Young, wired and living life on the digital edge — meet the Millennials
By Tom Tresser | Photos by Xiao Guang TseIf you can’t remember a time when the world was not wired, you are a member of the Millennial Generation — the 33 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 25. You are special. You are different. The fate of the planet is on your shoulders. No pressure.
Before your arrival, the largest, richest and most influential generation in American history were your parents — the Baby Boom Generation — the some 78 million Americans born to G.I. Dads and Lindy-hopping Moms in the years after the end of World War II. Succeeding them, born between 1964 and 1977, was Generation X, clocking in much smaller, at 37 million. But with over 80 million Americans born after 1977, Generation Y is the new large and in charge generation. Gen Y includes Echo Boomers (loosely defined as the children of the Boomers born after 1977), and Millennials, (those born after 1982). Like their Boomer parents before them, the opposite ends of the Gen Y/Echo/Millennial generation are vastly different from each other. And Millennials, say experts, “are unlike any other youths in living memory: More numerous, more affluent, better educated and more ethnically diverse than those who came before.” Those words from William Strauss and Neil Howe, social scientists who coined the term “millennial” in their book Millennials and the Pop Culture (LifeCourse Associates, March ’06).
Perhaps the most outstanding detail that distinguishes this generation — from even those born just a couple of years earlier — is their level of media consumption, particularly online. Today, the average teenager spends more than 72 hours a week using electronic media — cell phones, internet, television, music and video games — according to a 2006 study.
“There’s an intense focus on openness, sharing information, as both an ideal and a practical strategy to get things done,” explained Mark Zuckerberg, 23-year-old Millennial wüunderkind and founder and CEO of Facebook, in a recent interview with Fast Company. On Facebook.com, students log in daily to chat, flirt and connect — the average user frittering away eight hours a month on the site.
All that time spent social networking has indoctrinated Millennials into the cult of groupthink, refashioning them into the most collaborative and team-oriented generation the world has seen in many a decade. This manifests in “a wide array of positive social habits that older Americans no longer associate with youth, including a new focus on teamwork, achievement, modesty and good conduct,” say Strauss and Howe.
Millennials spend 16 hours a week on the Internet — and that’s not including emailing. Recent research from the Pew Internet and American life project shows nearly 80 percent of the 28 and younger set regularly read blogs, compared with just 30 percent of adults 29 to 40. And roughly 40 percent of teenage and 20-something Internet users have created their own blog, as compared to just a sliver of 30-somethings — a mere 9 percent.
Thirty-five-year-old entrepreneur and youth-marketing guru Anastasia Goodstein turned her fascination with the evolving Internet habits of Millennials’ into a book, Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are REALLY Doing Online (St. Martin’s Griffon, March ’07). She calls Millennials the “mash up generation,” because they’re constantly taking bits and pieces of popular culture and then remixing them — essentially creating their own tailored subcultures.
Out of Myspace and Into the World
But with personally-crafted online networks right at their fingertips, Millennials are confronting some harsh realities when they step outside their virtual world. Julia Dossett, a 25-year-old Marketing Associate for the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, observes this phenomenon in the numbers of her peers who seem to resist engagement in a personal and professional commitment because “they are waiting around for the ideal to come along.” This can breed apathy, resentment and a sense of entitlement.
“None of these will help my generation actually reach the potential we were encouraged to achieve as children so long ago,” Dossett laments. “We were raised to believe we could do anything we wanted and be anything we wanted, and that nothing was out of reach. But now that we are young adults living away from our parents — I think we sometimes find the choices overwhelming.”
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable than Ever Before (Free Press, March ’07), blames much of Millennial angst on the over indulgences of boomer parents. “They were raised by ‘helicopter’ parents who constantly hovered over them — providing unending praise, support and, perhaps, unrealistic expectations that the world was their oyster,” says Twenge. This group is highly optimistic — they expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. The misery is produced, says Twenge, when these overly confident youngsters hit a stressed-out work place rife with uncertainty.
“Many people reaching their twenties find that their jobs do not provide the fulfillment and excitement they had anticipated,” Twenge continues. “And their salary isn’t enough to afford even a small house.”
Millennial dissatisfaction in the workplace has not gone unnoticed by employers. Anastasia Goodstein recounts a recent Wall Street Journal article about a company that hired a praise consultant to help assuage the egos of young employees. “This is a generation used to veneration and attention and getting a pat on the back,” Goodstein explains. But still, Goodstein wonders what kind of praise the consultant might offer. “Maybe ‘Great job, you showed up today!’ ”
On EmployeeEvolution.com, 20-something bloggers Ryan Paugh and Ryan Healy hope to “create an anonymous dialogue between our generation and the corporations struggling to understand our attitudes about work.” In a recent post entitled “Where Should a Millennial Draw the Line?,” Paugh writes, “Part of being an entry-level worker is just waiting for something big to come your way. In the meantime, you bite your lip and act busy. Preceding generations say it’s normal. I say it sucks. If what our elders say is true, we’re supposed to keep on truckin’. Eventually we’ll have some real responsibility and the downtime will be nothing less than treasured. The problem is, I don’t live my life on blind faith.”
Richard Florida, best-selling author of Rise of the Creative Class, gets Paugh’s message loud and clear. “This generation values intrinsic rewards more so than salary and benefits,” says Florida. “A culture which fosters tolerance and learning is one they will seek out and thrive in. The organizations that do this best will be the ones that prosper in the creative age.”
Smart, savvy and civically engaged, there is no doubt Millennials will affect profound change on the political level. When they start occupying elective offices, expect new initiatives to protect children, promote literacy and safety and reform dysfunctional educational systems. Experts also anticipate this generation will affect profound political change on a consumer level, especially concerning where and why they open their pocket books. Their loyalty will lie with socially responsible business practices.
In fact, they’re dedicating their time to efforts they care about more than ever before. In 2003, 83 percent of college freshman were volunteering — up from about 66 percent in 1990 (a side effect of increasingly competitive college acceptance rates perhaps, but nice nonetheless).
And for those dismayed by the general public’s apparent distrust of smart politicians, here’s a great sign: Eight in ten teens now say it’s “cool to be smart.” Test scores are up, and 73 percent of high school students say they want a four-year college degree.
“Two things represent my generation,” concludes Chris Hales, 25-year-old CEO of Anti-Matter Media a Chicago-based multimedia company. “Technology and the ‘Do-It-Yourself’ aesthetic. With the increase of technology, opportunities for networking with others seem endless, enabling us to turn out more authors, films, record labels and artists than previous generations. When you put the two together you have the recipe for a generation that is willing to go out and make stuff happen on their own.”
Tom Tresser is an aging boomer, educator, organizer and creativity champion who consults with nonprofits and local governments on using the arts for economic development, civic engagement and celebration.
Chart: American Generations — What Shaped Them