May has not been the best time to be a young American.
First, David Leonhardt of the New York Times introduced us to "the idle young American," explaining: “Over the last 12 years, the United States has gone from having the highest share of employed 25- to 34-year-olds among large, wealthy economies to having among the lowest.”
Perhaps more of us should attend college? Not so fast: Recent college graduates seem to be having a hard time getting and keeping jobs because they’re badly behaved. Mark Bauerlein published an op-ed at Bloomberg View about graduates’ lacking professionalism, which cites various complaints by people who work in human resources. During job interviews, “applicants check their phones for texts and calls, dress inappropriately and overrate their talents.”
Still, untucked shirts seem to be the least of 20-somethings’ problems. Bauerlein is among those quoted in the most recent Time cover-story, a millennial magnum opus titled, “The Me Me Me Generation.” Writer Joel Stein opens with the admission: “I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow.”
Stein goes on to provide a more nuanced and ultimately redeeming portrait of millennials, roughly defined as those born between 1980 and 2000. Despite being a lazy 22-year-old, I read the piece several times (unlike others who wasted their day refashioning the cover). Then again, maybe I read it because I’m so self-absorbed that I jump at the opportunity to read about me (me, me).
If you take away our technologically advanced props (but don’t you dare), it's unclear if our unappealing character traits are unique to our generation; they may simply result from being young. Maybe we don't actually get more pleasure from that boy “liking” our Instagram photo than our mothers did from a clandestine note in class. Our self-congratulation is just more publically available -- the better to quantify and cobble into studies.
Elspeth Reeve at the Atlantic Wire provides a nice recap of a century's worth of splashy conclusions about young people. (I'm not a huge fan of her suggestion that magazine writers base their impressions of the spoiled, arrogant young from the rich brats who work as their interns: I was once an editorial intern at Time.)
More interesting was Reeve’s counter to Stein’s data: “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that's now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982." Reeve points to another paper that refutes this claim and concludes that, "Basically, it's not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it's that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older. It's like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are Generation Sociopath" because they will "Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences."
Stein acknowledges this, writing: “Millennials' self-involvement is more a continuation of a trend than a revolutionary break from previous generations. They’re not a new species; they’ve just mutated to adapt to their environment.”
Yes, we shouldn’t be checking our phones at job interviews. But our employers certainly won’t be complaining when we’re just a buzz away at all hours of the day and night, our nimble, swift texting thumbs prepared to work from far flung locales or disheveled bedrooms.
Our environment isn't all about technological progress, either. It’s also been shaped by economic ruin. Are we entitled? Maybe. Or maybe we just want the same financial and professional stability that previous generations secured. (Such desires have become aspirational because we’re not going to get them.) Confidence flows into overconfidence as a tactic to fend off a more appropriate depression. Stein writes: “The generation that experienced Monica Lewinsky's dress, 9/11, the longest wars in U.S. history, the Great Recession and an Arab Spring that looks at best like a late winter is nevertheless optimistic about its own personal chances of success.”
We’re not the first generation to grow up amid rapid technological change (but no one has seen this pace before). Or financial destruction (though coming in second after the Great Depression isn't bad). Or scandal (although we monetize it like nobody's business). Or war (we know; you protested, we followed like sheep). In fact, as I read Stein’s list of misery only 9/11 truly stands out. Sept. 11 is what makes millennials unique.
The oldest millennials were reaching drinking age in 2001. The youngest had just been born. All knew, if briefly, a pre-9/11 world. No forthcoming generation will be able to say as much. We matured in the wake of terrorism on a new American scale. We grew up taking our shoes off in airport security, looking nervously at a bag left on the train and knowing that while technology allows us to communicate with unprecedented speed and volume, it can just as swiftly obliterate us.
Living in fear of terror, we’ve become terrified of fear. If we appear lazier, more entitled or more confident than those who came before us, it's because those are the skins we wear to hide our ultimate vulnerability.
(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)