Older generations seem obsessed with putting down millennials. But why do their ideas of who we are persist? Emily Sargent investigates.
Millennial has become a dirty word. A loaded insult spat from the mouths of older people. A millennial is a spoilt individual, one who is lazy, relies on handouts from their parents, who’s obsessed with how many likes they’re getting on Instagram — and doesn’t know how to do any DIY. Oh and they’re boring too. None of them drink, take drugs or have sex any more. Not like in the good old days. If you say any of this to them directly though, chances are they’ll retreat to a safe space to avoid a nasty adult making them feel upset. Sissies.
It’s always been tradition for older generations to have a dig at younger ones. And until now, it’s felt like fair game — as youths we can take it because ultimately we’re off having a laugh being carefree and full of excitable hormones. This time round though, it feels different. The insults are barbed and come laced with bitter contempt. And the younger generation are struggling; not because we’re snowflakes, but because we’re the group with some of the highest levels of mental health problems, the most debt and financial insecurity and the least all-round stability. We don’t have homes, we don’t have structure. And we don’t have all the things which seemingly came so very easily for the very same baby boomers who seem to loathe us the most (more on that later). And who interestingly are one of the few generations who had it easier, not harder, than their own parents.
Research carried out recently by Ipsos Mori examined how common perceptions of millennials stacked up with the evidence, and found most of the stereotypes fuelled by media headlines had no basis in reality. Asking people across 23 different countries to describe millennials, the terms used most often were “materialistic”, “selfish”, “lazy”, “arrogant” and “narcissistic”. When asked to describe baby boomers, participants chose words such as “respectful”, “well-educated”, “work-centric”, “community orientated” and “ethical”.
Looking at the hard evidence following this however, the statics didn’t tally. Millennials were not found to be, for example, any less hardworking or more demanding in the workplace, or to use their phones any more than older generations, to have shorter attention spans or to show ‘snowflake’, over-sensitive tendencies. They were more likely to give both positive and negative feedback about things — but not simply to be seeking to take offence. Look to the media though and a flood of headlines continually stoke the fire. One of many in the Daily Mail reads: “Millennials are spoilt, full of themselves, averse to hard work and expect ‘success on a plate’, so what does that mean for society?” Time magazine called us “The Me Me Me Generation”. The Ipsos Mori report describes millennials as “the most carelessly described group we’ve ever looked at”.
Another study in April found that millennials frittering away money on posh coffees and lunches was also a myth, stating that they were “thriftier than often portrayed”; spending 14 per cent less per week on those items than 35-44 year-olds. Yet the braying older crowd still relish and swoop on any story or opinion that confirms their negative bias, with a bitterness that’s shocking. It makes me angry.
Because after a certain point it begins to feel like the plump, rich kid at school picking on the poor, scrawny one. It’s also ironic, because researchers such as Howe and Strauss have argued that distinctive ‘millennial traits’ such as claims to their being overly sensitive and sheltered are a by-product of their overprotective, indulgent, ‘helicopter’ parents.
What research does repeatedly show to be true about millennials is that they both trust people less and fear loneliness deeply. In some studies, millennial women have been shown to fear loneliness more than cancer – and I get that. Without a formulaic life plan that you and your peers are entering into at a similar time, it’s really easy to feel alone and at sea.
So where does the baby boomers’ anger come from? Maybe it has something to do with the climate we’re in right now. Some big changes have been driven or furthered by millennials — #MeToo, environmental activism, an examination of the patriarchy, as women wake up to the vast depths of inequality that have flowed stealthily through our unconscious. Nobody likes the sober person at the party who tells the drunk people what they’re doing is dangerous, or immoral, or will make them feel bad about themselves tomorrow. They want to have a good time and not to think about anything too much. Millennials have had some considerable responsibility in being the people to ask questions of our society and its structures, of the way women and men relate to one another and divide up power, on both personal and societal levels.
Is it that, like the classic school bully, millennials irritate baby boomers because they reveal some insecurity or uncomfortable truths in themselves? “In my day if you got a pat on the bum from an older colleague you knew how to deal with it — it was a laugh. You didn’t go crying to your boss” — was something an older woman said to me. Did she feel embarrassed somewhere deep down in the cold light of 2019 that she had allowed that repeatedly to happen? Maybe it’s self-preservation. Or a defence mechanism.
I actually don’t think millennials deserve praise. A lot of our behaviour is probably borne of circumstance. Being a generation that asks questions may have developed because little in life has come with any certainty. It’s not a given that we will follow a linear career path or buy a house at 25. We’ve had to develop new ways of working — running several different careers together; setting up communal rented spaces to cut costs; rethinking parenthood models and what their ‘family unit’ might look like, when they won’t have money for a baby until they’re 40. Millennials have grown up in a particular world in which they’ve had to be innovative in a way that baby boomers simply did not. Nothing is a given and so everything is examined — how you are living, what it’s doing to the world; to other people; to yourself.
Baby boomers call millennials self-obsessed. And yes of course we can be narcissistic, especially where social media is concerned. But, for every person pretending not to know they’re having their picture taken at a festival, or Instagramming their brunch from above, or taking a post-gym selfie, there are thousands who don’t. And narcissism is not new. Granted, social media adds fuel to the fire of egos and can be a dangerous road in terms of sense of self, but there are plenty of older people who are narcissistic; they just aren’t sharing it online. It’s ugly and crude but it’s not new.
And in terms of us being a bunch of screen addicts, have you seen how much baby boomers love technology? Older relatives absolutely love an 11-line status on Facebook reviewing last night’s dinner with their mate. My dad tweets my girlfriend at least four times a week. And they’ll be the last ones standing in a midnight Twitter debate about Line of Duty. So don’t tell me they aren’t into it. They may be slower to learn, but those online comments on forums and underneath articles are all from 60-year-olds with names like ‘BiscuitsnGin’.
I’m not saying millennials are flawless. We can be self-involved and overly concerned with not putting ourselves in upsetting situations at the expense of open debate – and maybe we do lack basic DIY skills. But generally you’re not allowed to hammer new shelves into a parent’s spare room-come-study. And a lot of the traits that do exist are a symptom of being stuck in an unwanted adult purgatory.
Figures released this month by the Financial Conduct Authority found that baby boomers are £78,000 wealthier than people the same age a decade ago were. They revealed a growing wealth divide in which older generations are becoming richer while younger ones are getting poorer. This is largely down to an increase in property value — most of which is owned by baby boomers. Over the past 10 years, the median total wealth of people in their 60s has grown from less than £250,000 to well over £300,000. They should be feeling pretty relaxed and comfortable right now I’d imagine.
I had in my mind that if I could find the figures, maybe I could change older people’s attitudes. But what I’ve realised is their dislike is so emotionally motivated that it won’t work like that. They know we’re in debt, with little stability and that we have constant, low-level anxiety of the sort that churns away in your stomach at night. But still the disdain persists, in the way you might feel towards a do-gooding, snivelling swot, which is pretty annoying when many have lived a privileged life without the need to think very much about the way things work or the choices they make. Perhaps it is the age old irritation towards the younger crowd. Or perhaps this time we’re not just the dumb younger generation and we’ve made them take a look at themselves. Discomfort makes people angry and no one wants to have their reality questioned. But maybe if they’d faced anything resembling the financial difficulties and insecurities of our generation, they would have learned to handle that discomfort with a little more grace.
Images: Getty, Unsplash