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Millennials are Not Children

The problem with infantilizing a whole generation

If I had a nickel for every time I heard that dumb millennials are kids who don’t know anything, proud gulpers of Tide Pods with suspiciously leftist leanings and paper-thin skin, I wouldn’t be as broke as a — well, millennial.

Millennials have observed that many people over the age of 50 seem to think that “millennial” means anyone under 40. Some people think it’s an age group rather than a generation. Others know it’s a generation and insist that it’s the laziest, most entitled and coddled generation that can’t take a joke.

It’s not that we can’t take a joke. It’s just that jokes about millennials are punching down.

Millennials are a particularly downtrodden generation of people who entered the workforce during the worst possible time and had their American Dreams dashed. They started out their careers earning less, which made it harder for them to move up the financial ladder. (When you establish a baseline salary or are forced to accept a lower-paying job or a job outside your field, you hurt your marketability for better-paying jobs.) The cost of tuition spiked, which made student loans burdensome. (In case you’re unaware, you can’t control what you take out in student loans because you don’t set the tuition rates. Plus, mysterious admin fees, mandatory athletics costs, and the exorbitant cost of books are all tacked on.) Homes are increasingly priced out of millennials’ reach as shortages take over affordable areas of living. And boomer homeowners are making it worse.

And that’s only the economic reality for millennials. This generation grew up in a world where war was changing form into something everlasting and battled through attacks on civilians. We grew up under the threat of biological warfare and witnessed the deadliest terrorist attack in human history. This generation was endlessly monitored by helicopter-tiger parents who restricted our freedoms, did all our chores for us, and now have the nerve to mock us for not knowing how to “adult.” This generation did indeed grow up “coddled,” but that didn’t necessarily make them easily offended. (I would argue that being easily offended ≠ thinking that racist or sexist jokes are gross.) The generation was indeed handed participation trophies, but there’s a reason I saw so many of those damn things at yard sales and thrift shops.

Millennials don’t want handouts for fake success. They want real success because they were led to believe that by studying hard, scoring high on tests, going to college, and then working hard, they’d be successful.

I told my grandmother about how tired I was after working six 10-hour shifts on my feet in a row. She said “welcome to the real world” and called me lazy. — Reddit user FuckASilverLining01

Now, we’re mocked for being shocked about the “real world,” but fact is that the real world did not demonstrate for millennials the same rewards that the boomers reaped, and millennials see that. Call it jealousy if you want, but millennials expected something more than a barista job for getting an engineering degree, and they expected to be able to afford a home on their income. How can boomers call these desires “entitled” when they enjoyed these benefits?

I was talking to my boss about HQ and the $50,000 prize they were giving out, and he was saying how he’d go on a grand vacation and buy a big shiny car if he won. I told him I’d pay off my school and car loans and start a savings account. He laughed and proceeded to make fun of stupid millennials for not knowing how to handle money… — Reddit user MemberMurphysLaw

In Jean Twenge’s book Generation ME, she argues that a growing trend of narcissism and entitlement run through millennials, pointing to self-aggrandizing attitudes such as millennials’ belief in their own academic prowess and fondness for selfies. While she sugarcoats her disdain with faux concern over millennials’ mental health, she still denigrates millennials’ optimistic attitudes and affinity for technology as signs of a psychological apocalypse.

As someone who used to be regularly disgusted by some of my peers’ behavior and a former pick-me bitch, I initially ate up Twenge’s book, gleefully reading about the gap between millennials’ intelligence and performance, their self-involvement their delusions of grandeur. I was one of those millennials who despised my generation.

As I researched more about these issues, I began to see problems with Twenge’s book. For example, Twenge observes that millennials apparently only want to be “adults” later in life, opting for an extended teenage period that goes to age 29. To be fair, Twenge’s book was published before the Great Recession, and perhaps her views would have changed as she observed millennials who entered the workforce at age 20 and couldn’t find a “real job” in the wake of the Great Recession, or those who delayed marriage due to economic reality, rather than their dating preferences.

