Opinion

The patronising crap aimed at Millennials says more about us than it does them

Most talk about millennials amounts to little more than lazy generalisations that are contradicted by the facts, argues Al Crawford.

Not a day goes by without my feed being clogged by the slew of spew directed at Millennials. They’re narcissistic. They’re self-entitled. They demand instant gratification.

Perhaps the latest and greatest in Millennial commentary is the machine-gun monologue of Simon Sinek, who delivers a speech that is smugger in twenty minutes than a fifteen hour ‘best of Trump’ compilation.

I enjoy a good bout of haughtiness as much as the next person, but the more you dig, the more you start to discover the ballistic bullshit alongside the truth bombs.

In fact, the ‘feckless youth of today’ narrative says more about us than it ever will do about them: our need to play up generational differences, rather than similarities; our desire to amplify the folly of youth, rather than its wisdom; and the financial gain that many of us reap from doing so.

Before we dive in, let’s forget demographic labelling is a relatively recent invention. Precise age ranges are blurry at best and frequently rejigged. It makes horoscopes look like they’re based on rock solid foundations.

Let’s also forget that it’s darn tough to distil the characteristics of 75 million Americans spanning a nearly 20 year age range, much less those of 1.8 billion global citizens.

Let’s instead concentrate on the broad narrative of a uniquely rubbish generation epitomised by entitlement, lack of application and self-obsession.

There’s no doubt that we have more data than ever before on which to base our judgements. Trouble is, much of it is poorly collected, hotly debated or actually contradicts the thrust of the invective.

Case in point: their portrayal as self-entitled job-hoppers who switch career as often as they change their undercrackers. The Pew Research Center begs to differ. Their behavioural data indicates Millennials are no more likely to job hop than Gen X did at a similar age.

Even their depiction as narcissists is contested. Generation Me by Professor Jean Twenge pointed to a surge in Narcissistic Personality Disorder amongst Millennials. Brilliant and detailed as it is, the case for the prosecution is no slam dunk. There’s robust debate about methodologies, data interpretation and even the validity of the test itself.

Shock horror, some recent surveys have also demonstrated that we’re more same, same than different. Boomers, X’ers and millennials are driven by pretty much the same motivations at work. Even that ‘driven by purpose’ stuff, which seems oddly paradoxical if Millennials are so self-obsessed, doesn’t seem any more prevalent amongst this generation than the previous ones.

Here’s an inconvenient truth: for the vast majority of us, the rush to judgement reflects bias, not brilliant analysis. It’s our George Dubya Bush side which goes with its gut, rather than those pesky facts.

That’s because there is something deeply satisfying about branding other generations as less evolved. George Orwell nailed it: ‘Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.’ Despite the fact that we’re all 99% chimpanzee, we latch onto anything that suggests the youth of today are a different species altogether.

These differences are almost always viewed through a negative lens. In Millennials, we see entitlement: people who believe they are born for better things and therefore aren’t prepared to grind it out. Maybe, just maybe, they are enlightened instead.

This is, after all, a generation who have seen capitalism at its most Darwinian. Despite being better educated than their forebears, a stuttering, volatile global economy has ensured that opportunities are thinner on the ground and can be terminated at a moment’s notice.

I represent the fag end of people who believed a career, if not a job, was probably for life and that western liberal democracy had won the day. Millennials may be waking up to the structural flaws in the Death Star.

A recent Harvard Institute of Politics survey reported that 51% reject capitalism (a somewhat fat term, admittedly). The groundswell of support for Corbyn and Sanders from younger demographics is also reflective of the search for a better way. Far from self-entitled egotists gaming the system, this suggests a realisation that the system is gaming them.

Ultimately, the most profound difference in today’s riffs on younger people is context, rather substance. They are the first generation to suffer the slings and arrows of the outrageous internet in full swing. What used to be occasional sprays has turned into a fast-flowing river of condescension, accelerated by targeting algorithms which zero in on receptive ears.

An economy has swiftly formed around this. In days of yore, all you got was some vigorous nodding from the village elders when decrying young people. Today, there’s serious Benjamins to be earned by pointing out that they pose an existential threat.

And the more you play up those differences, the more it requires armies of consultants, hours of training, plus constant research and content, to make sense of them.

There’s an ironic twist to this. The people most likely to deliver self-aggrandising, narcissistic opinions designed to reap instant gratification aren’t Millennials, but the people commenting on them.

Of course, there are well-observed contributions, but we need to be wary of this vibrant, often self-interested industry.  Too often, it’s chock full of vapid clichés which prey on our credulity. Sadly, its momentum is only likely to increase. God help Gen Z.

Al Crawford is a strategist and was until earlier this year chief strategy officer of Clemenger BBDO Sydney 

 

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