By Ciyah Fletcher, M.Sc.
The topic of millennials is ubiquitous in society today. According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, millennials or Generation Y are individuals born between the years 1982 – 2004; age range 13 – 35. By this classification, I am a millennial. Characteristically, millennials are accepted as being obsessed with social media, lazy, overly confident and unable to have valid opinions on topics such as politics and money. However, these qualities do not describe all millennials and is instead an ascribed stereotype.
As a psychologist, I understand the implications of attaching labels, for example in terms of diagnosing individuals. This is especially true for children. Inaccurate diagnosing can have many potentially negative effects on behaviour, self-esteem and how they are perceived by others. Additionally, views of self are also altered as self-fulfilling prophesies take effect. The labelling of millennials in negative terms such as those described above leave us feeling misunderstood. For the most part, millennials are not taken seriously or respected. Why is that?
Well, we are the ‘selfie’ generation of course, fixated on technology, unrealistic in our expectations, entitled and believe that we are special with narcissistic tendencies. At least, these are typical views expressed about the generation. Older persons describe us as being risk-takers, impulsive and dangerously uninhibited. Interestingly, this shaming of younger generations has been a trend throughout history by previous generations. In this way, the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers and Generation X have all been judged unconstructively by those who came before them just as the millennials are now. It is important to remember that we were all once a certain age behaving in ways that were congruent with that developmental stage.
Developmental Psychologists such as Jeffrey Arnett use the term ‘emerging adulthood’ to broadly describe those between the ages of 18-26. What is ‘emerging adulthood’? This is the age of identity exploration, instability, falling in-between, possibilities, and the most self-focused age in life. Hence, this is a transition period of trying out various possibilities, especially with work and love; when people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives. According to developmental psychologists, this is the developmental stage a large number of millennials are in and so the behaviours observed in this group although negatively construed as not meeting expectations should ideally be acknowledged as simply a passing phase of development that will mature with life experience.
Questioning the conventional way of life according to western standards i.e. going to a ’good’ school/university, climbing the corporate ladder, getting married and having children, and finally retiring is noticeably becoming the norm amongst many millennials. This should be regarded as an adaptive feat in society; that younger generations are clearer on what they want and do not want as it pertains to careers, relationships, and experiences earlier on in life. Currently, the advancement in technology and consequently the abundant avenues in which to generate multiple streams of income make any lifestyle more easily accessible. There is empowerment in designing one’s own life. Indeed, one of my favourite books is The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris which highlights how to escape the rat race, work less, and live more. A key goal of most individuals in this era where everything is only one click away is just that…to live more. This is something we all strive for, even if it meant working throughout your most productive years so it could be attained by retirement.
I am tempted to say that the overall pessimistic outlook on this period is a distorted one but that would not be accurate. The fact of the matter is that even though being born into the millennial generation can be advantageous especially in an increasingly automated world, there are also potentially harmful consequences. For example, technology, arguably the best defining feature of this generation not only facilitates endless opportunities for growth and development both personally, and on an economic scale but the counter perspective of this cannot be ignored. Excessive exposure to digital technology has been shown to be correlated with low self-esteem (by comparing one’s life to others’), inept social skills (due to reduced face-to-face communication) as well as an increased risk for anxiety and depression. Thus, an unhealthy dependency on technology can affect the way we process information, communicate and socialize. Balance is crucial. Millennials, who will represent over half of the workforce by the year 2020 prioritize a good work/life balance by means of seeking employment which will provide opportunities for remote working and flexible hours. The prospective improved productivity as well as an enhanced familial and personal well-being would only facilitate more effective societal systems.
Despite the tainted reputation of millennials, the adaptive and inclusive nature of this generation is indisputable. We all now live in a world that welcomes the diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and advance in technology. Times have changed and ultimately it is survival instinct to adapt to our ever evolving environment. Millennials are well-informed, resourceful, globally connected, influential, and powerful, and should be acknowledged as such. The unconventional approach many adopt stem from a yearning to experience the fullness of life (something we all want), and being prepared to leave tradition behind in order to meet personal goals. It is this rejection of tradition that appears to be causing the most anxiety amongst those from older generations as it relates to the questionable integrity of our future. However, rather than chastise millennials it may be more constructive to support and channel this diversity in ways which help to meet the needs of society. It is important to steer away from the negative stereotypical views and focus on the positive contributions millennials have to offer. Finding the similarities amongst each generation and thus practicing compassion and empathy for younger generations will help encourage millennials to be successful well-rounded leaders of tomorrow.