I was born in 1978. This technically, arguably, makes me a part of Generation X.
I never identified with being part of GenX; I always thought of them as the slightly older kids, the ones who costumed themselves in Seattle heroin chic and worshiped Kurt Cobain and Jeneane Garofalo and so forth. I did call myself Generation Y in my early 20s because I thought that was what followed X, but according to The Atlantic, Generation Y is not a thing.
I didn’t fit in with the GenX kids (or anyone else), and being gay, etc., etc. in the 1990s, I didn’t have many friends…so I took very quickly to the Internet, and have been umbilically tethered to it since about 1996, the year I graduated from high school. I didn’t even know how to type, but I figured it out when I realized there was a world of open minds I could chat with on the World Wide Web via mIRC, and then CompuServe forums, and then AOL chat rooms, and then Gay.com, etc., etc. So in a certain way–the digital way–I’m kind of one of the world’s oldest Millennials.
But in most ways I’m nothing at all like a Millennial, and this morning I ended up in a back-and-forth on Twitter with someone born during the Millennial bracket years who angrily, insistently was telling The Atlantic, and then me, that there’s no such thing as Millennials, and grouping people together that way is just perpetuating stereotypes.
Someone’s going to rip my head off for saying this, but that’s a totally Millennial reaction.
I came into the adult working world around age 20, and I come from a working-class background and paid my way through college. I was so grateful for any job that could sustain me through my years at community and then a four-year state college. My boss never told me this, but I always assumed the arrangement was, “we pay you money, and in return you do the work we tell you to do.” Funnily, my peers had this same understanding…they went to work and did what they were told.
By my mid-20s, I was working full time, enrolled in grad school, and managing revolving cohorts of interns. This period was such a strange transition for me because I still felt like a young post-graduate, but I also felt so much older in some ways than the interns I was managing, some of whom were only a few years my junior.
I used to be a very passive person, but I did clash with some of these younger people–not just one or two, but a pretty good percentage–often over the same few things:
- I would ask a (Millennial) intern to do something, and he or she would choose whether or not to do it. If s/he chose not to do it, I would say, “this is what you are here to do,” and the (Millennial) intern would nonchalantly offer what s/he knew to be a better use of his/her time.
- After the above happened, and I insisted that the work I asked the intern to do was important, even if it seemed “menial,” the intern would, usually, act completely baffled. Completely baffled. This was the weirdest part of the experience–there were so many disconnects between my version of you-go-to-work-to-work and these people’s you-go-to-work-to-do-the-work-you-like-to-do.
- At this time, I was working with peers, and most of us were in our mid- to late-20s. This was a small nonprofit organization; we worked as a team. We read each others’ work, offered criticisms, etc. No big deal; collaboration for a better end result. As a stark, and for me really confusing, contrast, on multiple occasions when I edited (my job was editor) work drafted by (English and communications) interns and gave it back, they…cried. They cried. And then we spent 10 or 20 minutes communicating–they had done their best, they would assure me. OK, I would say, I know that; that’s good. This is just feedback. Nothing is perfect; you’re an intern, you’re learning. I couldn’t make any sense of it. I wondered how these kids were getting through college–and especially an English program–without being able to accept both objective and subjective comments. No one else in my whole life had ever reacted that way, but now it was a pattern with younger people.
A couple years later, I saw a television segment on “Millennials,” which introduced many of the best-known stereotypes: spoiled, coddled, technological prowess practically encoded into their DNA, overly sensitive, entitled, needing praise always.
I’m sorry to say that my experience at times–and I’ve discussed this very much with many others, both older and younger than I am–that these characteristics often apply as a set to Millennials, and almost never as a set to older people, especially in the workplace.
More recently, as Millennials have entered the workforce full time, I’ve had experiences with a variety of people of the generation, and–yes–I have to say that there are some pronounced generational differences–some negative, yes (in my opinion), some very positive, and some that I still can’t quite make any sense of.
