Sunday, June 04, 2006

Millenials? Validity of Generational Generalization

An article in the recent issue of the Northwestern Magazine describes the current demographic of young people (bounded by the years 1982-2000) as comprising a generation called the Millenials (unfortunately, this article is not currently online). Just as Generation X before us and the Baby Boomers before them, we supposedly share in certain traits, behaviors, and lifestyle that define us as a generation. Accordingly, there is something about us that makes us millenial: we are driven, multi-tasking, rules-oriented, self-motivated individuals. At the same time, our parents "coddle" us non-stop, from writing our college application essays to driving us to and from many activities to doing our laundry and cleaning our rooms. When we go to college, we talk with them multiple times a day and rely on them to buy us the latest high-tech item. Current six-to-twenty-four year-olds, does this sound like you?

To be honest, I am suspicious of generational labeling. Sure, there are certain things that unite many of us, and I think people whose demographics are quite similar (i.e. age, race, class, education) have experienced a general similarity in lifestyle. Of course, all of the aged 6-24 year olds in the United States have not experienced the same lifestyle; in fact, the growing gap between rich and poor has, as John Edwards has pointed out, created two Americas. The Millenial generation that the NU magazine describes is mostly comprised of the rich half of America (though, of course, a lot less than half of Americans are rich).

The other thing that I personally resent about being lumped in this generation is that I couldn't really identify with those described in the article. I don't get a mere 4-5 hours of sleep per night, I don't think one needs to over-committ themselves during college to get a job (and most people who are over-committed usually do a bad job at their various positions because they don't have enough time), I don't play video games while watching TV while reading while writing a paper while talking on my cell phone. I didn't need constant parental reminders to do my homework (which can be seen as nerdiness, but I like to think of it as just being independent), and I was pretty familiar with some of the most unthankful of chores while growing up (not that I didn't complain while completing them). Nevertheless, many people in this Millenial demographic (I think it's more a demographic than it is a generation) didn't have to do many chores as children (they had maids and parents), did get help with college essays, did do well on standardized tests like the SATs (after taking classes to prepare for them), do take up multiple activities, and are law-abiding, rules-oriented individuals who tend to get jobs in lucrative but unexciting industries like banking and consulting after college.

Still, I don't think it very useful to publish articles that write of a generation as if it were some sort of a phenomenon that came from a star one night down to earth and spread across an age group. Rather, I think whatever circumstances and behaviors a certain demographic--or generation--has in common is the result of many variables coming together--values, societal norms, income distribution, politics--that influence the way in which we think, act, and live our lives.


Anonymous said...

I feel people make generalizations like these for two reasons: one they are lazy and generalizations often are a substitute for real thought (yes I realize that that statement was in itself a huge generalization) and two, the human mind often looks for patterns, and sometimes creates patterns where they don't exist.

For example, I used to work as a poker dealer and the players would often make comments like "boy the sixes are playing a lot tonight." In actuality, their minds were trying to create order out of a random situation. Every time a six came out they would notice it because it proved their theory, that sixes were playing, was correct, but they continually failed to notice all of the times when the sixes weren't playing.

This concept of the millenial generation or whatever runs along the same premise. People see one or two people in their lives that maybe have some of these characteristics, so they create a pattern, this "millenial group" and explain away millions of people with diverse lives who come from diverse backgrounds, and they do this to create order out of chaos and simplicity out of confusion. Or because they're just idiots.

Elaine said...

Very well explained! I believe you're absolutely right about people making order out of chaos. I suppose we all do it, and sometimes it is necessary and helpful, but there is certianly no shortage of over-theorizing among the human race.