations. I have a lot of faith in the millennials because they are really the people of tomorrow. There is going to be a big change and that force will start to mobilise and then society will wake up to a rude shock and we are actually seeing evidence of that already. I hope the millennials don’t give up. They really are the future and their children are the future as well.”
He sees the narcissism observed in millennials as simply the ambition young people have to achieve their dreams.
“If you actually want to bring positive change to the world, you’ve got to work hard and you’ve got to look out for yourself first because if you don’t you’re not going to make it. There’s nothing wrong with ambition but it is when people become overly ambitious and they act at the expense of everybody else. I think a lot of millennials have got a good sense of that already.”
If Toulson has taught us anything, it’s that you are not defined by your generation. At the end of day, when you look at generations, all you see is people. People with different work ethics, priorities and ways of living their lives. To put millennials in a box and attach broad qualities to them only represses their ability for self-expression and alienates them from the older factions of society. Millennials have a huge voice in society, one that can pass laws and win elections. Belittling their involvement in this process inevitably stalls humanity’s progression into a better future. It’s time to wake up baby boomers. If we want to fix the economy, restore the environment, and make it so I can afford something with four walls in Auckland, it needs to be done with all of us in the conversation, not just you.