blog picture Generation Me

Pictured: said book

I recently read a book from 2006 that commented that we hadn’t yet coined a term to label the age demographic that comes after “Baby Boomers” and “Generation X”. Although that book wasn’t very outdated otherwise, that one sentence is now inaccurate and actually kind of funny. At some point shortly after that book was published, the media fell in love with the word “millennial,” and for a while now, it’s been consistently used as the name of a certain demographic group. The millennial generation is roughly defined as those who were children at the change of the millennium, although some have specified that millennials are those born between 1982 and 2004. (That parameter evidently was first laid out by authors Neil Howe and William Strauss, whose theories are more speculative than empirical, but worth googling if you find yourself with a few spare minutes)

blog picture HelloAt any rate, since I was born in 1991, I’m definitely well within this range and am indubitably a millennial. As such, I have a lot I’d like to say on various subtopics of millennial-ness, some of it addressing generalizations and some of it describing my own theories that are also more speculative than empirical. In fact, I have too much millennial-themed potential content to stick it all into one blog post, so this is going to be a multi-part series. (At this point, I’m thinking it’ll be four parts) A logical starting place is the very concept of categorizing people into specific age demographics.

Personally, when I was a child, I was under the impression that humanity essentially fell into three groups: children, teenagers, and adults. Sometimes, it might be convenient to sort adults into the categories of parent-aged adults, grandparent-aged adults, and adults older than my own grandparents, but for the most part, I thought of “growing up” as a sort of finish line. Getting there might be a gradual process, but once you passed the line, you were done, and you were just as grown-up as any other grown-up. Of course, I found out long before turning eighteen that a person’s entire lifespan, and not just childhood, is a series of changes and landmarks. But it still came as a bit of a surprise when, well into my twenties, the society around me still didn’t consider me fully adult. To some extent, I think this is a current trend caused by social and economic factors; the age of financial independence has been pushed far past the age of legal adulthood or physical maturation. That’s something I intend to write much more about later. But this isn’t entirely a modern thing; it’s always been true that there are major distinctions between different age categories even within adulthood.

If we’re talking about biological aging or cognitive changes or the gradual accumulation of knowledge, I would imagine that aging has happened at the same rate for at least many centuries, if not for all of human history. But if we’re talking about intergenerational differences, I think that things have really sped up since the mid- to late- 1800s. For the last 150ish years, technology has developed so rapidly that each generation is growing up in a very different setting than the last one.

blog picture phonesTelephone history serves as an obvious example. After Alexander Graham Bell got his telephone patented, it took 46 years before a third of American households had telephones. At the time, that surely seemed like a major cultural shift. Communication was suddenly much faster and easier; the telephone changed the way we stay in touch with family and friends, seek help in emergencies, and interact with coworkers or customers. Yet 46 years seems like an awfully slow transition by today’s standards. Now, over three quarters of Americans own smartphones, just 23 years after the first one was invented, and it’s been a mere 10 years since iOS and the android operating system came into being. (The slightly-used iPhone 4 I bought in 2014 is so outdated that I’ve had strangers stop me to ooh and ah over my antique phone. I am not even kidding about that.) Similar statistics apply to various other appliances and devices.

But it’s not just about technology; along with those changes come shifts in every aspect of culture, from fashion and music to the prevalent philosophies and worldviews. The Renaissance period lasted for about three or four centuries, and the industrial revolution was several decades long, (anywhere from 60ish years to almost 200 years, depending upon what source you consult) but in recent history, we talk about decades rather than eras. I don’t think that’s a matter of nomenclature; I think that many of us genuinely think of the ‘80s or the ‘90s as bygone eras.

Long before I read the book that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, I was formulating an explanation of generational differences (especially in terms of political opinions) that was based on these types of changes. It’s more than just technology and popular culture that changes over time; it’s also the political environment and the economic state of affairs. For example, I was born just as the Soviet Union was breaking up and the Cold War was ending. Although there has obviously been international blog picture cold wartension and conflicts since then, (and one can certainly argue that some of it is linked to the events and attitudes of the Cold War era) the fact of the matter is that I grew up in a political environment very different from that of the previous few decades. The post-nuclear landscape was just a sci-fi setting rather than a plausible fear, “terrorism,” was a more common and frightening buzzword than “communism” and we didn’t talk about “mutually assured destruction” because we all knew that the USA is a superpower and that we had less to fear from actual war than from school shootings, suicide bombings, and the like. Even the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the more recent threats from ISIS are recognized as originating from fringe groups, not from entire nations. It’s a commonly accepted fact that people instinctively fear or dislike “the other”, but I’d posit that it’s a much weaker instinct for those of us who grew up in post-Cold-War America. Whether you see that as good or bad, whether you call it “tolerance” or dismiss it as extreme liberalism, I think it explains a good deal about intergenerational differences in political opinion.

My point here is that any explanation of “why millennials are so…” has to take into account the various factors that made the ‘90s and ‘00s different from, say, the ‘70s and ‘80s. I’m not going to pretend to have sufficient expertise in sociology, childhood development, politics, economics, etc., to make a comprehensive list of all such factors, but I can certainly suggest a few that I think are major ones. As I discussed in the paragraph above, the end of the Cold War makes a difference. Perhaps even more significantly, modern technology has greatly increased the speed of communication, and it’s also meaningful that the entertainment industry has made more rapid technological advances than other fields. While commercialization has been an issue for generations, advertising is just getting more insidious and subliminal all the time, subtly altering our collective priorities even as we become less and less trustful of mainstream media and of rich and powerful people. And the emphasis of self-esteem in parenting and education is a big deal too; in fact, it’s the main topic of the book I’ve mentioned a few times now. Sure, that trend originated in writings from around the turn of the century, but it picked up steam slowly, and my generation is probably the first to be indoctrinated into it enough to experience the drawbacks. Much more on that later.

Another biggie is the changing views on education. As higher education has gotten more and more common over time, it’s also become more and more necessary. We’ve reached a point where a college education is not only essential for success in most career paths, it’s also a social expectation for the entire middle class and those from wealthy families. But higher education has also gotten more expensive over the past few decades, and educational loans have become more common and much larger. For the last decade or two, it’s been considered normal to take out student loans by the thousands and tens of thousands. So that’s another thing that makes the millennial experience different than that of earlier generations: It’s now normal and supposedly inevitable for young people to enter adulthood with astronomical debt. blog picture student loansNo longer is debt something that happens to you if you hit hard times or make bad life choices; now it’s practically a coming-of-age landmark. And in general, it’s the people who rack up more debt who become recognized as high achievers and those who make decisions enabling them to avoid debt who are thought of as inferior, or at least less successful. It’s no wonder that young adults are more likely than older adults to believe that the government is responsible for our financial well-being. Socialism sure does sound nice when long-term debt is normal and when the “right” life choices are more expensive than the “wrong” ones.   

I’m not saying any of this to speak against or advocate for any particular political/economic stance. (For what it’s worth, I’m actually much more conservative than the average  or stereotypical person of my age demographic.) My point here is that “millennial” attitudes make sense in context. If I follow the vague outline I have for this blog-post-series, that concept of context is going to be really the central point of the whole thing. When you think about it, the only difference between generations is context. If you could somehow ignore the effects of cultural influences, technology, socio-economic circumstances, political environment, and social expectations, everything that’s left (basic personality traits, appreciation for things like nature or music, capacity for learning, etc.) might vary from person to person, but is pretty much constant from generation to generation.

Advertisements