Meet the Millennials

They’ve had more unflattering epithets thrown at them than any previous generation. Who are these young people, and what makes them tick?

Perhaps you’ve heard a story like this one:
A teenager graduates from high school. His family thinks he has his head glued to his cellphone, and he’s never worked a day in his life. After four years of college, he earns a liberal- arts degree and has accumulated the equivalent of a mortgage in student debt.

Now ready to launch out into the world, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed graduate finds himself jobless and living at home because his expectations for work are not being met. He thinks he deserves better pay and someone standing by his side, praising his work.

The scenario purports to describe a generation of young adults who are accused of being lazy, entitled, narcissistic, and noncommittal. Meet the millennials.

After that warm introduction, I’m somewhat hesitant (but unashamed) to admit I’m a millennial. I’m on the older end of the spectrum, with a few gray hairs to prove it (probably put there by my four children). But I fall within the time frame that defines my generation (see page 15). That said, my take on millennials is based on both the stereotypes and my experience as one who bears the name.

Their High-Tech World
The example of the entitled college graduate is a common one critics often use to oversimplify the members of Generation Y. It is true that, statistically, millennials are considered lazier, more entitled, and more narcissistic than the baby boomers and traditionalists who preceded them. However, many millennials would take umbrage with being associated with the entitled college graduate.

Simply put, we cannot define between 80 million and 92 million (estimates vary) young adults at different stages in life with one broad stroke. Some are still in high school while others, like me, have families and careers. When assessing millennials, there are certain variables we shouldn’t overlook. Yet there also are constants when it comes to how we were raised.

The millennial worldview is shaped primarily by the rapid rise of technology. It is—literally—the lens through which this generation views the world and a defining factor that determines much of what makes it distinct.

In the 1990s, while the baby boomers were struggling to figure out how to integrate the rapid development of personal computers into their everyday lives, millennials were the first generation to be nurtured on them.

Most young adults today don’t know life without a connected device. They use this technology to shop, learn, work, socialize, and even find spouses: It all starts at a computer. According to Goldman Sachs, “millennials have come of age during a time of technological change, globalization and economic disruption. That’s given them a different set of behaviors and experiences than their parents.”1

Their Positive Affirmation
In addition, a string of social experiments has coddled them through their most formative years. Instead of molding them into men and women of character, they were told as adolescents they could be anything and do anything—and to settle for nothing less.

Psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, blames America’s culture of self-esteem, “in which parents praise every child as ‘special,’ and feelings of self-worth are considered a prerequisite to success, rather than a result of it,” wrote Douglas Quenqua of The New York Times.2 Twenge argues the “Participation Trophy” generation was rewarded too easily and celebrated success without accomplishing anything worthy of praise. Now some millennials are waking up to the dangers of this type of upbringing.

Olivia Legaspi, a student at Haverford College, received national attention for her article, “What Working At McDonalds Taught Me About Privilege.” “In everyday discourse here at Haverford,” she wrote, “we are taught to ask for help when we feel we need it, speak up when we feel uncomfortable, and prioritize our own well being over most other things. At McDonald’s, acting in this way could have cost me my job, a job I needed to afford college.”3

Olivia is a perfect example of a maturing millennial whose experience working the cash register at McDonald’s imparted more wisdom than the rhetoric of her college; and there are more Olivias out there, waking up to the same realization.

Many got a jolt of reality in 2015 when they officially entered adulthood as the largest group in the U.S. workforce, outnumbering even the baby boomers who are now planning for retirement. They can’t be lazy anymore; they need to work. A recent poll found that members of this workforce are more likely than previous generations to sacrifice paid time off because they want to be seen as indispensable and because of the historically high student debt they carry after they graduate college.4

In the New York Times article “Why Teenagers Today May Grow Up Conservative,” David Leonhardt wrote that many of the hippies of the 1960s, who enthusiastically promoted “flower power” (the philosophy “make love, not war”) and protested the Vietnam War, eventually voted for conservative presidential candidate Ronald Reagan 20 years later. How did young, liberal hippies change so much over two decades?

It’s simple. They grew up. The effects of growing up, starting a career, paying taxes, getting married, owning a home, and raising children can transform even the most ardent idealist into a realist.

Under Construction
Society has been extremely critical of millennials over the past decade. It’s as if they’ve been written off. However, millennials are only now beginning to leave their imprint on history. Many of them haven’t even had time to mature and allow the natural circumstances of life to change their impressions of the world.

As members of all generations do, millennials have their flaws. But we shouldn’t lose heart. They are still under construction. God is still working in and through them. He is the One who takes our weaknesses and transforms them into opportunities to reveal His glory.

It’s also important to remember that God’s steadfast love never skips a generation. He raises up those He calls for His purposes to communicate His message from generation to generation. As the psalmist reminds us, “For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations” (Ps. 100:5).

If our only understanding of millennials is through the negative press they’ve received, we need to stretch ourselves and get to know them on an individual level. Although they are known to esteem themselves highly, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be discipled. Deep down, they long for sound counsel and wisdom.

We need to invest in the young adults in our families, churches, and businesses through biblical discipleship. And most important, we need to pray the Lord will raise up godly men and women from this unique generation to become strong spiritual leaders, ones eager to find ways to reach their successors, Generation Z, with the message of Christ.

Endnotes
  1. “Millennials: Coming of Age,” Goldman Sachs <goo.gl/b3ezgT>.
  2. Douglas Quenqua, “Seeing Narcissists Everywhere,” The New York Times, August 5, 2013 <goo.gl/iN72Be>.
  3. Olivia Legaspi, “What Working At McDonald’s Taught Me About Privilege,” theodysseyonline.com, December 28, 2015 <goo.gl/gZz0IY>.
  4. Sarah Green Carmichael, “Millennials Are Actually Workaholics, According to Research,” Harvard Business Review, August 17, 2016 <goo.gl/c59dRz>.

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