What Does It Mean to be a Millennial?

“My generation is going to be known for wanting to die and memes.”

This Tumblr quote encapsulates, in a rather on-the-nose way, what it seems to mean to be a “Millennial”. But it is possible Millennials truly are not that different from any other generation.

According to the National Public Radio (NPR), it is true that people born between 1985 and 2003 (also known as “Millennials”) are marrying later, attending college longer, and facing larger student loans than any generation since the 1950’s. Perhaps this does show a shift in priorities, but it is one that evolved largely out of economic need in today’s age. With people retiring well after sixty, many Millennials are more focused on finding a job, as they are one of the most educated yet underemployed generations.

Millennial ideology has proven to differ from previous generations as well. 

But Millennials are not just believed to value different things than the generations before them. There are many stereotypes that have come to haunt Millennials, such as the belief that they’re under-motivated and entitled, that they can not take criticism, and that they hold no respect for tradition. There have been thousands of news articles headlined with “Why Millennials are Killing…”, filled in with everything from the napkin industry, to personal communication. Due to the commonality of these generalizations that are associated with Millennials, they even flood into the workplace, and a simple Google search will provide a thousand more sites articulating “How to Overcome Millennial Stereotypes at Work”.

The general theory for this originates from a combination of parental coddling and a childhood filled with the first cell phones. The millennial stereotypes are said to stem from the notorious, “Participation Trophy”, for standing around in youth recreational sports, increased parental involvement during the early years, and a childhood overflowing with social media and new technology. Yes, these actions may have bred that sense of entitlement and the need to feel special. But maybe Millennials really aren’t that different from any previous generation; maybe the traits associated with being a “Millennial” are not really a “Millennial” thing.

Perhaps older generations, like the Baby Boomers, are simply seeing what their parents saw in them when they were young. After all, the GI Generation was appalled at radio, television, and Elvis, and their complaints about the Baby Boomers are quite similar to what the Boomers criticize Millennials for now. While the technology available may be different, the general consensus seems quite simple: “You aren’t doing this the way that I was raised to do this, so what you’re doing must be wrong.”

This is more a testament to a difference in generational thinking than a definitive characteristic of the Millennial generation. Ultimately, being young is about finding oneself. Innovation is the job of the youngest generation; they prepare to run the world in a few decades or less. This mentality of finding your own way to do things in order to produce your best work, regardless of the traditions of past generations, is and has always been a feature of the twenty-something generation. For many Baby Boomers, this desire to succeed in the workplace manifested in the “workaholic” mentality – for Millennials, this desire manifests in the need to find “purpose” and be passionate about their careers and in their lives.

Perhaps this search for a place in the world is an explanation for why Millennials are known for being “job jumpers”. Today, many – young and old – are searching for careers that offer freedom and mobility, not just a job that pays bills. And statistics show that Millennials switch jobs in their first few years of employment no more frequently than any other recent generation did, as research from the Pew Research Center shows that 3.5% more Millennials held a job than their Generation X counterparts between the ages of 18 and 35. So perhaps this is simply another way that the term “Millennial” represents a shift in perspective, not a shift in culture.

Maybe the only thing Millennials are guilty of is having the ability to think more freely. It is true that the advent of technology today brought many new resources to all, allowing people to try new things or learn about other ideas more easily than ever before. Millennials are also recognized for being the most creative in their chosen field of work – their willingness to challenge conventions and innovate is being lauded for pushing businesses forward today.

In a way, Millennials have to thank the Baby Boomers and other generations for allowing them the opportunities to explore the world so freely. It was the drive to create better lives for their children, to learn from their parents mistakes, that encouraged older generations to create a sort of “American Dream” for the younger generations of today. And in a few years, the Millennials will do the same for their children, ensuring that they have the ability to explore themselves and leave their own mark on the world– while warning them against the dangers of overspending on avocado toast, of course.

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