I Belong to the Maligned Generation

I’ve been called many things in my life, but few exasperate me more than one particular label: “Millennial.” Hearing or seeing the word thrust upon me makes me cringe with apprehension, as I await the litany of aspersions that will undoubtedly follow.

Lazy, they say. Possessed by a false sense of entitlement and utterly self-absorbed. Still living in your parents’ basement, eating away their hard-earned retirement and sucking the life out of the national economy. Going nowhere and getting there without a car, to boot!

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The new generation. Image source: TheeErin, Creative Commons.

When pundits and parents aren’t disparaging my generation wholesale, they’re characterizing it in the basest and simplest terms, stripping us of nuances and reducing us to caricatures. The Pew Research Center, for example, recently published an online quiz: How Millennial Are You? (Yep, the Pew Research Center, not Buzzfeed.)

The questions asked about certain habits – how often you watch TV, read the news, play video games, use a cell phone, get a text message – and what you think about some scenarios – interracial marriage, lobbying the government, religion, high salaries, etc. It asks if you have tattoos or piercings and where you land on the political spectrum. (What, you don’t want to know how I like my latte? Pumpkin spice, obvi.) Supposedly, it then ranks your answers with nationwide statistics to determine your percentage. According to Pew, I’m a mighty 87% Millennial.

Is it truly by our tattoos and technology, which seem merely incidental to the modern age, that we’re defined? Is this really all we amount to?

Therein lies the problem with the “Millennial” label: it has become code for “disappointing failure” (or “epic fail,” as we kids would say), without giving any credit to what truly makes our generation distinct, and worthy of a measure or two less disdain.

For example, how about we start discussing the cultural environment in which we grew up and thrive? Millennials are more ethnically diverse, and therefore more likely to have a diverse cache of peers and friends and family, than prior generations. This makes us moretolerant, more accepting of differences in gender, sexual preferenceand race.

We also more generously invest time and effort into charities and non-profits. We still value family and community, and while we may delay marriage and starting a family, it doesn’t mean we don’t want either or that we won’t eventually achieve one or both.

And my most favorite characteristic is the one “experts” seem most puzzled by: our preference for experiences over things. Too long we have been ridiculed for choosing travel over Toyotas, for pursuing exploration instead of homeownership.

But as research is beginning to show, experiences make people happier than material possessions. Lying on your deathbed, you’ll enjoy recalling the places you visited and the new tastes you discovered much more than the objects you amassed.

It seems our much-maligned generation has been onto something all along: It’s not that we’re narcissistic slackers traipsing through adulthood avoiding responsibilities. It’s that our priorities have changed, as has humanity’s understanding of what truly brings joy to life.

If only the rest of the world could catch up and realize the values we offer, rather than the (now-disproved alleged detriments. I’m looking forward to the day someone calls me a “Millennial” without meaning it as an insult.