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Millennials aren't the problem: you are

Aaron S. Bayley


For Boomers and conservatives, no sociological term elicits as much derision and disdain as "Millennials."


Though the word "Millennial" was coined in 1991, it has only been in popular usage for about a decade, and Boomers and conservatives are easily triggered by it. To these groups—and my own Generation X—Millennials are part of a lazy generation that had everything handed to them and doesn't know the value of hard work. The condescending attitudes shown toward younger generations by their elders is nothing new. Says the educator Anthony Kerr, "I have a pretty fair idea of history over the past twenty-five centuries and I cannot recall a time when the old were fully satisfied with the young."


Born roughly between 1981 and 1996, Millennials (or Generation Y), are a perceived scourge on society. Their apparent laziness, fragility, and sense of entitlement are seen as products of their overprotective baby boomer parents, and their poor reputation is partly thanks to the political right in mainstream media, which never tires of using Millennials as their punching bag. Congresswoman Alexander Ocasio-Cortez was once described by a conservative talk show host as an "insufferable Millennial" on Fox News. A May 2013 issue of Time magazine depicted a teenage girl taking a selfie on its cover with the headline: "The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents." "We can all agree that Millennials are the worst," reads the subtitle of a 2014 article in The Atlantic which sets out to define the start and end dates of each generation cohort. A 2019 New York Post article titled "Why 'lazy,' 'entitled' millennials can't last 90 days at work" cited the high turnover rate of the global workforce and placed the blame of businesses losing money on the absenteeism, lateness, and poor performance of tech-addicted Millennials, suggesting that they lack resilience and opt for flight over fight when presented with obstacles.


The idea that young people pursuing a career should want something less monotonous and more fulfilling for their lives—and that they should be adequately compensated for their work—is hardly extraordinary, let alone revolutionary, but it is seen as proof of entitlement by those for whom blind loyalty and acquiescence to the businesses that hire them are the only valid behaviours. In her book Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Anne Helen Petersen addresses the reality of living in a society where a person's value is determined solely by their ability to do work:


Historically, more work, more toil, more commitment, more loyalty, more grit—all of that could make you more valuable. That's the very foundation of the American Dream. But in our current economic moment—often referred to as "late capitalism," to evoke how much of the economy is predicated on the buying and selling and leveraging of things that aren't, well, things—hard work only becomes truly valuable when accompanied by existing connections (a.k.a. class status and privilege) or credentials (diplomas, recommendations, resumes).


Privilege is not a concept that people who benefit from it feel comfortable talking about. Many of those who started life on third base due to inherited wealth, the financial support of parents, or powerful connections, seduce themselves into thinking that their success is merit-based, that they are self-made. Those who weren't born with silver spoons in their mouths, or who are products of dysfunctional homes, have unique challenges and anxieties that the comfortable classes, for the most part, don't have to worry about. It's easy for adults who attended private schools, or whose parents paid for tutors and their college tuition, or who found financial fortune in the family business, to tell Millennials to just be grateful that they even have a job. That Millennials are holding out for something better is a tribute to their eternal optimism in the face of constant reminders that they are destined to be the first generation to be less well-off than their predecessors.


No young person should ever be told that they'll never own a home, yet Millennials are regularly bombarded with the message that home ownership is increasingly out of reach. "Is the home ownership dream dead for millennials?" asked the Globe and Mail's Paul Brent in 2019. If it is, it's not because Millennials are lazy or allergic to hard work (the laziest Millennials are usually those privileged enough not to have to suffer the consequences of economic hardship). It's because our current economy is structured in a way that allows unfettered capitalism to exploit them. What is the point of getting a college or university education if you cannot find a job in your field while being saddled with debt and owing your bank thousands plus interest? Millennials were failed by the very institutions that were supposed to facilitate their prosperity. If Millennials act entitled, they have every right to be."In fact," writes Joel Stein, author of the 2013 Time article, "a lot of what counts as typical Millennial behaviour is how rich kids have always behaved."


