Media figures are clamouring to scrutinise Gen Y: But do generation categories really make sense, or are they an illusion promoted to facilitate dehumanising rhetoric – and generate advertising revenue.
You can browse article after article about them on the Financial Times and the Huffington Post. They featured on the front cover of Time magazine. Goldman Sachs has published a snazzy interactive graphic about them. Marketing consultant Simon Sinek has made a career out of talking, and talking, and talking about them. What’s to be done with Millennials? Everyone’s an expert.
According to a handy guide that forms part of an ongoing series on the Guardian’s website devoted to Millennials (people born between 1980 and 1995), the generation has something of a bad reputation: “Millennials are accused of being lazy, self-involved, cosseted, politically apathetic narcissists, who aren’t able to function without a smartphone and who live in a state of perpetual adolescence, incapable of commitment.”
Such accusations are easy to find: Simply scroll down to the comments on some of the articles linked above. If you fancy something a little stronger, pop across to a right-wing media outlet and let their readers explain their feelings on Gen Y. If you make it as far as Breitbart (and I hope you don’t), you’ll discover that Gen Y is blamed for everything from the war on Christmas through to the strategic homosexualisation of the US military. Young folk, it seems, still don’t know they’re born.
Self-impressed windbag and ostensible “Millenniologist” Simon Sinek has got bashing Gen Y down to an art – albeit a very long and unbearably smarmy one. A video of him sharing his thoughts on Millennials in the work place went viral, gathering around 10 million views (multiple versions exist: This version has well over 6 million views alone). He expounds his four-step process for isolating what went wrong to make Gen Y so difficult for corporate leaders to manage: Their parents were too protective, communications technology was too ubiquitous, consumer experiences were too convenient, corporate structures were too… corporate.
Sinek’s diagnosis, in common with almost every definition of absolutely every generation, has all the serendipitous applicability of a horoscope. They pursue activities that release dopamine. They want to feel special. They struggle to manage stress, and turn to damaging substances and hollow amusements for a release. They use their mobile phones in meetings and at the dinner table. They find corporate environments restrictive and frustrating. They breathe oxygen and release bodily fluids at regular intervals. They walk on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening. Jupiter is rising in the moons of Uranus: They may feel a range of contrasting emotions this year.
After 15 minutes – and with his rent and utilities bills paid for life – Sinek relents. His portfolio of other popular videos includes Why Leaders Eat Fast, 45 minutes of chippily-articulated horseshit based on his book of the same title. With characteristic benevolence, Sinek got a lackey to upload this video onto one of the social media platforms where, he previously stated: “Everybody sounds like they’ve got it all figured out.” Perhaps I have been living in Germany for too long – that’s ironic, right?
The above statement, made in the Millennials in the Workplace video, follows another illustration of why media coverage of Gen Y is dangerously ambiguous. “We’re good at showing everybody that life is amazing,” Sinek quips. “Even though I’m depressed.”
For the media to conduct hand-wringing analysis of a group of people whose birthdates happen to fall within the same fifteen-year span is, in my opinion, spurious. However, it can have very serious consequences. Since the dawn of time, young people have struggled to adapt to adult life. When the latest wave of young adults seek to understand their feelings, they will encounter despair instead of counsel: By being born between 1984 and 1995, they have been dealt a bad hand. They were subjected to failed parenting strategies. Their friendships are shallow. Employers cannot, and will not, provide the environment they need to thrive. Leaders will make them feel inadequate. When encountering stress, they will turn to addiction.
As pronouncements in the media frequently point out, school dropout rates are high among this wave of young adults. So are rates of depression and suicide. Armed with this data-based interpretation of Gen Y, commentators swallow their compassion and set about maximising their click-rates, website traffic and book sales. In today’s world, people of all generations lead isolated lives and increasingly understand the world through the lens of online media sources. Dehumanising and pejorative coverage of a vulnerable demographic group is irresponsible at best, if not malicious. Sinek and his ilk are old enough to know better.