Mistaken Millennials: The trouble with perceiving other generations
Updated: May 2
By Michael Whaby
"The pervasiveness of complaints about 'kids these days' across millennia suggests that these criticisms are neither accurate nor due to the idiosyncrasies of a particular culture or time—but rather represent a pervasive illusion of humanity." — John Protzko and Jonathan W. Schooler, Sci. Adv. 2019.
A little over a year ago, I was at the gym with a friend when I heard someone nearby say, “fucking millennials.” It was a group of three thirty-something year-old guys; one was telling the others about a younger kid that was working for him. An understated summary of the conversation would be to say that this guy didn’t like the kid’s work ethic. He topped off his rant of disproval by saying, collectively, “fucking millennials.” Mind you, this was sometime in 2018.
As per Wikipedia.org:
- Silent Generation: before 1946
- Baby Boomers: 1946-1964
- Generation X: 1965-1980
- Generation Y (Millennials): 1981-1996
- Generation Z: after 1996
I’m pretty sure those guys—the ones blabbing about “fucking millennials”—were millennials.
Anyways, I didn’t think much of that memory until I came across another negative outlook on millennials. In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek described millennials as lonely, impatient, addictive and dopamine-driven, among other drawn-out descriptive words and phrases. He blames these millennial characteristics on the technological era that millennials grew up in. “This is no fault of their own,” proclaimed Sinek, talking about millennials, “they were dealt a bad hand.”
I have a slightly different take on my generation—millennials. And while I agree that we were dealt a different hand, for sure, were we really dealt a bad one? The technological era that we live in today has had some societal side-effects, one of them evolving the reality of relationships: The feelings of closeness are now not necessarily constrained to one-on-one personal interaction. But I think it’s a personal opinion to define whether or not that is a bad thing.
Before the germ theory was well-established, doctors would unknowingly spread diseases amongst patients. It wasn’t until long after the idea of the germ theory that it became accepted, or agreed upon, as the truth that pathogenic organisms can lead to infectious disease and be contractable from one organism to another, for instance, through an open wound. This led to more doctors routinely washing their hands, changing gloves, and using sterile equipment during surgeries. Suddenly, less patients were dying. The germ-theory, once an idea, eventually transformed medicine and daily life.
Humans, like all other organisms, adapt to their environments to be successful. We tend to gravitate towards doing things in the simplest, but most efficient ways possible; we also like to employ new and useful information. So, when new things come along that make previously difficult tasks—like not spreading disease—easier, at the right expense and availability, people will gradually sway into change.
I remember having conversations with my parents about getting a cell phone when I was in middle school, so I can only imagine what it was like in previous generations’ households around the times that radios, telephones and televisions were becoming mainstream household items. Radios, telephones and televisions were all eventually agreeable ideas because people generally enjoyed having easier access to media, communication and entertainment. Thus, a tipping point was reached, and the majority of people eventually agreed that life is better with these new things, so they equipped their homes with them.
These new technologies offered desirable conveniences that would eventually become commonplace in human life. The same thing happened with computers and the internet. Then, cellphones and, subsequently, smartphones—phones like the iPhone—became the next human appendage, never leaving our sides.
The impact of smartphones on people, especially millennials, is surrounded by some interesting propaganda—some of which I hinted at earlier. The quest for instant gratification is largely interpreted as the result of smartphones. Access to communication, vast entertainment, and swarming amounts of media and information had never been so easily accessible—and all available through just one device. So, people followed along the same trend of evolving with the newest available and affordable technology that made life simpler and more efficient. Seems to me, so far, that we are just repeating history, albeit on a bigger and faster scale.
Changes in pace and expectations
Technological leaps often result in an increased pace of human life. The desire to make tasks easier or get results faster isn't some distinct characteristic of one generation. It’s what most people strive for. Transportation and communication are just two areas where technological advances, step by step, increased the pace of human life. The internet as well was a game changer.
Today, when people are curious about something, they have the luxury of search engines like Google. Get answers to questions in seconds. When people want something, they have the luxury of e-commerce sites like Amazon. Get packages delivered with 2-day free shipping. The strive for quicker results in the workplace fuels longer work hours and time spent toward developing new technologies that make obtaining results easier. We hardly accept any technologies that would slow life down.
The “hand” that millennials were dealt was a fast-paced, goal-oriented, want-it-now, get-it-done lifestyle. Millennials are known as the digital natives because they grew up during a technological explosion. The advantage, then, to millennials was that they had no old habits or ways-of-life had to be lost. They simply inherited the technology that was around when they were growing up.
Baby boomers, on the other hand, are known as digital immigrants. They lived through bouts of technology booms and had to adapt to all of those changes. The lifestyle that baby boomers had as children was obviously much different than that of millennials, and other generations as well. Which raises a question: When we judge other generations, do we form our opinions based on how we were at that age? If so, the context would not allow for a fair comparison.
The “kids these days” phenomenon
In 2019, John Protzko and Jonathan Schooler from the University of California, Santa Barbara, published an article in the scientific journal Science Advances called: Kids these days: Why the youth of today seem lacking (1). The article highlights that for numerous generations, people have negatively perceived younger generations, despite the constant advancement of knowledge and technology. If every younger generation was deficient, I don’t think we would have made it this far.
There are essentially two factors that skew a person’s belief of another generation: a tendency to notice deficiencies in others where one excels and a memory bias that applies one’s current qualities on to the youth of the past. For example, if a person has a high respect for authority, there will be a higher chance that this person thinks that “kids these days” lack respect for authority. Now, let’s say, for example, there is someone from an older generation that hasn’t adapted well to newer technology. She or he will probably think that “kids these days” spend far too much time on their devices.
The reality is that it is hard to judge another generation when comparing from one perspective. Trying to generalize a whole cohort consisting of millions and millions of people will almost certainly involve biases. And before judging a previous generation, know that the trails of preceding generations led them right where they are, which is where we all are.
The hand that millennials were dealt allowed them to hit the ground running as digital natives. Younger minds tend to have more plasticity, with critical and sensitive periods that have prominent effects on learning and behavior (2). These periods are largely why learning a second language, or a musical instrument is deemed easier for children. Growing up as a child, you’re always exposed to new stimuli, learning new things constantly and making a repertoire of what your mind is interpreting. Millennials’ growing up just involved a greater level of technology and a faster pace of life than those of previous generations. And its not slowing down.
As I grow older, and still experience how the pace of the days are increasing, I wonder if we’ll ever reach a plateau. Will there ever be a point where people are happy with the progress and actually turn the dial back a notch? Will I be stubborn to change in the future and think negatively of a generation after me because of misinterpretation? I hope that I can be malleable enough to change with the times. Otherwise, my mind may become trapped somewhere in the past.
References and Recommendations:
1) John Protzko* and Jonathan W. Schooler. (2019). Kids these days: Why the youth of today seem lacking. Science Advances, 5 : eaav5916.
2) White, E. J., Hutka, S. A., Williams, L. J., & Moreno, S. (2013). Learning, neural plasticity and sensitive periods: implications for language acquisition, music training and transfer across the lifespan. Frontiers in systems neuroscience, 7, 90. doi:10.3389/fnsys.2013.00090.
Sinek, S. (2017). Leaders eat last. London: Portfolio Penguin.
Johnson, S. (2014). How we got to now: six innovations that made the modern world. New York: Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA).