Millennials are lazy and entitled. They’re narcissistic, those members of Generation Y. Born between 1980 and 2000 and bred on overnight YouTube fame, millennials are basement-dwelling iPhone-clingers Tindering their way to oblivion.
Oh, and one more thing. They may not actually exist.
Marketing empires rise and fall on the promise of winning over the elusive millennial. Scientific careers have been staked on finding unique millennial traits, like a propensity for narcissistic personality disorder, a tendency to expect promotions early and often, and a desire for proximity to fame. Still, there’s no consensus that the rising generation of parents—the cohort that will soon be doing the most spending and earning—is any different than any other arbitrary set of Americans. The debate over whether or not generations exist is far from resolved. And the stakes are high.
Why does it matter if the latest self-obsessed 20- and 30-somethings are different than the last set of self-obsessed 20- and 30-somethings? Because the idea of generational identity complicates the nature versus nurture paradigm parents have embraced since time immemorial, by implying that cultural movements play a part in determining personality and behavioral outcomes. If Generation Y is a true group, it is a true group because–at least in part–of the Baby Boomers and it will eventually raise a generation of children with historically predictable traits and attitudes. To believe in Millennialism as a phenomenon is to believe that parents have little power and families are endlessly washed through a historical spin cycle. It’s no smaller wonder that the topic stirs passion among academics and historians.
“Quite frankly, it pisses me off when people use generational studies to stereotype,” generations expert Amy Lynch told Fatherly. “Generational studies are kind of a car wreck.”
If Lynch sounds certain, so do the experts who believe in the immutability of Generation Y. “It is fine to tell people that not everyone born 1980-1994 will be a typical Millennial, but that is no reason to make the false statement that generational differences don’t exist,” generations expert Jean Twenge, author of the books Generation Me and iGen told Fatherly. Twenge is known for vigorously defending her work. In fact, some of her detractors refuse to even engage with her. “I don’t comment on this stuff anymore,” says Brent Donnellan, a professor at Texas A&M University who has published research suggesting that millennials are not a unique generation. “I find Twenge interactions toxic.”
Consensus building clearly isn’t going to work.
Millennials are the generation born between 1980 and 2000, although the exact date range remains controversial. They lived through September 11 and its aftermath, grew up with smartphones and internet access and, apparently, got a lot of participation trophies. Crucially, they make up 25 percent of the U.S. population and, if marketing wonks are to be trusted, they consume media, food, groceries, sports, and music differently than their elders. They are defined, in a sense, by the rise of the internet, but also by an animating distrust for the status quo. Or so the thinking goes.
Proponents of generational research are careful to qualify their claims about millennials. “Can we say that millennials as a group differ in many significant ways from previous generations, although they are similar in many other ways? Absolutely,” Sean Lyons of the University of Guelph told Fatherly. “The value of generations as social categories is the ability to use them to assess a variety of different phenomena to see whether groups of people born in one era are different from others. Some phenomena show generational differences and others don’t.”
Indeed, data suggesting that millennials are pushing off marriage, home ownership, and childbearing to their mid-30’s is hard to deny. And research that has pointed to the existence of a unique millennial personality makes a compelling case that there is an emotional and psychological difference between Generation Y and the previous Generation X. The trick to defining a generation, Lyons says, is teasing out the similarities and differences with data.
But even if the data did not show a unique set of characteristics for millennials, Lyons says, the most compelling reason to treat millennials as a thing is that they exist as a thing in the public imagination. “The very fact that we are having the discussion and that Millennials have a name and are ascribed various characteristics in our society right now suggests that people view it as a meaningful construct,” he says. “So whether or not generations exist is more than just an empirical question—they undoubtedly exist, as social constructs.”
One of the most interesting tasks of the generational research camp is figuring out how to draw an evidence-based line between generations. “Although empirical research requires us to draw a line somewhere, we recognize as researchers that the line is an approximation and that the borders between generations are fuzzy,” Lyons says. Twenge has conceded this by suggesting that those born between 1995-2012 constitute a sort of sub-generation she’s dubbed iGen.
One way to test for a new generation is to observe how major cultural shifts redefine children. “So many things go into shaping a generation,” Lynch says. “Parenting trends, educational trends, the economy, political events, technology—when all of these things have shifted, the mood of the country shifts fundamentally and we get a new generation.” Millennials were raised by more forgiving parents, granted more educational opportunities, lived through a financial crises and a series of Middle East wars, and watched it all unfold on their smartphones. All of these factors led to “a sense of urgency,” Lynch says. “Things are broken, and have to change.”
Another way to define a generation is by lining up variables—psychological, emotional, financial—and comparing them across generations. Those who claim that millennials are a distinct entity say they can see the generation in the data. “There is abundant evidence of shifts among generations over time in a variety of factors,” Lyons says. “Not all of the differences are large in magnitude, but when you add them all up, there is pretty clear evidence of change over time. Given the evidence that we have, it would be a very bold statement to claim that today’s young adults are not significantly different in meaningful ways from previous generations.”
