November 1, 2014
Millennials: the me-me-me generation
For The Herald in the US
NEW YORK — The teenage-looking woman checking reviews and comparing prices on her seven-inch tablet while making a purchase at her local grocery store. Mark Zuckerberg. The young man back at his parents’ home after graduating from university because he cannot afford his own place with a first-job salary. Miley Cyrus. The 27-year-old financial analyst who gave up Wall Street to create his own start-up. Edward Snowden. The single mother who works in a coffee store — her third job in the last year. Lady Gaga. The friends sipping an organic wheatgrass smoothie and laughing while having separate conversations and sharing pictures or comments online through their smartphones. Jessica Lynch. The 33-year-old MA in Linguistics that makes US$18 an hour as a Spanish instructor and is sure that something better will come up because he deserves it.
They are all Millennials, the broadly discussed, ill-defined cohort of US natives between 18 and 33 years old. Time magazine described them in the famous piece “The Me Me Me Generation” as narcissistic, lazy, and coddled. They number 80 million , a group even bigger than Baby Boomers, and the most ethnically diverse. They were also called Generation Y — because they follow Generation X, those born between the 1960s and the 1980s — but the name, not catchy enough, soon faded away.
Now it seems their features are not the sole responsibility of parents who told them they were oh, so special, and rewarded them, win or lose, or the technology that changed the face of the economy, or the extension of the life span that allowed them to postpone marriage and career. A recent poll by the Pew Research Centre shows that Millennials have been widely struck by the financial crisis, the increasing cost of a degree and the income inequality that neither Boomers nor Gen-Xers knew.
EDUCATED BUT DEEP IN DEBT
They are the best-educated generation (a third of older Millennials hold a four-year college degree or higher) but they are also deep in debt to pay for tuition that went up from US$700 a year in the 1970s to US$15,000 a year — just to quote the example of UC Berkeley, as stated by Robert Reich in the documentary Inequality for All.
They know they can work seven days a week and never be able to match their parents’ standards of living, after three decades of low wages for the ordinary worker. So they want a job that allows them to go to yoga and text and tweet; since hardship is a given, may they be at least free of FOMO (fear of missing out), and carpe diem.
According to the Pew report, Millennials are the first group in the modern era “to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same stage of their life cycles.”
No wonder that 70 percent of the population thinks that “today’s young adults face more economic challenges than their elders did when they were first starting out.” Median household income has only decreased since its 1999 peak, as the income gap has widened.
Only 26 percent of the Millenials are married (half the Boomers at their age) but the majority of the unmarried would like to tie the knot had they financial stability. Even so, they are an optimistic generation: 53 percent of them believe that in the future they will have enough money to lead the lives they want.
Economic vulnerability makes Millennials more prone to low social trust (only 19 percent of them say that most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen-Xers and 40 percent of Boomers) and detached from institutions: half of them describe themselves as political independents, and 29 percent declare no religion. They are also worried about Social Security, but not in the same way as the Republican Party: 51 percent of Millennials “do not believe there will be any money for them in the system by the time they are ready to retire,” the Pew report says.
Maybe that is the reason why this generation has voted Democrat and feels disappointed by US President Barack Obama. Their low expectations of politicians (only 31 percent finds a lot of difference between the Republican and the Democrat parties) does not mean that they do not care about social issues: even if no other generation has shown such a detachment from institutions and churches, they have strongly liberal views and deal with them on social networks, not only the first Tuesday in November every four years.
However, maybe it is just hay fever: Boomers also leaned to the left in their youth, and 53 percent of them believe they grew more conservative as they aged.
Millennials care about same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization: 68 percent favour allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, and 69 percent would like to see weed legalized, like in Washington state and Colorado. They care about immigration: all age groups think the country needs to find a way to fix the situation of illegal immigrants already here, “but only among Millennials does a majority say those in the country illegally should be allowed to apply for citizenship,” the Pew Research Centre found: 55 percent.
They also care about abortion and gun control. But their views are quite similar to those of older adults: they are divided.
Perhaps one of the features that identify them is that Millennials are the first generation of digital natives: the only one that did not have to adapt to new technology. They live hooked on social media just like Gen-Xers were the first hooked on email at work. They love peer affirmation but look for it less in the physical world than on Facebook (81 of them are part of that social network), where they have the highest median number of friends, 250, compared with the older groups. Six in 10 Boomers know the word selfie; 55 percent of Millennials posts selfies. They use technology and they create content, familiar with all platforms of the digital era.
Millennials support causes, marketing and brands; they believe in leading a healthy lifestyle and sharing time with friends and family. But maybe the other remarkable characteristic of this group does not belong to the field of the consumer market or the individual, but to ethnicity.
This is the most racially diverse generation in US history, a consequence of the extended waves of Latin American and Asian immigration during the last decades. The children of those men and women are now these adults: 43 percent of Millennial are non-white, “the highest share of any generation,” the Pew report stresses. They feel they cannot marry but still have children out of the wedlock (47 percent of births to Millennial women are non-marital, compared with 21 percent among older women) and today half of the newborns in the country are non-white.
This racial mixture is changing the identity of their country like no other factor. The Census Bureau has projected that by 2043 the US will no longer be majority white.@gesq