Twenge also comes off as a bit of a prude, citing normal dating behavior as a recipe for depression, and a Luddite, blaming millennials’ depression and anxiety on their use of technology to communicate rather than, you know, terrorism and environmental destruction. She mocks technology-mediated communication as superficial, but I find it exceptionally arrogant to presume that you know people’s depth of relationship based on their preferred communication style. According to Twenge, because I use Facebook Messenger to chat with my mother who lives six states away, my relationship to my mom is vapid.

The most glaring omission in Twenge’s book is an acknowledgement of boomers’ role in cultivating entitled attitudes among millennials. While Twenge does say that the self-esteem movement was perpetrated by adults to tell kids that they are “special snowflakes,” she quickly glosses over that as she grabs her broad brush, claiming that this attitude makes millennials defensive, easily offended, and ultra-entitled. “We’re creating an army of little narcissists,” she triumphantly concludes.

First of all, I’m astounded that a psychology professor would throw around that word. Between 0.5 and 1 percent of the population has narcissistic personality disorder — certainly not a whole generation, or even most of one. Second, the idea that self-esteem creates narcissism is a dangerous and false assertion. What is the alternative, telling kids that they suck and will never amount to anything?

Twenge’s attitude toward mental health is honestly atrocious. She takes a very casual approach to it, treating it as a personality trait rather than a medical condition. The power of the self-esteem movement was that it helped destigmatize mental illness and encouraged young people to be more open about their feelings. Boomers are quick to mock this emphasis on “feelings,” but why? Would we rather have an army of people who can’t process or talk about emotions and instead lash out with aggression? (Oh.)

Whether Twenge is complaining about young people’s rampant (read: open-minded) sexuality or entitled (read: optimistic) hopes for their future, she’s completely ignoring the socioeconomic realities that contributed to these oh-so-horrible trends. Why does she pretend that millennials led the sexual revolution or that they gave themselves participation trophies? Twenge is missing the big picture: Because millennials were promised the American Dream, then had it taken from them, they’re rightfully disappointed. It’s not entitled to imagine, against America’s bootstrap-pulling backdrop, that our own ambition and intelligence would lead us to success. Why are we punishing this attitude in millennials when it’s a core tenet of American innovation and entrepreneurship?

The God damn participation trophies. We didn’t ask for them, that was our parents’ idea, and yet somehow that makes it our fault for doing entitled, irrational things like wanting to be able to buy a home with a middle class income. — Reddit user ElToberino

When I published my Millennial’s Guide to Boomer Humor, I expected to receive some defensive responses from boomers, and I did. One passionately explained how much she loved her millennial family members and said she hoped I didn’t really feel the way I did. I can’t begrudge someone for not picking up on satire, because good satire is deliberately hard to detect, but I thought she perfectly demonstrated my point: ridiculous mass characterizations of an entire generation are insulting.

Obviously, most boomers would not post cartoons as offensive as the ones I included in the article, nor do they adhere to the beliefs that I joked they did. But they do have a position of immense privilege, even if individually, they’re not super wealthy or popular.

That’s why it’s called punching up. It’s no different than Network mocking media conglomerates or American Psycho mocking the wealthy business class. On the flip side, movies or comedy specials that target transgender people, people of color, and people with disabilities punch down. It’s not that those groups should be immune from these jokes, it’s that it’s not a joke to describe how a marginalized group is downtrodden. And when comedians do this, it not only comes off as unoriginal, but it also suggests that secretly, they think these people are deserving of insults.

Here’s the difference: When millennials mock boomers for not knowing how to use their smartphones, it’s teasing because boomers were at an immense career advantage, which matters more than phone know-how. But when boomers mock millennials for only working as a barista despite spending 6+ years in college, it’s a thinly veiled insult that relies upon a painful situation as the thrust of its “humor.”

Besides, millennials aren’t dumb. They know when disdain is being masqueraded as “humor,” and no, they’re not going to “take a joke” that’s not actually a joke.

