The Millennial Hope

Becoming a parent is life changing. And among the greatest changes are some surprising moments of great self-awareness. For example, the first time I sputtered “because I said so” and turned to my wife with eye-opening horror that I had become my father. Or the realization that as a child, I did not get away with half the things I thought I did, because my parents simply ignored certain battles.

I am a “pioneer” member of Generation X (barely escaping the evil clutches of the Baby Boomers!), who has very nearly raised two Millennials. Social scientists love generalizations like these, but I confess not paying much attention to them. I agree that technology and geopolitics affect how an impressionable group of people view the world. But I also hope that infusing our children with certain ideals and principles will outlast the relativistic forces at play in their surroundings—the influences that, in turn, define who they are as a generation.

Before he headed back to college I asked my son what he thought of all this “Millennial” talk.  His response:

Comments about my generation range from the disparaging to the hopeful to the warning. What’s curious is that these opinions, no matter how negative or positive, invariably lie in the extremes. We’re all either lazy and entitled, or self-motivated and eager to succeed.  We’re either proof of the continuous downfall of America, or the sign of a bright hope for this country. There seems to be no middle ground. So where does the truth lie?

I believe my generation, more than yours, Dad, has been over-analyzed to the point where it seems every other week there is a new study professing the latest findings on our motivation (or lack thereof), our self-obsession, our failings in certain areas, and success in others. All this raises the question: Why is there an endless demand for insight into the generation of Millennials?

Well, we are coming of age and growing up in a world where, for the first time since perhaps the 1940s, America’s place in the world is uncertain. The rapid rise of China, wars and instability in the Middle East, and increasing discomfort and unrest at home have all contributed to the general feeling that perhaps the U.S. is not quite what it used to be. I do not suggest we have lost the moniker as “the most powerful country on Earth,” but rather that as a nation, we no longer are sure of our own future.

Combine that with the fact my world is faster and more connected than yours ever was.  I can talk face to face with somebody living in Hong Kong, and social media allows me to find out what Justin Timberlake had for breakfast. Or I can learn how to start a revolution.

By the way, Dad, if you want a good scratch-n-sniff of my generation, then you should check out the new Reason-Rupe study at Reason.

People don’t like uncertainty—and there is a lot of it about these days. So folks naturally look to those who will one day inhabit that future. And that’s us—the first generation to grow up in a post-Cold War world. There are no road maps, no past examples to guide us. So pundits study every little action and foible we Millennials seem to have, hoping to glean some information as to what the future may hold.  As a result, every little Millennial characteristic becomes magnified, held up as proof America’s impending revival or looming failure.

In the end, however, we’re no different than any generation.  We just want, as every generation before us has wanted, to find our place in an ever shifting and changing world, and hopefully along the way, ourselves as well.

What does this mean for the future of this country?  Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that my son is growing up, like I grew up, like my father grew up, like his father before him, all the way back to when Adam first told Abel to get a job. And, despite all the studies, research, and scrutiny, all I can do is encourage him along the way, helping when I can, and stepping back when I should. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. And often, it’s more than enough.

So I end with a hopeful note. I remember when Phillip was in high school, he cracked a cynical comment and my wife responded, “Wait, you can’t be cynical yet! You’re too young. You’re supposed to be idealistic for a while before reality and truth ensure a healthy skepticism. What kind of parents are we?”  He responded, “Mom, you raised me in Washington, D.C.  Cynicism is unavoidable.”

Hmm, maybe we will be OK.