***


Regardless of whether they are willing to acknowledge it, Boomers benefitted from an age of economic security: stable employment, decent wages, and affordable housing. The adoption of neoliberal policies in the late 1980s and the corporate outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to cheap labour overseas gutted the middle class and made workers self-conscious and anxious about their socioeconomic status. In the 1990s, in an attempt to further cut labour costs, companies hired temp workers for whom they weren't required to provide benefits, who could be let go at any time, and who couldn't join unions because they weren't considered employees. Today, as companies focus on short-term profits and pleasing their investors at the expense of their employees, the average worker is seeing their benefits cut and their wages stagnate as inflation rises and corporate profits increase exponentially. Writing on the inequalities created by automated labour replacing human labour in his book Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, James Suzman notes, "automation will generate further wealth for the already wealthy, while further disadvantaging those who do not have the means to purchase stakes in companies and so free-ride off the work done by automata."


The temp work model of the 1990s inspired today's "gig economy" of freelancers and contingent workers, which allows companies to cut costs and shift the job's risks and responsibilities onto the worker. As Petersen describes in her book, Uber drivers, retail workers, and Amazon warehouse employees are all examples of "precariat" workers because they lack job security and do not earn a living wage. They also do not have predictable work schedules and are expected to be available to work at a moment's notice. A 2018 study commissioned by the U.S. Federal Reserve found that the net worth of Millennials is 20% lower than that of Boomers at the same point in their lives. Boomers not only shaped Millennials—as their parents, teachers, coaches, and bosses—they largely shaped the economic system with which Millennials find themselves struggling to cope.


I once dated a Millennial who, at the time, worked two jobs and was often exhausted by her hectic schedule. Because she had an unstable home environment, she was motivated to make ends meet and was prudent with her money (she once expressed a fear of being homeless). The manager at the coffee shop she worked at never made employees' schedules in advance and once called her half an hour before her shift to tell her not to come in. After learning he wasn't paying his employees for their breaks, I filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, met with an arbitrator, and got her a few hundred dollars in compensation. Months later, when she was working at Starbucks, her manager called her a "cunt." I fired off an email to customer care and three days later he was walked out of the store. Toward the end of our relationship, she was experienced both work- and family-related anxiety and told me she sometimes couldn't cope with getting out of bed in the morning. My cousin, also a Millennial, once worked for a small startup in San Francisco, and his close relationship with his boss meant he was always expected to be available. When I visited in 2013, 2014, and 2015, his work-related stress was apparent. It is hardly surprising that in the "flexible" gig economy, tech-savvy Millennials are encouraged to conflate work life with private life and are constantly surveilled by the digital devices designed to facilitate both their employment and entertainment. When you love your cool job, you won't distinguish between work and leisure. It's no wonder that so many of them suffer from exhaustion. "This is how precarity becomes the status quo," writes Petersen. "We convince workers that poor conditions are normal; that rebelling against them is a symptom of generational entitlement; that free-market capitalism is what makes America great and this is free-market capitalism in action. It turns legitimate grievance, backed by a union or not, into 'ungratefulness.' And it standardizes overwork and surveillance and stress and instability—the very building blocks of burnout."


***

And yet, Millennials are turning out to be an admirable generation in spite of the obstacles. In The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice Are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada, sociologists Reginald W. Bibby, Joel Thiessen, and Monetta Bailey compared Millennials (1986-2005) with Gen Xers (1966-1985), Baby Boomers (1946-1965), and Pre-Boomers (pre-1946) across a number of issues and concerns. Their conclusion? Millennials might be an upgrade from previous generations.


The authors started with the idea that pluralism is a response to diversity and discovered that Millennials embrace diversity and have a high level of acceptance of people's choices. Like their older cohorts, Millennials prioritize freedom, but they also express a greater degree of empathy toward others, including racialized people and members of the LGBTQ community. Marriage and children are not as important to Millennials, though that might change as they get older. As they are the first generation in history to grow up with the Internet, they are more aware of issues concerning gender equality, sexual harassment, child abuse, people with disabilities, and the minimum wage. Spirituality and organized religion are less important to Millennials than to their older cohorts. Of those polled, only 66% of Millennials believe that God or a higher power exists, compared to 72% of Xers, 76% of Boomers, and 80% of Pre-Boomers. Interestingly, Millennial born outside of Canada are more conservative and more religious than those born in Canada.


