Lately, I have run across more and more articles bashing millennials. It’s the spigot that won’t stop, and why not, when the articles are just the type of fast-food philosophy to perform spectacularly well on the internet? Most recently, Elizabeth Wurtzel jumped on the (clearly very popular) anti-millennial bandwagon with a nonsensical tirade about the “lamest generation.” She’s wrong, as many other articles have been, and yet this completely asinine perception of millennials continues to take hold and find a receptive audience .
I can’t help but wonder why. Somehow these stories seem to find a following within a broad audience, including members of the much-maligned millennial generation itself. It took me a while, but I finally figured out why.
Imagine two worlds.
In the first world, outcomes are highly predictable. Hard work earns you success and financial security, and bad luck or bad decision-making skills are the only hindrance to your potential achievements. There is a sense, in this world, that success is determined by an individual’s behaviors and attributes — a natural state of comparative advantage towards different career paths and life choices. The most intellectually capable and hardest workers in our society lead productive careers, provided they make the right decisions. There are appropriate consequences for poor decision-making, and success is fleeting for those who do not continue to work hard or do not take an opportunity in front of them to achieve success.
In the second world, success is driven by chance, luck, and opportunism. It is a world built on a preexisting structure, wherein your place and circumstance is not entirely contingent, or even related, to your potential. Your hard work may or may not pay off with financial security, but with a little luck, you find success is attainable. The world lacks certainty, and there is no visibility into what career path or field of study will ensure the most stability, isn’t quickly saturated by others in direct competition, or is not erased by the rapidly changing economy and labor market. Generally, this world is much less predictable, and the ability to pursue success not only depends on your own personal endeavors, but also the circumstances you face every day.
Which world do you think you live in?
Those who have bought in to the notion that millennials are lazy or too coddled to have realistic dreams of success have fallen for the just world fallacy. In this mindset, a situation such as joblessness, addiction, or bankruptcy, has everything to do with poor decision-making or a lack of long-term planning. Those who fall victim to these hardships bear responsibility for getting into the situation in the first place and even think they deserve some of the blame — emphasis on deserve.
This thinking is not limited to millennials vs. boomers; any inequity if often justified this way by people in power. Such thinking is apparent from our political rhetoric down to our culture of victim-blaming. And in that mindset, older generations look at us and think that the reason millennials are struggling is because we refuse to work hard enough to achieve success — that we have made the wrong choices. Such thinking rationalizes a narrative that millennials are lazy and insinuates that the blame lies with us for our lack of success, instead of recognizing dramatic economic changes and structural barriers to it.
Boomers believe strongly in the first world, but millennials seem to have accepted the second world as reality. Tom Hawking gave a fantastic rebuttal to the depiction of millennials where he pointed out how overly simplistic it is to generalize an entire generation that happens to be the most diverse — ever — but he also rightly points out how ridiculous it is to malign millennials when we’ve borne the greatest burdens of the past decade.
Studies show millennial millionaires are crediting luck and inheritances for their success, more than any generation previously (and apparently there are a number of millennial investors with inheritances). Millennials are better savers and already thinking about retirement — way earlier than other generations. These behaviors are directly related to millennials acknowledging the chaos within the drivers of success — the lack of a guaranteed outcome — and responding accordingly. We are getting serious about paying down our debt, even at the expense of home ownership. These are smart decisions in the long term from the perspective of the second world and too risk-averse for the first.
This is not to say millennials believe there is no correlation between hard work and a positive outcome. The second world is still not one where everything is random, as outcomes can be amplified or altered by individual actions, reactions and decision-making. The thinking does help to explain why millennials place greater value in giving back and are looking towards jobs with better flexibility and more freelancing. It is a reflection of regaining control and determining our individual outcomes in a structural environment that limits certainty. In a world where security is not guaranteed, just being happy may seem more appealing.
The first world is a pervasive one in American culture. The second world is closer to reality and the one we each face, even if we don't want to admit it. You can make gambles, you can take chances, but there is absolutely zero guarantee of a similar outcome even given similar beginning circumstances. The boomer generation worked hard, found jobs, built lives and bought homes, all of which were just as endangered in the economic collapse as the dreams of millennials.
Millennials were raised (often by boomers) to assume that by going to school and working hard, we could achieve a degree, a job, or raise a family just as they did. We were always told this investment would pay off, and so we racked up huge debt, poured money into education, and continue to take on more debt for the chance at unpaid internships. These choices are already a sunk cost, and those millennials who share the pessimistic perspective on their own generation are doing so in a way that rationalizes their own challenges
The story of our generation doesn't have to belong to someone else; we've believed that hyperbole for way too long.