With so many potentially world-changing events going on right now—violent, political upheaval in Ukraine, the ongoing civil war in Syria, the horrific massacre at Konming Station in China, mass protests and police action in Turkey, Day After Tomorrow-like weather across large swaths of North America—it’s vital that we spend time analyzing and interpreting data about what’s really important, by which I mean, Millennials. Because I don’t know about you, but it’s been a little while since I read about what must be the most written about and studied generation of all time, and so I’m just dying to know what researchers have to tell me about myself and my peers. Take it away, researchers! Tell me about me!
According to the latest study done by the Pew Research and Social Demographics team, the Millennial generation is “relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry—and optimistic about the future.” Distrustful? I doubt that. But otherwise, all that information sounds about right… though it also seems like the Pew Research team was acting with some sort of confirmation bias in place, because this is virtually identical to the descriptions of Millennials that we have all been bombarded with for the last couple of years. It’s like, we get it! We are drowning in debt due to crippling student loan costs incurred because universities have raised their tuitions to stratospheric heights. We are unaffiliated with political parties and religious organizations because we came of age in a time when scandal after scandal after scandal has come to light (seriously, doesn’t Watergate seem almost quaint, now?). We are linked by social media because, well, it exists and is an easier and more efficient way of communicating than past methods (and I say this as someone who is on the older end of the millennial spectrum, so I even remember before landlines all had Caller ID—*69 4EVA ). We don’t trust anyone because we spent our childhoods being inundated with aspirational advertisements and media which promised a lifestyle that (surprise!) it turns out will never be attainable for most of us. We are in no rush to marry because we have grown up seeing people of our parents’ generation (including, frequently, our own parents!) divorce, and also because we’re too busy focusing on our careers, because we have to make money to pay off all those debts. And we are optimistic because… wait. Why are we optimistic again?
The Pew researchers claim, “Despite their financial burdens, Millennials are the nation’s most stubborn economic optimists… No other cohort of adults is nearly as confident, though when Gen Xers were the age Millennials are now, they were equally upbeat about their own economic futures. Some of this optimism, therefore, may simply reflect the timeless confidence of youth.” Oh, cool, so we’re optimistic because of “the timeless confidence of youth”? In other words, we’re stupid. But what about the power of positive thinking, you ask? Maybe it’s good that Millennials are so optimistic because The Secret? Well, no! A recent New Yorker article focused on the futility of positive thinking, citing research that demonstrates, “positive fantasies may lessen your chances of succeeding.” One study showed that, “those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too. Students who fantasized were less likely to ask their romantic crushes on a date and more likely to struggle academically.” So, in other words, it might actually be Millennials’ optimism which is keeping them unemployed, in debt, and unmarried. Ha! I knew that my cynicism would come in handy for something.
It makes sense that a generation of people who have lost faith in all the institutions in which Americans used to place a great deal of trust would need to find something else to believe in, but blind optimism isn’t it. Not that it’s bad for Millennials to foster fantasies in which they succeed beyond their wildest dreams, pay off that $60,000 to [fill in your private university here], and find the ideal life partner. Fantasies can be good! Especially when they’re goal-oriented. It’s just important to remember that it’s only possible to make a fantasy a reality through action, something that many people forget, forever expecting some deus ex machina to come along and help. Well, guess what? That kind of thing only happens at the end of Toy Story 3. So, you know, be the change you want to see in the world, Millennials. That’s how we got Obama elected, and look how well that’s working out. (Better than if it had been McCain!)
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen