Millennials are socially cast as schizophrenic. One view of holds them to be ultra-perfectionists and super-achievers whose drive ruins their lives and those of others around them; the other version casts them as special snowflake narcissists who have been protected and shielded all their lives by helicopter parents to whom they cling with unhealthy attachment. Both visions, though, share blaming the parents and making ad hominem attacks on the Millennials for rejecting conventional behavior and wisdom.
Who are the stone throwers? Generation X. The exact dates for Generation X are rather hazy, but for the purposes of this discussion we should consider everyone born between the years 1965 and 1985 to be Gen Xers. The Baby Boomers, those born between 1942 and 1965 are the parents to both Generation X and Millennials.
According to academic and media coverage, Generation X introduced the concept of the “latchkey kid” as a cultural norm, and Xers were the most likely to grow up in a family split by divorce. In theory, these circumstances would have made them more independent than other generations, though the actual result appears to be that they are more peer-oriented than past or subsequent generations. Additionally, fewer of the Gen Xers attended university, and those who did married almost immediately upon graduation. Social and generational historian Neil Howe explained that the Gen Xers casually anticipated stability and were willing to accept limited prospects in exchange; they planned their entire lives on the assumption of that immutability. This mindset caused them to be particularly ill-prepared when the tech revolution arrived and was immediately followed by the 2008 crash and the evaporation of the sense of security they had enjoyed. As the Xers have entered middle-age, they have had a generational mid-life crisis. According to Howe’s explanation of the history of mid-life crises,
The Silent [those born in the sparsely-tracked period before 1942] experienced claustrophobia. Xers experience agoraphobia -- everything is possible.
Essentially, too much is possible; the world has opened, and they are overwhelmed. Adding that the Baby Boomers had admonished their Gen X offspring to “keep their options open,” Howe acknowledged that the Xers did just the opposite, shouldering financial commitments in the form of marriage and home ownership immediately after high school or college. The combination of changing job market, credentialing expectations, and social standards left Gen X branded as slackers who refused to take advantage of and adjust to the new world and the opportunities it proffered.
Conversely, Millennials listened to their Baby Boomer parents and followed their instructions on important matters. Then, too, the Boomer parents of Millennials tended to be very involved in the children’s lives, to the extent of earning the moniker “helicopter parents.” The number of divorces declined post-1980, before rising again as the Boomers hit their late 50s and early 60s. Although only 63% of Millennials came from fully intact families, the numbers suggest that Millennials may have been the result of second or third marriages which lasted until the children left home, thereby accounting for the sudden upswing in “grey” divorces since around 2005.
There is very little doubt that the Millennials reaped the benefits of greater parental maturity. The average age for a Baby Boomer first marriage was 21 for the woman and 23 for the man. This marriage lasting around 20 years, though anecdotal evidence suggests that the couple would split around the fifteen year mark, if not earlier, just as their Gen X child became a teenager. Given the Boomers’ established lack of parental involvement in Gen X’s childhood and their equally established “mama/papa bear” behavior during that of the Millennials, it is interesting to note that the two generations have different measurements for successful family life. Gen X prefers simple marital status as a metric, while the Millennials judge according to parental involvement, with the expectation that both parents be tremendously involved with the children regardless of marital situation. The older generation places the couple first, and the younger one favors the children as the center of the family.
The difference in familial situation between the two generations is included as a plot element in the television series How I Met Your Mother where the character of Barney Stinson, epitome of the latchkey child and constantly seeking validation, discovers that his father has a second family and is very involved in the lives of the younger, Millennial half-siblings. The show mocks Barney’s jealousy and sibling rivalry as being merely another sign of his emotional and psychological retardation and lack of self-esteem. The story arc, however, is a comment on the difference between the expectations of the two generations and their understandings of family.
Even more interesting is the fact that the Millennials have the lowest divorce rate since the end of World War II, even though more Millennials grew up with divorced parents than did Gen Xers. Generation X has a lower divorce rate than that of Baby Boomers, but it is higher than that of Millennials. Overall, one primary factor in the drop off is that Millennials are waiting to marry until they are older, have completed their educations, and are reasonably financially stable. This behavior contrasts with Gen X, whose marriage patterns were similar to those of the Boomers’ first marriages, i.e. becoming committed immediately after completing the highest level of intended education and often before being financially stable. The Millennials’ values, though, do reflect the probable circumstances they likely were born into as the younger children of older, more mature, more established Boomers. In this way, the generational behavior gap is not directly the parents’ fault, as the Boomers instructed Gen X to avoid their mistakes, but it does match what the parents did themselves, thereby indicating the presence of a template.
The other significant difference between Generation X and Millennials is education. Millennials are the most educated generation in history – currently Gen X still holds the trophy of “most educated” at 35% of the population holding undergraduate degrees, but since at least 40% of the millennial population is still in school or between advanced degrees they are expected to be crowned “most educated” within the next twenty years. The generational emphasis on education is shown in a Pew Research poll where male Millennial respondents indicated that educational attainment factored very much in their choice of a partner, with the expectation that the future spouse be very well educated. This statistic is particularly important in light of the 2014 study by researchers at Bowling Green State University which showed that the higher the educational achievement of a couple, the less likely they are to divorce - no one thinks this is caused by academic degrees; they are merely representative of increased maturity. Millennial educational attainment contrasts with Generation X’s pattern of only completing contemporaneous educational requirements, a trait that has left them under-qualified in the face of increased expectations.
Naturally, the ambitions of the Millennials have created some intergenerational conflict. A journalist for Quartz Media and a self-identified Gen Xer compared her generational achievement, or lack thereof, to the super-achiever Millennials in her circle and added the admonition, “Millennials, you’ve got to chill out!” Although amazed at the qualifications and accomplishments of her Millennial acquaintances, the journalist argued that they were negatives because they stemmed from parental pressure to achieve. Even as she marveled at Millennials and compared their résumés with her own at the same age, her dismissiveness is an indicator of her generation’s inability to rally.
