Recent events have been great indicators of two things. The first is that clickbait titles are incredibly effective. The second is that Millennials get nothing wrong. Although, while they get nothing wrong, by the same token, Millennials get nothing right either. But the idea keeps coming up.
First some numbers. The Millennial generation (aka Generation Y) includes any person born between 1983 and 2000, approximately. For context, Generation X includes people born in any year between 1965 and 1983. Baby boomers occupy the 1946 to 1964 territory. Generation Z is anyone born after 2000.
For years, in the media as well as among local peers and more senior-age friends, there's been a trend about how to think about Millennials. The conversation is eerily direct and—in an almost exclusive way—Millennials are cited as anecdotally more prone to bad social behavior, from workplace entitlement and everyday narcissism to gender-specific oversensitivity. These kids want it all now, in the flavor of their choice, without working for it.
If older Gen X and baby boomer people are to be believed, people 35 and older present no similar sense of entitlement because they haven't wanted things their way and have always been content whatever freedom and position they were given. Of course, history proves otherwise: both Generation X and the baby boomers destabilized culture with their demands. But Confirmation Bias—the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses—often produces mistakes in our thinking. It colors our perception far more easily than we might expect. So, of what use is a classification system if we can’t accurately classify with it?
Classifications such as Millennials, Baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Z are part of a demographics vocabulary, terms used in the advertising and marketing industry to more easily tease out probable consumer behavior. For example, Generation Z people are more likely than any other generation to be on Snapchat. Generation X appreciate a good mixtape—even more interesting if it's an original cassette tape—a detail less interesting to a Millennial (who was likely born after the CDs became the standard.) Boomers are more likely to know who “Ol' Blue Eyes” is. And if they’re white (another demographic classification), it's likely easier to sell them Tony Bennett than Jay Z. From classifications and subclassifications, marketers infer probabilities about how their products and services will perform to audiences that have been grouped by age, gender, income and race. And that's where the science ends.
"Millennial" is an advertising, marketing and sociology term, but it is not a psychology or cognitive science term. It’s not possible to accurately predict any psychoanalytic behavior—such as the commonly attributed “sense of entitlement”—solely to millennials because, statistically, every age group has a percentage of entitled people and, contrary to simplistic opinion, there exist plenty of millennials who have no expectations about entitlement. In other words, “millennial” is not a behavioral classification, nor a psychological condition.
But trends can’t be ignored: clichés about millennials don’t appear out of a vacuum. The confusion about how and when to accurately “blame the Millennial”—and a reluctance to rely so heavily on demographics—hints at shifts in the culture. The first is a departure from separating audience groups by age. It's similar to the rationale in the educational system where children are separated by age, rather than by individual qualities such as aptitude or knowledge (this is a leftover idea from the Industrial Age).
Age may be a reliable separator for children—for cognitive development reasons—and other aspects such as voting rights and legal alcohol consumption. But in most situations, a better model with better questions is needed. One argument might be that perceived entitlement is less a function of age and more a function of privilege—racial, financial and in some cases moral. Asking the nuanced question around these other factors will likely lead to better answers about the “why” of behavior—in the advertising market, at home, the workplace or the first date.
As attention spans shrink and media becomes more biased, more targeted, and more propagandistic, it is important to question the questions. Does a headline match its promise, or pose a “leading question”? And does it lead to a predictably desired answer? does it assume things that are unverified, or unverifiable? The problem with humans generally is that any question, once asked, will always produce some answer. Asking the question, “Why do millennials feel so entitled?” will always produce something even when it’s not a great question (it starts from a supposition, not from any verifiable data that millennials are unique in their sense of entitlement.) The fact is that may be lightweight and useless, but it is enough for conversation among some people.
It might, however, be more interesting to ask instead, “What makes someone, anyone, feel entitled?" and work from there to produce a hypothesis that you can then discuss with peers who value critical thinking above “conversation.” When you put in the work to polish an idea until it reflects well, you cast aside your tribal expectations and can more easily say “I disagree, but you make a better case” to someone who presents the better argument. The exchanges that come from this kind of discourse will improve to your ability to think critically, and reverse the trend of shutting down ideas that are unattractive or unpalatable. In a functional society, it's an important thing.
The common thread in inter-generational conversations is that people dislike being labeled, or worse, being treated by the limits of those badly constructed labels. We bring so much of our own baggage to the table when these things come up. We impose the same low-information authoritarianism to which we were subjected when we were more vulnerable. Back then we really just need people to show up with better questions.
As someone who has breathed the air of Generation X, I remember what it was like to be of the age that millennials now find themselves. If my diet had a steady rotation of NWA, Black Flag, Beastie Boys and Slayer, then it wouldn’t be difficult to assume I hated authority, commercialism, and fought for my right to party. The satanism was a nice touch, it could connect all of the above. My generation was accused of not adding anything particularly useful to culture. Our music was unlistenable and we had not “paid our dues yet.” My music collection was rebellious, but anyone making assumptions would have gotten a much more nuanced impression of me from a quick glimpse into my book collection also. It was frustrating that hardly anyone was that curious, and the oversight led to unnecessary assumptions and misunderstandings.
And history repeats itself.