Boomers’ mockery of millennials revolves around a basic point of ridicule: that we are not actually adults. I recently corrected someone who said that millennials simply didn’t remember 9/11 because they were “too young.” (The youngest millennials were five years old and the oldest were 20 years old. Either way, not too young to remember.) He said this unironically with a big dollop of “they don’t know anything about life, work, or suffering.” I reminded him that many millennials are in their 30s. To which he responded, “That’s my point: these 30-year-old kids don’t know anything.”

Yes, apparently 30 years on this treacherous planet isn’t enough time to gain any sort of knowledge about life, and you’re still a “kid.” Obviously, this guy was a fan of Twenge’s work. The problem with this “joke” is that it dismisses people’s experience and denies them the respect that we exclusively afford to adults in Western society.

Some big radio conglomerate that rhymes with “iShartRadio” has been running commercials trying to convince advertisers to buy airtime on their stations. They talk about how they can reach “adults, teens and millennials”. Bitch, I’m 35 and considered a millennial, and I’m somehow not an “adult”? Guess the Boomers want to keep the A-word for themselves. — Reddit user TexasWithADollarsign

Like it or not, if someone is legally of age, has a job, has sex, has a family, takes care of their household and finances, they’re definitely an adult. Even if they don’t do some of these things, they’re an adult. And everyone deserves basic human respect, even if their lifestyle and job don’t meet your personal standards.

A friend’s older sibling, who’s like 10 years older than me, always says I’m not an adult yet. At 18? Sure. At 22 with a college degree, working at the same place as her? Starting to get annoying. At 26, married, homeowner, now at a job that makes more money than her? STFU. But she thinks having kids is what makes you an adult. So I guess I’ll never be one. — Reddit user Roonil_Wazlib_97

I am tired of being told how “young” I am, that I don’t have any right to feel sick or worried, that I’m having the best years of my life. I’m tired of boomers talking down to me like I don’t understand wartime, or struggle, or hard work. I’m tired of having my work style and buying preferences dictated to me, then being blamed for killing Applebee’s (although to be honest, I’ll happily take credit for that). I’m tired of being mocked for wanting something greater for myself as though it’s shameful to want that. I’m tired of being told I’m “oversensitive” if I think that your cartoon depicting Michelle Obama as an ape is disgusting. I’m tired of being told I’m “entitled” for wanting a livable wage after graduating with honors and working in my field for six years.

It’s okay if I make fun of my love of avocados and my obsession with my smartphone. It’s not okay for you to say that I’m stupid or lazy because my choices don’t align with the ones you personally made. And it’s really ignorant for you to say that I prefer renting or “casual relationships” because my partner and I can’t afford a wedding or a house even though I have three degrees and work 80 hours a week. It doesn’t mean I’m “easily offended,” it means you’re out of touch.

If, dear boomers, your inclination after reading this piece is to swoop in and say you’re not privileged because you’ve personally had a hard time, or you know millennials who do spend all their money on avocado toast rather than a house, or you think I’m just being “whiny, ask yourself why. Why do you want to infantilize and demean an entire generation? Why do you want to dismiss my concerns as “whining”? Why do you not want to admit the privilege you’ve enjoyed?

Here’s how to do it:

I put myself through state college working at a diner. Graduated in ’96. I was only able to do it because of Pell grants and cheap rent. I didn’t party, had few friends, and had no relationships. I had somewhere I had to be every day between 7am and 11pm.

No way that could happen today. Tuition has gone up and Pell grants are down. Rents are — way up from where they were, but waiters in a diner aren’t paid or tipped much more.

And in those days, graduating with a CompSci degree just about guaranteed a job. With a decent salary. I had a great job at a well known game company a few months after graduating.

I hate that the next generation has such a tougher time than I did and I’m sorry that my generation and the one before me are such assholes about it. — Reddit user I_Code_Stoned

Thank you, sir.

Written by

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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