Five examples from real life:
A began working with me two years after having graduated from college. He was eager, very sharp, clearly always had been an overachiever. He had a high spirit that was contagious and brought a lot of light into the office. And he was ambitious–very ambitious. From the start, when given a project, he turned it around in near-record time, and with few mistakes. He was a strong writer and a strong analytical thinker. So strong, in fact–as he saw it, anyway–he was never wrong. Now, I imagine the person with whom I was tweeting this morning would say “there’s always someone who thinks he’s always right.” That’s true–there is. But when this person, and other Millennials I’ve worked with, was told to consider options, the result was a blank stare and absolute confusion. He had a plan, and he was going to implement that plan. On one occasion, his boss said, “no, implement this plan.” A implemented his own–as proof that his was a better plan. And he truly did not understand why this was not satisfactory…it was simple: his idea was the better way to do it, and so his boss should appreciate the value he adds. All of us got used to this attitude and learned to circumvent it. Within a year, A had decided that he had earned a far more important position and that he would no longer do small jobs that needed to be done, whether it was moving boxes or stuffing envelopes. He’d say yes, and then he would do the work that he regarded as important. He made meetings outside of the office, registered for conferences; when his boss told him he had to be in the office to do work, he went anyway. The highly intelligent A was accepted to graduate school at an Ivy and left to implement his better ideas. Standout characteristics of this Millennial: book smart, social, analytical, personally (very) invested in his work, ambitious with a great feeling of entitlement. I’ve discussed this with many people who know him and all agree: his parents, teachers, and everyone else in his youth had to have told him he is meant to lead the free world, because he’s sure of it. The world can use a few people like that…but a whole generation…
B took A’s place. B was into CrossFit. She was sharp and quick, just like A. Highly intelligent. Determined and ambitious. B had the luxury of working on a single, focused (but very intensive) project rather than being spread thinly as many of her colleagues were. She sent a draft to me, on my deadline, while I was on vacation. I edited all 50 pages intensively it that day and sent it back with the message, “I gave up my weekend for you!” I thought for a moment, she’ll get that that’s a joke, right? Knowing that I had liberally–very liberally–complemented her work throughout the 50 page document (way better writing quality than I’ve ever seen from a Baby Boomer in my life–I’m sorry, Boomers!), I figured she would. And all was well. She revised the report, I sent it to the graphic designers for layout. When it came back, I sent it to her, walked into her office, and found her crying. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I’ve never seen my work look like…something real before,” she said. “A real publication.” I thought that was sweet. Because the report was important, I wanted to put a lot into promoting it, and so I called a meeting. Then I was told the release date had moved back and I asked my boss if he knew which date was correct–the original, or the new one I had heard about from someone else. So I wait in the conference room for B, and she finally showed up five minutes late. She put her phone down and left. She came back with a salad, slammed it down, stared at me, and burst into tears. She went to her office, closed the door and didn’t come out until I left the conference room. What had happened? My boss had, in passing, said to B, “keep him [me] up to date on any changes to the timeline.” She took this comment as an assault from me, a threat to her job, and she told me (btw I was higher ranking and had many, many years on her two months on the job) that I had no right to tell my boss that information. And then she told me that “you always send these passive-aggressive emails and expect me to do something about things I can’t control.” The passive aggressive emails are the note mentioned above, and another saying “your work is important and valuable, and we really need to get the group together to come up with a real promotional strategy–we need to be better at communicating.” She had been carrying a grudge for weeks about the vacation remark–not meant to be harsh at all, but I can understand that interpretation–but the other one was baffling to me. I was trying to help her. “In my opinion,” she said, “as the communications guy, it’s your job to get meetings together, not mine.” Let’s move on from the interpersonal stuff. Her first round of revisions on the report was over three hundred individual edits for the graphic designer to make. Too many–an insane number. Then, she told me, she was still collecting data and that she’ll have to rewrite and add sections. Then she had over three hundred more revisions. I told her this is too much; a document should be as close to final as possible when it goes into design. She heard this as a personal assault, and she told me that one of the reasons there are so many edits is that the designer did not make every single edit she sent over, and so they are poor designers and very frustrating to work with. Standout characteristics of this Millennial: book smart, analytical, personally (very) invested in her work, ambitious with a great sense of entitlement, no sense of appropriate professional behaviors, and not only unable to accept responsibility, but incapable of understanding that she makes errors–as we all do. She gladly accepted all praise, and even the smallest criticism or correction was a deeply, deeply personal attack that resulted in crying.