On a more concerning level, Millennials are reporting more loneliness, exhaustion, and depression than their same-age cohorts. Only 62% of Millennials enjoy reading (compared with 63% of Xers, 70% of Boomers, and 74% of Pre-Boomers). While social media apps and streaming services give Millennials more choice in how they decide to spend their leisure time, choosing to scroll Instagram or watch a Netflix series over reading a book may be more an indication of burnout. Citing an observation made by psychologist Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, the authors state:


As Millennials confront adult life, they do so as a cohort more likely than previous generations to have divorced parents, have numerous failed attempts at love as the average age of marriage rises, live on their own, move several times for school or career, experience school pressures and competition, confront depressing economic and employment realities, and live excessively busy lives that isolate them from others.


Add to those challenges the anxieties arising from social media apps like Instagram and TikTok, where the proliferation of idealized bodies and images can lead to body dysmorphia, and where the flaunting of curated lifestyles can damage self-esteem and cause feelings of inadequacy. And yet, in spite of irrefutable evidence that Millennials actually have it tougher than previous generations, polls show that both American and Canadian Millennials remain optimistic about their future.

***


Instead of using lazy, negative stereotypes to describe Millennials, Boomers and my own generation shouldn't be so smug. Sure, Millennials are obsessed with their phones, but so are members of Generation X (and it's both disconcerting and somewhat pathetic seeing 40-year-olds taking selfies, buying anti-aging products, and trying to make it as social media influencers because they think entrepreneurship is cool). If any generation shouldn't be faulted for their intimate relationship with the technology that shapes our society and behaviour, it's the generation that grew up with it. Millennials are called lazy, but Generation X are the original slackers. Millennials are accused of being narcissistic, but everyone on Instagram is a narcissist, and over the past six years there's been no better example of narcissism than Donald Trump, a privileged and pampered 76-year-old Boomer. Millennials are said to be disengaged, but they have been supportive of progressive social movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too as well as campaigns to unionize Amazon and Starbucks. Millennials are accused of wanting participation trophies for finishing last, but the recent college admissions bribery scandal showed us how the admissions process for top American universities privileges the children of the affluent and well-connected, even when they finish far from first. Millennials are criticized for spending money on long trips backpacking across South America, Europe, and Asia, but why should young people wait to travel the world and forge meaningful experiences when their economic futures are hardly guaranteed?


Maybe the problem isn't Millennials, but everyone else. Millennials didn't create a world of unprecedented greed, unfettered capitalism, and climate change but they've inherited it. Maybe Boomers need to finally come to terms with their good fortune and remember what they were like in the late '60s. Maybe Generation X needs to stop helicopter parenting and curb their own social media obsession. Maybe they need to stop propping up the gig economy by traveling by Uber and ordering food from DoorDash. And maybe they should pick up a book instead of binge watching Netflix, ranting on TikTok, virtue signalling about social issues, and trying to "own the libs" by posting pointless, poorly spelled memes to Facebook. Memo to Generation Xers: you're old; grow up and stop mimicking Generation Z.


Millennials might be suffering from burnout, but they've also shown themselves to be resourceful idealists, even while resigned to their circumstances. The Internet and its 24-hour news cycle has created, for the first time in history, a culture of perpetual fear and a permanent sense of urgency and helplessness among its most vulnerable users. More and more Millennials are discovering that the American Dream is a myth, and that hard work is not a guarantor of success. While Boomers are worried about elections being rigged, Millennials are trying to stay afloat in an economy rigged for billionaires.


Generation Z (or Zoomers) might not inherit the optimism of their predecessors, and they are as cynical as their Gen X parents and more perceptive and radicalized than Millennials. They also are extremely proficient at using social media to facilitate their activism. If the spectre of soaring home prices, bleak job prospects, a crumbling democracy, and a degrading environment continues, they might do more than just tweet about it.




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