A lament for the Millennials

Storming victory … a shot by Sony world photography awards L'Iris d'Or winner Mitch Dobrowner.

Photo credit: Mitch Dobrowner

The world Millennials inherited from their baby boomer parents is big on self-actualisation. You get to choose your identity in 21st century Britain.

This freedom is paralysing. When there’s a hundred paths to choose from it’s harder to find your way. And when you’ve made your choice you don’t always feel satisfied.

That is the millennial’s paradox.

No previous generation has been presented with so many choices.

No previous generation has had such elevated expectations.

No previous generation has lived through an internet age redefining work and social interaction.

There are many contributing factors.

Individualism won 

Millennials (18-30s) are the children of Thatcher and Blair. They were brought up being told how special they were by parents and advertisers. The drip-drip reinforcement of “this is your moment” “ready when you are” have it your way” “you’re worth it” has led some to claim we are facing a narcissism epidemic.

Collective identities embraced by previous generations – left/right binaries for example – don’t feel right. Paul Mason talks about how politics is more about the network (occupy, single issue campaigning) than the hierarchy (membership of a political party). Party politics feels compromised in an era where you support a mixed bag of issues based on your individual identity – not your class identity.

Graduating into the no pay economy

Remember the “milk round”? The idea that graduates were a prized asset, short on supply & courted by employers seems absurd in 2015. We are in the age of internships and the “no pay economy”. People who grew up being told they could be anything living in a society with decreasing social mobility.

Oversupply has led to academic inflation: a degree secured me a job. The typical graduate I interview has a Masters & a portfolio of relevant work experience. Broken career trajectories are common. I’ll leave the commentary on house prices & pension provision to others. ‘Enjoy the now’ is a rational response.

Living in an era of mass surveillance  

Private mistakes are public in the era of the smartphone: I would argue this changes adolescence. Young people are self-censoring their behaviour as they don’t want to be made foolish in retrospect. Statistics show youthful indiscretion peaked a few years back (undoubtedly caused by a range of factors, but still). Who knows how we’ll look back on our social media age. An experiment in mass surveillance about which we’re curiously relaxed?

An onus on appearance

Social media means you’re always ‘on show.’ This makes people far more aware of their appearance.

This influence is gendered.

Millennials live in a world which offers fewer roles for men. Knowledge economy jobs have replaced traditional roles. For a subsection of our society, hyper masculinity is the response. Lost boys reasserting their identity. Walk down a high street on a Friday night in Bangor, Durham or Gloucester and you’re hemmed in by a uniform individuality of bronzed-biceps and diamond-shaped backs.

A lot has been written about female beauty expectations, their origins & pernicious influence. 1 in 9 British women are on antidepressants right now. Whilst this is multi-factorial I’d argue it’s related.

Technology separates as much as it brings together

When a teenager wanted to ask someone out 20 years ago they phoned a landline, then spoke to a parent who passed over the phone. There were two lots of small talk to get through. It was character building.

This is all rather quaint in a Snapchat-WhatsApp world. Romance is mediated now, emboldened. There’s anecdotal evidence phone calls are avoided in lieu of texting: “Phone calls suck and they give me anxiety” – just about sums it up.

A two-dimensional, controlled, asynchronous conversation is easier, less nuanced and more controllable. It’s not a good training ground for real life in all its unpredictability. It’s also not conducive to kindness, as people forget “the text bubble on their phone is a real person.” Consent workshops organised for Freshers at our universities in 2015 are emblematic of what’s changed.

The web can make things too easy 

You can download a musical taste in a minute. You can have a new wardrobe delivered to go with it the same day. The same tasks would have taken weeks in ’95, and months, years even in ’75.

This matters. Psychologist Robert Bjork’s concept of desirable difficulty is an interesting analogy:

“…when teachers try to facilitate learning by making it as easy as possible, this may increase the immediately observable short-term performance, but it decreases the more important long-term retention. In short, we often seek to eliminate difficulties in learning to our own detriment.”

Ease can rob you of motivation, make you listless. The pain of the search adds to the pleasure of the reward.

So what?

Economic, political, technological, social and psychological factors are combing to create a historically unique time to become an adult. It isn’t all bad. But we should acknowledge the challenges.

About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Consumer Psychology, Demographic change, Social Media, Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A lament for the Millennials

  1. Simon Shaw says:

    YouGov research examining what makes a happy life, comparing young people to their parents:

  2. Pingback: A Lament for the Millennials (2): UK house prices vs. average student debt upon graduation 2000-2015 | changing my mind

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