Is the Millennial Generation Changing American Society?

In this post-modern society there seems to be a good deal of knowledge, or at least opinion, on the topic of the millennial generation. While I hate to over-generalize, the literature seems to be based firmly in two opposing camps. One side of the argument finds that millennials are lazy and narcissistic. They tend to be too demanding and their perceived needs read more like a list of fairy tale inspired wants. The other side of the argument finds that millennials are truly a ground breaking generation that is re-writing the rules of a fundamentally flawed society. As with most things in life, I tend to find myself in the all too comfortable mushy middle.

For those unaware exactly what a millennial is, don’t feel bad. There is very little consensus on what exactly a millennial is. Most scholars do agree that millennials were born roughly between 1980 and 2000. This group grew up on technology and saw their Baby Boomer parents do relatively well economically. They saw the dominance of the New York Yankees and never knew the challenges of television watching with only a handful of channels. I’d guess they have never seen a black and white television.

In many ways, millennials get a bad reputation. Saddled with college debt and dim economic prospects, more than a few are still living with their parents, when most would argue they should be out on their own. Many of the group shun the traditional rites of passage, such as getting a driver’s license, seeing the freedom a vehicle can provide not worth the economic cost. Many were trying to enter the workforce during the Great Recession. Armed with little experience, but lots of education, many in this group are economically stuck and have yet to hit their stride towards economic security.

Yet, many industries look at the millennial generation in complete awe and wonder. Communities of all shapes and sizes are tripping over themselves to try to attract this cohort to their community. Some believe that this demographic is uniquely creative; they are digital natives that can whip up the next smartphone app that will do the next big thing. There are more than a few businesses and industries that are willing to make wholesale changes to their operations and business models to cater to this demographic group.

Personally, I find both approaches a bit over the top.

I tend to think ever since the dawn of time, every generation though the next generation was a bunch of slack-jawed hacks that would not cut it in the world. I would bet that Orville and Wilbur Wright’s parents often joked that if humans were meant to fly, God would have given us wings. It is part of the human experience, when you are coming of age, the generation older than you will point out your weaknesses and tell you that you can’t cut it. But of course, we all realize that is not necessarily true. Every generation has its own challenges and battles and they always come up ahead on the other side. It’s hard to say that on balance, we are not better off than we were a generation ago.

Yet, I can’t find myself fully supporting the side of the argument that feels that millennials hold the key to future success. Why? It’s for the simple fact that this group has not stopped growing. In many circles, millennials are believed to wanting to live in loft apartments in urban environments using bicycles to get around. In fact, there may be plenty of empirical evidence to back such a statement up. Yet, what if these millennials get married and start to have children? Will the loft apartment provide enough space for a growing family? Will the minivan become the chariot of the masses, rather than the bicycles? Will the urban environment have the high quality schools that these new parents want for their new children?

The point I am trying to make is that I believe it is really hard to try to make large changes that can impact other generations based on the wants and needs of a generation that is still not fully matured and whose wants and needs are going are still changing themselves.

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William Lutz

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