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Article – No More Talk About Millennials


No More Talk about Millennials

I am beginning to despair over the constant flood of articles about the millennial generation.  It is becoming almost as bad as the never ending contributions on the theme of ‘disruption’ in business (and how to be disruptive).  However,  I have commented on disruption before, and further comments on that can wait for another rant!  So, to return to my theme, I wonder how much more we will be forced to read that ‘explains’ the millennial generation and why it is different from ours?

Let me explain my view of this.  Research on the environment in which people grow up, and its impact on their behaviour and even the way they think, is both interesting and provocative.  There is evidence that technologies play a key role in this.  Television was one striking example:  we began to look for entertainment indoors, passively watching the screen, rather than playing with friends outside, or even battling other family members over the Monopoly board.  Another technology that had its impact was the Gameboy and Nintendo:  it spawned an army of solo game players, glued to the tiny screen, obsessing over Pokémon and Super Mario.  Now it is the turn of digital technologies, and especially the smartphone:  I am sure you have seen a group of young people at a railway station or airport, each busily photographing, posting and messaging, apparently oblivious to one another.  As the cartoon recently put it, when showing a family of people each looking at their own various device screens: ‘we are all together watching television, but we are not all watching television together’.

At one level, commentary on this is journalistic and shallow.  There is the enduring image, fostered by the mass media, of the lone teenager, locked in a darkened room, computer on, playing violent games and leering at pornography.  Socially isolated, unable to communicate effectively with others, a scary image indeed.  It is a nonsense.  There are some isolated individuals, of course, and there always have been.  Most young people seem as gregarious as any previous generation, and have the added benefit that the new technologies allow them to keep in touch with friends at any time of the day; if anything, they are more connected than previously, seamlessly moving between face to face contact, FaceTime, and instant messaging (let alone the added delights of Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.).  Just look at a teenager’s tweets and Tumblr postings, and you will know far more about him or her than your parents are likely have known about you.  Above all, you are likely to be impressed by how much he or she keeps in touch with others.

Some would argue that new technologies have more important consequences.  There is no doubt that usage of social media of one kind or another suggests that younger people have a less pressing concern over their privacy – at least for now.  Others, like Susan Greenfield, are worried that the technologies of the digital world will take away from our focus on logical, step by step analysis (the logic of the printed page); she questions whether we are simply seeing other intelligences given more space to be exercised, or if we may actually lose some key skills.  The jury is out on that issue, and we are unlikely to know the answer for some time.

All this may appear to support the view that the millennial generation, growing up in a digital world, really is different.  I want to argue why I don’t agree.

First, to talk about the generation as if it was uniform in some way is a dangerous simplification of reality.  Young people actually grow up in very diverse environments.  Some have all the devices of the digital world.  Some do not.  Some still read a lot.  Some do not.  Some still follow their favourite television programs.  Some do not.  Some play online games solo or in teams.  Some do not.  Some are out on the sports field as often as they can be.  Some are not.  The variety of experiences far outweighs the conclusion that the world of the young is systematically different.  I suspect it will be some time before the digital world is taken for granted by everyone in the same way that is true of television today:  what impact an embedded and pervasive digital world might have is hard to assess right now.  More to the point, I think it is unwise to characterise the young by the (often not well understood) behaviour of the affluent among them.  Instead of complaining that the young are not like us and try to characterise this strange new breed as living in a digital universe, it is better to accept that we all differ in small and larger ways, and it is diversity that is more characteristic than similarity.

Having said that, now I want to argue that the younger generation may exhibit an aspect of difference from previous generations in at least one important respect.  Families are shrinking, and many couples today have only one child, two at the most; some have none.  We are seeing a generation growing up that has a much larger proportion of only children in it, and less come from much larger families of four, five or even more children.  Does that matter?  Research on birth order suggests that it does, and that single children often differ in important ways.  We may be seeing a generation with a significant number of people who have been spoilt, who feel entitled, and who expect to be listened to.  This may be a change than does have behavioural consequences.  Rather than the technologies of the day, understanding changes in family size and upbringing might give us a better insight into the character of a significant part of the upcoming generation, but even then only part.

Can we ban the phrase ‘the millennial generation’, and escape from this stereotyping and emphasis on difference?  I hope so.  The younger generation today is diverse, complex, and enjoys playing with the gadgets and devices available today, just as we were absorbed by television, Atari consoles, or the Walkman.  They are young, and we have no idea as to how values and behaviours will change as they get older.  There may be more single children among them, and they may well develop skills that we had little chance to exercise.  Whatever trends we may observe, we can be sure individual differences will always be much greater than any subtle overall shifts in character and understanding.  Above all, they are more like us when we were the same age than they are different, and so it always is.  Perhaps they will be worried about the next generation as they grow older, and fall into the same trap of labelling them as different.

Rant over.

November 2014

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