Are Millennials an Optical Illusion?

Much has been made of this generation of young adults under the age of 35. Marketers and sociologists have characterized them as inherently different from previous generations, and a new kind of consumer. To the extent that we’ve made up names for them, from “Generation Y” to the now in vogue “Millennials”, a term coined in 1987 by sociologist/historian team Neil Howe and William Strauss. In some ways, we’ve conditioned ourselves to think that this generation came off a spaceship, or are somehow genetically different from the rest of us.

But is this actually true?

More recently, research has been surfacing that indicates that Millennials are in the process of making the very same kinds of life decisions that we who are Gen X-ers and Boomers tend to follow, such as leaving the parents’ nest, getting a proper job, starting a career, starting a family, etc. — only later in life. This may be largely due to economic conditions, and therefore, very practical concerns.

Is it true that this generation has greater facility with technology and social media than older generations do? Of course. And has this shaped their expectations to a great extent? Most likely, yes. And have they grown up with heightened expectations around big success and wealth at an early age? For sure, they grew up in a time when, for the first time, the world was seeing a series of 20-something billionaire entrepreneurs emerge.

But we forget that the hard wiring, the deep socialization we imprint on children and youth, has a lasting effect. We have embedded our ‘pattern’ of development, and our mores around what is appropriate and what is deemed ‘successful’, at a deep level. And every generation, as it approaches maturity, looks back on the younger generation and calls them ‘strange’ or criticizes them for a lack of discipline and good old-fashioned work ethic. In the 70’s, people 35 and over called teens and young adults “The Me Generation”, criticizing their selfishness in 3 handy words. Aren’t we doing the same thing today with those we blithely call “Millennials”?

One of the few academic things I remember from my undergrad years is how we (in my anthropology department) were required to read the work of a renowned psychologist named Erik Erikson. Erikson, though he never finished his undergrad degree, became a highly influential professor at Harvard and Yale. Erikson coined the term “identity crisis”, among others, and put forward a framework for stages of human development — from adolescence to full maturity — that still resonates today. If he were alive today, he would likely tell us that the younger generation is not so different from us. Only far more clever.

– W.