Thursday, December 7, 2017

Where Millennials Come From

From The New Yorker:
The idea that millennials are capriciously wrecking the landscape of American consumption grants quite a bit of power to a group that is still on the younger side. Born in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, millennials are now in their twenties and thirties. But the popular image of this generation—given its name, in 1987, by William Strauss and Neil Howe—has long been connected with the notion of disruptive self-interest. Over the past decade, that connection has been codified by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, who writes about those younger than herself with an air of pragmatic evenhandedness and an undercurrent of moral alarm. (An article adapted from her most recent book, “iGen,” about the cohort after millennials, was published in the September issue of The Atlantic with the headline “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” It went viral.) In 2006, Twenge published “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before.” The book’s cover emblazoned the title across a bare midriff, a flamboyant illustration of millennial self-importance, sandwiched between a navel piercing and a pair of low-rise jeans.

According to Twenge, millennials are “tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious, but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful, and anxious.” She presents a barrage of statistics in support of this assessment, along with anecdotal testimonials and pop-cultural examples that neatly confirm the trends she identifies. (A revised edition, published in 2014, mentions the HBO show “Girls” six times.) Twenge acknowledges that the generation has come of age inside an “economic squeeze created by underemployment and rising costs,” but she mostly explains millennial traits in terms of culture and choice. Parents overemphasized self-esteem and happiness, while kids took their cues from an era of diversity initiatives, decentralized authority, online avatars, and reality TV. As a result, millennials have become irresponsible and fundamentally maladjusted. They “believe that every job will be fulfilling and then can’t even find a boring one.” They must lower their expectations and dim their glittering self-images in order to become functional adults.

This argument has a conservative appeal, given its focus on the individual rather than on the structures and the conditions that govern one’s life. Twenge wonders, “Is the upswing in minority kids’ self-esteem an unmitigated good?” and then observes, “Raising children’s self-esteem is not going to solve the problems of poverty and crime.” It’s possible to reach such moralizing conclusions even if one begins with the opposite economic premise. In “The Vanishing American Adult,” published in May, Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, insists that we live in a time of generalized “affluenza,” in which “much of our stress now flows not from deprivation but, oddly, from surplus.” Millennials have “far too few problems,” he argues. Sasse chastises parents for allowing their kids to succumb to the character-eroding temptations of contemporary abundance and offers suggestions for turning the school-age generation into the sort of hardworking, financially independent grownups that the millennials have yet to become. (Read more.)

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