“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited.” – Sylvia Plath
This quote from Sylvia Plath resonates so deeply because it summarizes much of the struggle as a twenty-something—as a “twixter,” the kitschy moniker Time magazine’s most recent article embarrassingly insists on using for the Millennial generation—and in the case of the writers at Literally, Darling, our generation. In “The Me Me Me Generation,” author Joel Stein relays the cold hard facts for us—the generation he’s in no way part of—with his “cold, hard data”; statistics pulled (and then eloquently refuted by The Atlantic Wire) that “prove” our entitled, lazy, narcissistic lifestyles and frame of mind.
You see, a big part of the problem with we “twixters” is that so much of the debate and discussion about us doesn’t really take the time to think about us. Stein isn’t alone, as The Wire also points out; generations have been doing this for, well, generations. We, the young adult subculture, are reduced to statistics—to data about entitlement and ideals of inevitable success that show how lackadaisical we are compared to those hard working, middle-aged Baby Boomers, and even our existentialist Generation X antecedents.
We could go on about generalizations about our older generations—figure out Twitter yet, Baby Boomers?—but it just seems so, well… Childish? The Baby Boomers and those that criticize Millennial behavior and psychology seem to forget that we’ve got to make sense of “growing up” on our own, the same way every other generation has—and that the “you’re too young, you’re too old” finger-pointing that’s caught 20-somethings in the social crossfire is absolutely nothing new. We just happen to have documented evidence of every step of the way of just how awkward and difficult the process of discovering your place in the world can be. And like Britney Spears—like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian and Amanda Bynes—there is a constant reminder (sometimes self-imposed and sometimes pressed upon us through an outsider’s lens) of just how confusing that world has really become for a generation whose definitions of “work” and “education” and “debt” and “the world” have few forbearers, few points of reference for us to look to with confidence.
Stein makes the very reasonable point that much of what Millennials are exposed to are options—career and otherwise—that would have been available strictly to the middle or upper class say, oh, thirty years ago. Much of this has to do with the Internet and the rampant expansion of technology, and their ever-present involvement in not just our daily lives, but also our minute-by-minute interactions—our real-time existence. We now feel less inclined to rely on traditional power structures like corporations (and now, even the universities we attend—because we all know that a degree is necessary, but not necessarily a means to an end.)
As Millennials, we’ve begun to define these structures for ourselves, rather than try to fit into them. If we can’t depend on our degrees, we probably won’t be depending on climbing that corporate ladder. (Not to say some of us won’t.) But our class of Millennials are paving their own way—with entrepreneurship and individualism at the forefront.
Yes, many of us grew up knowing the importance of attending college, knowing which steps are “necessary” to take toward the path to adulthood. In many cases, our parents told us we could be whatever we wanted to be—we were told we could live the American Dream. As children we believed we could be President; we believed we could be rock stars. And are generations before us really justified to point their fingers and say that we aren’t or that we can’t?
Suddenly this funny thing happened, you see. We started depending on ourselves; we are the generation that seeks self-refuge. But we don’t just cling to our “narcissistic, entitled” selves. We rely on each other—our deeply integrated digital social sphere, maintained and created by us. By the Millennials. We don’t have to rely on information filtered through sources that we’ve come to distrust. Like Stein says, we’re not rebelling—in so many cases, we aren’t even redefining. We are just doing what we were brought up to do.
Millennials—or, many of us—actually do understand the way the world works beyond our iPhones, and lately (since we were merely children, not so long ago) we see how it’s changed. Most importantly, as the youth subculture most directly impacted by these global forces of change, we’ve changed with it. Are we not often the ones that our older generations depend on to teach them how to keep up with rapidly changing technology? We are redefining the world through “youth power”. It isn’t our so-called “narcissistic” behavior that’s a threat; it’s that in many cases, Millennials are the students who have become the teachers. And what’s more frightening to established power systems than that?
The notion that we aren’t a “participatory” generation, based on Stein’s observations of a lack of motivation by Millennials in the Kony scandal and the (according, again, to Stein) not-so-successful Occupy Wall Street stint, is something of a confusing one. Participation is in our very nature as a generation; everywhere we go, we participate socially, artistically, economically. We are constantly and consistently deciding for ourselves which parts of culture we are interested in promoting, perpetuating, propelling; we decide what is useful to us, and what is not. While political revolution en masse might not be our strong suit, we can certainly come together to throw around the impressive collective weight of a generation 80 million strong.
We are the generation that rushed home after school to vote for Britney Spears, to make sure she debuted at #1 on TRL—every time.
We are the generation that turned a British coffee shop writer into the author of the best-selling book series—ever.
We are the generation that popularized Facebook to the point it became a primary means of interpersonal communication—globally.
We are the generation that put the first black man, President Barack Obama, in the White House—twice.
We are the generation that embodies the American Dream. And we’re being blamed for it. In reality, hasn’t the trajectory of the development of American society set us—as a generation—up for the “predicament” we now find ourselves in? Isn’t the narcissism our generation is so commonly accused of a natural by-product of generations of conditioning to believe that America is synonymous with individuality, self-interest, and the pursuit of personal goals? While the tendencies of Millennials might appear narcissistic, what we more closely resemble is participatory in a way the generations that have come before us don’t entirely understand. Where photography was once an expensive, out-of-reach hobby for the average person, we’ve got Instagram. Where pop stars were once born from a mysterious maelstrom of music industry stardust, we now have American Idol, The X Factor, YouTube—independent artists can actually make a living making music, and win Grammy awards.
We are the generation that perpetuates the state of “in-between” (you know, not having a lasting career, living with our parents, and the inability to enter the “real world” as the generations who have become before us know it…), because in a lot of cases, we weren’t given the sames chance (or forced in the same historical fashion) to grow up. It’s not about graduating high school and then getting the job, and no longer necessarily about graduating college and then getting the career. The industry, the establishment, is no longer able to readily provide us security. And yes, some of us—hell, a lot of us—live at home. But you know what? A lot of us live with roommates, with friends, by ourselves, and work more than one job to pay our own bills. There’s this notion that, somehow, 80 million Millennials are taking 7 years to graduate from college, ending up at home afterwards with mom or dad’s debit card, and then finding themselves unsuccessful in entering the workforce.
We are the generation living through staggering unemployment, a crashing economy (“The Great Recession”), meaningless degrees, and incomparable college debt. We lived through the alarming cultural uncertainty of Y2K as pre-teens. We are living through the longest war in history. We experienced 9/11, firsthand and at the forefront of our adolescent development.
We are the “Me Me Me” Generation—narcissistic and entitled? Maybe, but we’re also entrepreneurial and independent—it’s possible we are also the generation of young adults most under fire as we are defining our own sense of young adulthood. Blogs, tweets, books, Time magazine articles: No one can get enough of telling us we’re not doing enough as a generation.
Excuse us if as a generation we’re still catching on to a proper idea of “adulthood,” but we’re doing our best to grow up to be the America that we were told we would be, and it wouldn’t be a total drag if people could stop blaming us for not getting everything right every time. Maybe give us a minute?
Maybe Britney Spears really did say it best: “We may be young, but we’ve got feelings, too. So let us go—and just listen.”
What’s most important to us at Literally, Darling is to spark a discussion that enables discourse about the inherent value of the Millennial generation—what we’re doing right, what we can offer the world. We want to create a conversation; after all, isn’t it what we do best?
Look for more pieces this week on the issues the “twixter” generation faces.