That bold statement, however, has emerged from serious scientists. Referring to a blog post that Twenge wrote in mid-May defending her position, psychologist and generations researcher David Constanza of George Washington University told Fatherly that “research using appropriate methods and statistics does not support the existence of these groups or the differences among them, despite what the [Twenge] blog post linked in your email says.” Although Constanza allows that people of different ages and life stages differ in key ways, he stresses that millennials do not differ in “as many variable as some, including Twenge, claim.”
One of the most damaging studies to the millennial hypothesis was published in 2010 in Perspectives on Psychological Science. The massive study examined data from 477,380 high school seniors between the years 1976 and 2006, and found little evidence of changes in egotism, self-enhancement, individualism, self-esteem, locus of control, hopelessness, happiness, life satisfaction, loneliness, antisocial behavior, time spent working or watching television, political activity, the importance of religion, and the importance of social status.
Kali Trzesniewski, coauthor on that study along with Donnellan, told Fatherly that the behaviors that appear to define millennials are, in fact, the same behaviors that always defined young people. She calls these “period effects” rather than generational effects. “When I think about whether something is a generation effect, as opposed to a period effect, I ask myself, would a 20-year-old from the 50’s transported to today act the same as a 20-year-old today?” she says. “If the answer is probably, then that is a period effect.” Trzesniewski notes that Socrates called children “tyrants” and that middle-aged grumps complained about 20-somethings in the flapper generation and the hippy generation.
Everything changes. Nothing changes.
“It seems unlikely that every generation is truly different,” Trzesniewski adds. “It is more likely that as we age, we get more mature. And, we forget that we were once carefree and focused on figuring ourselves and our lives out. So, as we age, we look at adolescents and young adults and say they are completely different from how I was at that age.”
Even if there was a unique millennial generation, Trzesniewski says, the scientific tools to define it are far too primitive. Before making the sweeping conclusions that Lyons and Twenge make, she says, “we would need to build a consensus about what defines a generation, how that is assessed, how big of a difference represents a difference across generations, ways to test the hypotheses, and have explanations for why the targeted behaviors demonstrate generational differences. As far as I know, the field does not have consensus on any of these issues.”
Shortly after Trzesniewski and Donnellan published their study, Twenge, somewhat predictably, wrote an article in response, published in the same journal. She brushed off their findings as due to “problems with measurement and variable labeling” and claimed that they ignored key variables and broad swathes of their own data to draw the conclusion that millennials are not a unique generation “The real puzzle,” she wrote, “is why these authors’ conclusions fall so far from the data.” Her most recent blog post on the subject was, matter-of-factly entitled: “How do we know the millennial generation exists? Look at the data” and dismissed those who do not believe generations exist.
“It’s recently become fashionable to suggest that generations don’t exist at all,” she writes. “Although it’s true that some people peddle ideas about generations based on questionable data, advances in research methods now allow social scientists to pinpoint generational and cultural changes with a surprising degree of accuracy.”
The truth may lie somewhere in between the pro-generation and anti-generation camps. Lynch suspects that the millennial generation is unique from, say, Generation X, but not necessarily unique from all other generations ever. “Generations work in a cycle, and during that cycle you have specific patterns and kinds of generations,” she says. “If you look back 600 or 800 years, the cycle has played out again and again. It doesn’t mean you know exactly what the next generation is going to be like, but you can watch for big events that are likely to shape the next generation.”
Lynch says that the quintessential millennial grows up in a broken world and feels the urgent need to fix it. “Look at young people growing up during the American Revolution,” she says. “It was clear that the colonies could no longer be under British rule. Something had to change. Then the Boston Tea Party happened and the country shifted from skepticism to urgency and, within five years, you have the Declaration of Independence. These young people who grew up during that generation are very similar to millennials today.” American millennials, she says, have grown up under the War on Terror, an economic crisis, government gridlock, and the looming threat of climate change. “So they keep looking to create new systems that work.”
For Lynch, those pushing the millennial label and those pushing back against it are speaking different languages. On the macro scale, she channels Twenge and Lyons. We can expect generations to broadly embrace certain values—for millennials to, as a collective whole, pursue solutions to a broken world in a way that prior generations did not. But as individuals, she embraces Trzesniewski. There’s no reason to believe that individual millennials will conform their assigned generations, and naturally the data suggests that this generation’s 20-year-olds are, when it comes to their personalities and interests, not much different from last generation.
Taken together, there’s good reason to believe millennials are nothing new—they emerge every time we’re on the brink of a fundamental paradigm shift. And millennials may well be entitled and selfish, but these are core qualities that drive revolutions. Lest we forget, a generation of whiny underachievers has very quickly ushered in a technological revolution. For the parents watching this generation grow up and begin to build their own families, there’s surely some feeling of loss of control. Certain qualities of this generation may simply be out of a parent’s hands.
But that doesn’t mean being born between 1980 and 2000 controls a millennial’s individual destiny. And it doesn’t mean we can reliably predict what the next generation will be like until we see them in action. “Generational research is not a microstudy, it’s a useful indicator, a clue, a way to help you manage groups of people and communicate better,” Lynch says. “I never want to see generations used to stereotype or demean a group. That makes me angry and sad.”