Do You Understand Millennials?


The New Yorker profiles Millennials in the December 4, 2017 edition by way of the book review. Jia Tolentino takes a look at Jean Twenge’s Generation Me, Senator Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult, and Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials.

Dr. Jean Twenge’s work has been featured here on this blog, and while Generation Me defines Millennials to help us to understand them, Sasse focuses on Millennial attitudes and potential political implications for American society, arguing Millennials have it too easy, are the lazy spawn of neglectful parents, and need to be instilled with a sound work ethic and high character for the sake of the country’s future. Tolentino notes both of these books represent a vastly different viewpoint on Millennials than that found in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 2000 book Millennials Rising, which was  upbeat concerning Millennials.

Writing as a Millennial, Talentino weighs these various assessments and offers her own, agreeing broadly with Jean Twenge’s description of her generation, though disagreeing slightly. Talentino states, “Lately, Millennial dreams tend less toward global fame and more toward affordable health insurance, but [Twenge] is correct that my cohort has grown up under the influence of novel and powerful incentives to focus on the self.”

Then, Talentino compares the challenges and aims of Millennials with those of other generations, stating:

“If for the Baby Boomers self-actualization was a conscious project, and if for Gen X—born in the sixties and seventies—it was a mandate to be undermined, then for Millennials it’s more like an atmospheric condition: inescapable, ordinary, and, perhaps, increasingly toxic. A generation has inherited a world without being able to live in it. How did that happen? And why do so many people insist on blaming them for it?”

By posing these questions, Talentino suggests Millennials are not at fault for what they are so often blamed for, whether it be narcissism, laziness, or other ills. Rather, Millennials are a product of the world they inherited. Maybe Millennials are perceived as they are due to social, environmental, and cultural factors. Maybe the lens is too narrow, and Millennials are misunderstood.

Talentino observes:

“The type of Millennial that much of the media flocks to—white, rich, thoughtlessly entitled—is largely unrepresentative of what is, in fact, a diverse and often downwardly mobile group. (Millennials are the first generation to have just a fifty-fifty chance of being financially better off than their parents.) Many Millennials grew up poor, went to crummy schools, and have been shuttled toward for-profit colleges and minimum-wage jobs, if not the prison system. (For-profit colleges, which disproportionately serve low-income students, account for roughly a tenth of undergraduates, and more than a third of student-loan defaults.) Average student debt has doubled just within this generation, surging from around eighteen thousand dollars at graduation for the class of 2003 to thirty-seven thousand for the class of 2016.”

Talentino concludes her article by offering thoughts from Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, showing how his viewpoint differs from that of Twenge and Sasse. She describes Harris as an advocate for revolt against the current political, economic, and educational systems. Considering the current polarization we see in society and culture, perhaps this is already occurring. Talentino notes the attraction among young people toward Bernie Sanders and his socialist political positions.

Social science and research help church leaders to understand and connect with Millennials. But as Talentino reminds us, not all commentators agree on why Millennials are the way that they are, or even what the best path forward may be. Careful reading and discernment, along with patient listening within local contexts, are needed if church leaders are to invite Millennials to hear the gospel and to live as disciples of Jesus.