I finally read Joel Stein’s Time magazine piece on the Millennial Generation, called “The Me Me Me Generation.” For the record, unlike some of my Millennial cohorts I hate “selfies” (the term and the thing it describes), I don’t feel entitled to a great job right out of school, and I don’t sleep next to my phone. But I don’t think the article deserved all of the antipathy it received from the blogosphere. I thought it was a fair if slightly fogeyish and surface-level assessment of overall generational characteristics. The problems my generation struggles with — like narcissism and a sense of entitlement — are so noticeable largely because of the times we live in, with everything more public and social technology more widespread. You don’t think the Baby Boomers would have peppered Instagram with pictures from Woodstock? or that Gen-Xers would have had entire Spotify playlists dedicated to their collection of sad and angsty ballads? The manifestations of narcissism by young people today merely belie the human condition that plagues all humankind: We’re selfish creatures, no matter how old we are or how many Twitter followers we have.
The combination of the influence of technology and how we collectively were reared — being told how special we were by over-protective helicopter parents — also contributes to how we are currently growing into adulthood. Generally speaking, we’re able to postpone full emergence into adulthood and still live with our parents because (a) we can and our parents don’t seem to mind (or at least don’t say so), and (b) because the economy sucks and has changed so much that traditional jobs and careers aren’t as feasible anymore. The Boomers were anxious to get out of the house and their parents were eager for them to leave, so naturally the way things are done now clashes with the way of the past. Welcome to The Present Reality.
Having said that, we can’t abdicate responsibility for making choices about our lives. We don’t have to live with our parents or check Facebook ten times a day or start a YouTube channel to get famous, but we do anyway (well, not me, but the collective We certainly do). And that doesn’t just go for Millennials: Facebook usage is declining among younger people because their parents (Boomers! shakes fist) have slowly taken over. Magazine columnists can try to pin the narcissism epidemic on young people all they want, but when I go to restaurants nowadays I see just as many if not more parents on their phones than younger people. We can’t simply blame the times and the technology for our behavior, because we’re human beings with the capacity to choose whether to succumb to societal forces or to instead carve our own path, peer pressure be damned.
I think we’ll be all right. Like generations before us, we have a great opportunity to make things better. That will involve some pushing back against the political and cultural acrimony that has characterized the Boomers’ ascendency and reign, but every generation has had to clean up the messes of its predecessors. We Millennials will inevitably make mistakes, and our kids will have been formed by them in some way, for better or for worse. Let’s just hope it’s for the better.