C had a very different job that essentially amounted to database upkeep and customer service-type work. She was laid back and didn’t come across as ambitious at all; in fact, I would have pegged her for a Generation X slacker had I not known her age. But a Generation X slacker is OK with being a slacker; C was a slacker, but she still wanted praise. Unlike A, she would stuff envelopes for mailings, but the entire time, she would say (out loud), “I have a master’s degree, I have a master’s degree…” And then she would tell everyone she knew that she was too highly educated to be doing menial office work–but she, entirely opposite of A and B–was totally uninvested in her work. Standout characteristics of this Millennial: book smart, great sense of entitlement, and not only unable to accept responsibility, but incapable of understanding that she makes errors–as we all do. At the same time, for those looking for exceptions to generational stereotypes, C was an exception in many ways.
D presented herself professionally, was extraordinarily articulate, and she revealed herself to have an incredible analytical mind: in about a month’s time, she had, though tinkering, figured out all the ins and outs of a database that no one else really ever mastered. And that wasn’t her job; she just did it as a personal challenge. She was different: ambitious, but ambitious to save the world–her job was her job, and her passions were social justice and living a healthy, spiritual (new age-style) life. She welcomed criticism and wanted to discuss it; she was always interested in growing personally and professionally. One thing about her that I’ve found typical of many Millennials–and have discussed with many, as well as with many Baby Boomers–is that her view of the world was that it should be entirely inclusive–everyone should have equal opportunities, and something that should really make Millennials want to claim the moniker is that they are the first generation that is (not entirely, but in part) finally making headway in integrating people of different colors, sexual orientations, etc. It’s a wonderful, amazing thing. At the same time, for older people, it can be maddening at times because the flip side of the all-inclusiveness outlook is that just about anything and everything that is said, implied, or sneezed, can be interpreted as racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-religious, anti-atheist, etc., etc. Millennials have a tendency to correct wrongs–wrongs that they perceive–immediately and with great command. I respect that. I so respect it. But I’ve also seen many cases in which Millennials have completely misinterpreted something–often, ironically, a cultural or regional difference–and condemn it. Some Millennials seem to be in favor of actually eliminating certain words from the vocabulary so as not to offend; I always tell them to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 again and really think about that. It may or may not make a difference that she was home schooled. Standout characteristics of this Millennial: book smart, analytical, passionate about social change. Less of a sense of entitlement than most–she was truly grateful for everything that was offered to her.
E, finally, was the intern who most surprised me many years ago. She came into the office with the energy of a Gummi Bear, ready to take on any task and all tasks. No entitlement; just “I want to work and learn!” It was charming until it was overwhelming and all-consuming. She would complete every task, small or large, and then bring it back and want to have it reviewed and then discuss it immediately. She literally shook; she wanted the critique. After a little while, we all had to explain to her that we also have our own work and we really look forward to her work and are thankful for it, but are not always immediately available for a thorough review and discussion. She was disappointed, but didn’t wallow. Instead, she did more–she took it upon herself to organize things, etc. (She may have had obsessive compulsive disorder, in retrospect.) And then once, my colleagues and I were trying to figure out how to involve a celebrity–call him AC–in a project. We had contacted his managers, agents, etc. and were on indefinite hold. While I was speaking with my boss, E came rushing in and said, “hey, you guys want to ask AC to host the show, right?” My boss and I said yes. E said, “OK, I have him on hold. Can you talk to him now?” Afterward, we asked how in the world she managed to get AC on the phone. Her answer: “I called him.” I saw her on the street one day not long ago; she works for a top PR agency. Standout characteristics of this Millennial: passionate about EVERYTHING, eager to please, self-focused and impatient, needing of praise and approval, and unusually resourceful.