The statistical portrait of millennials clearly indicates a generation that prizes attainment and achievement over more conventional metrics, such as home ownership, two cars, and 2.5 children. While Boomers might cluck and cite “avocado toast” as a reason millennials aren’t conforming to generational expectations, the truth is also that millenials learned from the Great Recession. There is no escaping the fact that Generation X was largely responsible for the housing bubble burst, even after factoring for federal meddling. As a side note, Gen X was the only group in history to move out of the parental home without pressing necessity; historically, young men and women only left home upon marriage or to pursue employment away from their home cities. Consequently, as The Atlantic reported, Gen Xers were also the ones most hurt by the effects of the recession as they lost their middle-income, medium-qualification jobs, which are not coming back, and since many of them thought the house was the savings account, they lost their savings and investments as well.
Watching as waves of economic disaster swamped the ships of older siblings and cousins, millennials learned that real estate is not always a safe investment vehicle, financial commitments shouldered too early are dangerous, and achieving only according to contemporary expectations is fatal; only personal success and professional laurels are lasting and can provide any type of security. The value of a McMansion may suddenly drop, but impressive educational credentials and résumé will still open doors because they represent skills, which are infinite, while real estate and pay cheques are finite. Millennials grasp the concept of sic transit gloria mundi and have worked to insure themselves against it.
Once a person understands that the Millennial mentality is a protective hedge against the problems that have beset Generation X, the reasoning process becomes clear. Two very common myths about Millennials, bandied by Gen Xers, is that they are not competitive. The exact foundation of this stereotype is unclear but it seems predicated on the fact that millennials are less inclined to find a single employer and remain there for forty years - a strategy that did not end well for Generation X - and have bad work ethics simply because they prize productivity over time spent, i.e. they would rather accomplish their assigned work and leave instead of puttering around the office for fixed eight hour day. Both of these notions are debunked by the statistics, which indicate that Millennials are more competitive and individualistic than Generation X and are superior employees to both the Baby Boomers and Gen X since they are better at time management and self-direction, therefore requiring fewer managerial resources and oversight. Essentially, the Millennials are the most efficient generation, but because they are less interested in placing their identity with a company, they are viewed as less competitive and less committed.
The financial journalist media has made much of the fact that millennials, “work to live,” while Generation Xers “live to work.” Forbes dedicated an article to the different goal preferences of the two generations, with Gen X desiring the “the corner office and the trappings of success,” while millennials preferred skill acquisition, autonomy, and flexibility, even if this means working on the weekends. INC magazine published an article on how Generation X believes the Millennials have squandered the work-life balance the Xers see themselves as having fought for, and they cannot understand Millennials’ preference for skills over vesting. What such judgements fail to account for is a single event that occurred just as Millennials came to consciousness and shaped all of their decisions: The collapse of investment banks as exemplified by Lehman Brothers. I cannot be the only Millennial who pored over the news pictures from diverse capitals of the men and women, not much older than myself and my friends, leaving banks’ offices loaded down with boxes, doing a walk of shame in front of media cameras, even though they had done nothing wrong personally. As the Great Recession continued, young Millennials read daily about the horrors experienced by Gen Xers whose homes were repossessed, whose families broke under the financial pressure, and who couldn’t find employment because they had few marketable skills. It was an effective lesson about the hollowness of careerism and the fallacy of the notion of the “forever job.”.
Consequently, millennials are self-reliant, love “side hustles,” and second careers, exactly because they allow for skill acquisition, especially those related to informal entrepreneurial endeavor. To be fair, some Gen Xers, usually those in the creative and artistic industries, also claim the title “Generation 1099,” i.e. freelance workers who file their taxes as self-employed independent contractors, rather than as corporate employees. For average Gen Xers, though, most of whom have focused single-mindedly on scaling the traditional corporate ladder, the Millennial thought and employment process looks like disinterest in “careerism” and lack of focus - Millennials want to do too many things; they are keeping their options too open. Yet, were another recession to hit, Millennials with their carefully-acquired and wide-ranging skills would likely continue to succeed while Gen Xers would find themselves reliving the Great Recession.
The scenario of another recession introduces the another aspect in which Millennials have learned from Gen X’s failures. When the 2008 crash occurred, Generation X, in addition to fueling the housing bubble, was also very deeply in credit card debt, exacerbating the credit bubble. According to recent reports, Gen Xers continue to be the worst money managers, having returned to miring themselves in credit card debt. Conversely, millennials have gone to the opposite extreme and eschewed debt to the extent that they have insufficient credit history and there is an entire industry, such as financial guru Ramit Sethi, dedicated to helping Millennials overcome their fear of credit cards, scores, and non-student debt. The Millennials learned from watching Generation X suffer the crash without a safety net and are loathe to let themselves make the same mistake.
When understood in context, millennials are not at all schizophrenic in their goals. Unlike Generation X, Millennials listened to their parents and learned from previous generations’ mistakes. Their decisions are calculated and intentional, although baffling to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.
For the Millennial, stability is a myth, a wonderful pipe dream that doesn’t fit reality. To live as if it does, with an expensive house, one career, one employer, and one skill set, is to invite disaster. The old adage, “many strings to one’s bow” could easily be the motto of the Millennial generation. The Millennial is focused upon anticipating future changes and avoiding the mistake of previous generations who merely sat by, becoming redundant. Generation X may be agoraphobic, but the Millennial is an agoraphile. As part of this ethos, the Millennial is willing to sacrifice stability, which he sees as a myth, for flexibility, skills, and unlimited horizons.