Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Who are the Millennials?

There are no exact dates defining the birth years of the Millennial generation. The Pew Research Center gave tentative dates between 1981 and 1997. A May 2013 Time cover story dated Millennials as those children born between 1980 or 1981 and 2000.

One online commentator referred to the term Millennials, previously often coined Generation Y, or the immediate successors to Generation X, as “a dumb way for baby boomers to other-ise the generation that they’ve saddled with all the world’s biggest problems.” I would have to agree with this statement, particularly as it pertains to the unsustainable mess of Social Security and Medicare entitlements, which Millennials will pay for all their lives and then inherit without benefit when the funds dry up. It is true that the Boomers have put off the burdens of the world's biggest problems for future generations to deal with. From global conflicts to climate change to sovereign debt, they have acted consistently in this manner. Not to mention the financial crisis, largely caused by Boomer's irresponsibility and greed, that led the country into the sinkhole of the Great Recession, which struck just as many Millennials were finishing college or entering the workforce. But enough about politics and playing the blame game! Who really cares about that stuff anyway?

The point is that the Boomers have somewhat lazily and broadly stereotyped and denigrated their children's generation, a generation that they, as parents, were chiefly responsible for raising. Yet, the Baby Boomer's are also trying to understand Millennials, a generation so vastly different from their own, in the way a parent tries to understand his or her own children. There is still love and compassion behind this effort because many of the good-hearted Boomers have good intentions, yet are perhaps still seeking to mold their children in their own image. They may find it hard to stomach the change that is occurring so dizzily around them. Indeed, if I as a Millennial am frequently confused by and find it hard to keep up with the rapid social, cultural, political and technological changes that occur at warp speed in my world, I can hardly imagine how my parents feel! When their primarily source of news and information is the PBS New Hour, it's hardly surprising that they feel disconnected from their children's worldview and values. Indeed, many probably suspect that their Millennial brats have not developed these humanistic traits that make them citizens of the world and not just world class Candy Crush players.

The Baby Boomers had relatively tranquil childhoods during an era of quiet prosperity and social, familial stability. All that changed with their coming-of-age during the Civil Rights Movement and their suffering through the horrors of Vietnam, which included the Draft, a life-threatening menace so terrible that it is almost unimaginable to one of the Millennial generation, except perhaps to the men and women of our armed services who have faced combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bob Dylan's famous song and lyric of 1964, "The Times They Are A-Changin' ", might have been the mantra of a generation. And the times did change. The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 due largely to the mobilization of activists in the African-American community and growing sympathy among whites. In 1965, the United States began deploying regular combat troops to Vietnam. The war escalated to its peak in 1968 with the Tet offensive, a campaign by the Viet Cong that failed in its goal of overthrowing the South Vietnamese government but succeeded in convincing the majority of the American populous that their country was losing the war. Protests against the war grew even stronger. Cries of "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" rang out.

1968 was a horrible year. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th and large-scale riots erupted in major cities across the country. Bobby Kennedy's assassination followed on June 6th. In May 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds over 13 seconds at a group of unarmed college students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine. A student strike of 4 million young people shut down high schools, colleges, and universities across the country in response to the incident. Public opinion continued to shift against the war. By the end of the prolonged Vietnam War, Baby Boomers had lost trust in government. Moreover, they had grown up in a climate of turmoil, violence, protest, and civil disobedience.

Through the tumultuous nightmare of that era, a new culture emerged, largely as a result of the Boomer generation's efforts and a power shift. The Draft was abolished in 1973, and although President Carter later created the Selective Service in 1980 for the event of an emergency crisis, conscription was in effect dead. The Women's Movement continued to gain further ground by leaps and bounds, as did the efforts to attain equality for people of color. The Baby Boomers had weathered a true storm, but through their determined efforts to push for political and social change, they emerged victorious.

Now, how could such a generation fail to recognize the innovation, leadership, and entrepreneurship of its children's generation? Perhaps because the Millennials are fomenting an entirely different form of change than the Boomers. Or maybe the Boomers have witnessed such drastic social, economic, and political change in their lifetimes that what's going on now seems like a flash in the pan...

Also why do Boomers seem so ready to "saddle" our generation with "the world's biggest problems" without regret? Perhaps they've thrown in the towel--having gone ten rounds in the ring in their youth through the hard-knock times of the '60s and '70s. Perhaps they are resting on their laurels and looking forward to a well-deserved retirement. However, psychological research has shown that in old age people feel the need to give back to their communities and leave a legacy for loved ones, family, friends, and for those causes and institutions which they hold dear. Although they may make a major contribution to a great, "world-changing" cause late in life, it is most likely to be a financial one. I certainly don't feel like if I were in my late fifties or my sixties that my top priority would be to tackle the World's Biggest Problems. I'd do what I could, but I'd probably be exhausted from a long career and ready to "hang up the gloves" as the Spanish saying for retirement goes. If I'm like most people, I'd be far more likely to make a contribution to my local community--to stay active in my local church or synagogue, to work part-time at something I enjoy, to teach, to volunteer, etc.