All this written, let me remind you that I am, since there is no such thing as Generation Y, technically Generation X. So what are the qualities attributed to Generation X?
According to the APA, GenXers are skeptical, self-reliant, risk-taking, and balance life with work. This is careful language: these qualities could also be stated as “cynical, isolationists, and unambitious.” If we’re talking about me…all true.
Millennials get a bad rap in the media oftentimes, and so it’s understandable why so many are so quick to attack the generational label. No stereotypes are universally applicable. All stereotypes are based on some truth. And all truth is subjective.
From a GenXer’s cynical perspective, the boundless energy of Millennials–their passions, their eagerness to change everything and to make their mark is hard to relate to. It’s not because we’ve lived through tougher times–Millennials had the door slammed in their faces when they graduated from college and needed jobs; they were children when 9/11 changed us all. Millennials at once grew up incredibly sheltered and overprotected, and in a very challenging, tough, and dangerous world. So it’s not as if Generation Xers have more to be cynical about; it’s just that we grew up with that attitude, and we have a different world view. So when you put a hopeful person who is eager to have every breath she breathes change the world in the room with someone who thinks humanity has doomed itself by not taking care of its own environment, you end up with some compatibility issues.
I work best alone. I can work well in teams. But I am most comfortable on my own–not surprising for a writer, editor, and artist–and what that also means is, leave me the hell alone and trust me to do my job. That’s the GenX attitude. We do not suffer micromanagement well; we require that we are given the space to do the work we were hired for. When we have questions, we’ll ask. Millennials, on the other hand, do (from a GenX perspective) have a great tendency toward groupthink, and toward needing a lot of feedback. A lot. Otherwise, (I’ve been told by various Millennial-aged people) they get lost without direction, or they feel as if their work isn’t meaningful and isn’t being appreciated in the absence of lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of feedback. And yet, they don’t want to be micromanaged; they all want to co-manage. It’s just a very different way of being, again, that raises criticism from older people because it’s so greatly different.
And then there’s the ambition thing. Most of the people my age who I know…we have personal ambitions. And many of us work for nonprofits and like our work to be meaningful. But to us, work is not life, and a line needs to be drawn. Remember from the beginning, we’re getting paid for our time here, and when we’re not, it’s our time. Everyone today is on call with virtual leashes that tether us to our jobs. GenXers, already grumpy, resent it…but why? Because we remember a time when only doctors were on call. We actually lived in a world in which people went to work and then they came home, and they weren’t always working at home. Millennials grew up in a world in which everything is virtual, and space and time are much less well defined. From my little case studies above, I can promise you A’s heart skips a beat every time he gets an email or text from work because he freaking loves his work so so so so so so so much; it’s actually his life’s passion. Me, I want to paint and write and rest so that I can recover from Lyme–I give me all at work, but I won’t give my whole life to my job, whereas the ideal for many millennials seems to be that they are seeking that dream job that is worth giving their whole lives to.
Some of the stereotypes are true. I accept my Generation X stereotypes, with exceptions. Millennials are the youngest generation in the workforce and haven’t yet been exposed, as I was in my mid-20s, and as every generation is, to a whole wave of human beings who think and behave entirely differently than they do. It will happen. The differences are exaggerated to a certain extent, but it’s because everyone is thinking about generations from their own perspectives. In some ways, each generation is radically different. That’s just the way it is.
For what it’s worth, I interviewed an expert (he’s a Baby Boomer) on generations last year who summed up each generation this way:
Traditionalists (1925-45): The Great Generation. They made the country what it is.
Baby Boomers (1946-60): They messed up everything the Great Generation made great.
Generation X (1961-80): Hard working, independent, made for middle management
Millennials (1981-?): The most selfish generation, the most selfless generation, and the next generation of great leaders that will revive the country.