However, I think there is an element of amnesia here. The further one gets from one's past, the more inaccessible and sometimes rose-colored it becomes. In the past two decades, Baby Boomers have enjoyed a level of economic prosperity unprecedented in American history (until the Great Recession rocked the boat for a couple of years). Since the rise of the PC, the Internet, AOL, and Netscape to the Tech Bubble to our current age of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and mobile devices, Boomers have embraced new digital technology as a means to huge financial returns in the Stock market and the creation of wealth. Has the dizzying ascent into a more wealthy, technology-driven economy created a new matrix of social values? Certainly a carry-over from the 80's "Greed is good" ethos, the rise of technology since the 90's made the dream of more exorbitant wealth more attainable for many Americans and sent the overall economy up, up, and away.

So, here's a theory: because the Boomers control the majority of capital, they are free to underpay Millennials. Unless a Millennial founded a start up and was very smart about how he financed it, he is unlikely to be paid commensurately relative to the value of the service he provides. Why is this? His company may be controlled by Daddy Warbucks at Venture Capital Firm X, who has the money but not the skills to do what his young partner provides as a technological entrepreneur. So, he may if he so chooses employ a team of digitally savvy slaves to do his dirty work while he rakes in millions of dollars in profits. There a subset of Millennials that is an under-paid class of hard-working programmers, graphic artists, web designers, social media experts, digital marketing innovators, etc. that are not paid according to their knowledge and experience. This concept could be extended to dozens of other skill-labor industries beyond the tech sector!

Yet despite Millennials being their underlings and making them tons of money with innovations their own generation did not come up with, there seems to be a certain distaste for Millennials among the Boomers. They have been called "slackers", "entitled", and the "Boomerang" or "Peter Pan" Generation for moving back in with their parents (during the recession and afterwards when jobs were scarce) and delaying adulthood if only in their self-concept. One of the questions this blog will attempt to answer is the extent to which these labels accurately describe a broad subset of the new generation, or whether they are simply pure stigmatization of the Millennials by older generations.

Here's another theory I would like to suggest. The Baby Boomer generation fomented change through massive sociopolitical movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Liberation Movement, and resistance to the Vietnam War. From their efforts and the terrible crucible of world events, a brave new world emerged. Yet when the dust cleared they could see themselves as survivors who eventually built an America on their own terms. Not only were they survivors, but they were agents of change whose united action totally revamped a nation socially and politically.

The Millennial generation has tried, and so far, basically failed to change America for the better through politics alone. Political gridlock in Washington is practically taken for granted. Obama has entirely renounced his early promises to "reach across the aisle" for bi-partisan cooperation (not that Republicans have been so open to it anyway). How many "Change We Can Believe In" posters from Obama's first campaign lie embarrassingly stashed in even the most ardent democrats closet or behind a bookshelf? The fact is, the "Change", the "Hope", the Pie-in-the-Sky--whatever it was that captured the American imagination in Obama's first electoral campaign of 2008 (I too fell victim to this)--DID NOT come. The political movement that had been galvanized especially by the Millennial generation crowned a leader that failed to follow through on the promise of "Change". Thousands of young people had campaigned tirelessly for him across the country; how devastating when the leader you believe in so deeply fails to deliver the revolutionary change he promised so fervently. Might you feel... Betrayed? Disillusioned? Perhaps become more cynical about politics?

Unlike their parents' generation that catalyzed change politically in the face of drastic social upheaval, Millennials have been working for change in a time of less social dissonance and through more apolitical means (this may all change in the wake of Ferguson and escalating racial tensions). Many Millennials have incited change through involvement in social-entrepreneurial ventures (entirely unlike the flamboyant but necessary demonstrations of the '60s and '70s). Author David Burstein has called Millennials "pragmatic-idealists" for their approach to social change; recognizing the need to work within and outside current institutions, they also understand the need to create new institutions (a case in point would be the charter school movement).
Thousands of Millennial college graduates have joined organizations like Teach for America and New York Teaching Fellows every year to address educational inequality. Many become career teachers and educators. Yet they choose to do so within organized programs that are designed to strategically address the challenges of inner-city and disadvantaged schools in an organized, structured way. The socio-entrepreneurial approach to tackling the deficiencies of our educational system is a novel innovation of our age, and Millennials are spearheading this movement. From the Baby Boomers perspective, perhaps it is difficult to comprehend the social impact Millennials are having for the good because it is usually not within the context of unified political pressure like the social movements of the Boomers' youth but within new, disparate socio-entrepreneurial endeavors with varying missions and goals that seek to tackle problems from the ground up.

Is the Millennial generation failing or succeeding to build a world on its own terms? Will we be able to have it our way, like a Big Mac... like the Boomer generation did..? ...Is that even the right thing to aspire to?

Will Millennials continue to be more effective at making progress through socio-entrepreneurial innovation and technology, or will they recalibrate their political prowess as well? Has political apathy set in after the disillusionment with Obama, and if so, will it continue? How will Millennials confront questions about race, gun violence, and police power in the wake of the events in Ferguson and other flashpoints around the nation?

The earth is shifting underneath our feet...

~ Trevor Swett

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