The Millennials Are Generation Nice

“Suddenly, as you may have noticed, millennials are everywhere. Not that this group of people born after 1980 and before 2000 — a giant cohort now estimated to number at least 80 million Americans, more than the baby boom generation — was ever invisible. What’s changed is their status. Coddled and helicoptered, catered to by 24-hour TV cable networks, fussed over by marketers and college recruiters, dissected by psychologists, demographers and trend-spotters, the millennial generation has come fully into its own. The word “millennial,” whether as noun or adjective, has monopolized the nonstop cultural conversation, invariably freighted with zeitgeisty import.

This newspaper is no exception. A recent search of The New York Times database turned up no fewer than 122 mentions of “millennial” so far in 2014, on topics ranging from TV and pop music to travel and literature.

A random sampling:

1. “Fusion was created in October as both a cable network and a digital network aimed at a younger, so-called millennial audience and is committed to telling and delivering the news in ways that a young audience expects.”

2. “Lana Del Rey, the pouty, retro torch singer for the millennial generation. …”

3. “On the heels of hotels like Yotel and Aloft, a crop of new brands is designed for millennial travelers.

4. “Elyria is disengaged and depleted in a manner that put me in mind of the characters in the novels of Tao Lin, that Zen summoner of millennial ennui.”

Why this microscopic attention paid to a generation whose oldest members are only now entering the prime of their adult lives? One answer is that millennials, the first people to come of age in the 21st century, with its dizzying rate of technological change, have been forced to invent new ways of navigating it.

But first, what besides youth sets millennials apart from their elders — the wizened silent generation, the graying boomers, the midlife Gen-X’ers?

The usual answer seems to be “narcissism” — self-absorption indulged to comical extremes. We all can recite the evidence: the breathlessly updated Facebook profile, the cascade of selfies, the Kardashians.

Millennials know this litany, too. “People have been calling me a narcissist since I was 3,” says Hannah, the character Lena Dunham plays in “Girls,” her comedy of millennial manners. It’s a small joke on Hannah but a bigger one on the anxious, hovering adults who supplied the clucking soundtrack when she was growing up.

But a very different picture of millennials emerges from what may be the most illuminating literary project of our era, the Pew Research Center’s sequence of reports on millennials. The 2010 edition, subtitled “Confident. Connected. Open to Change,” offered an X-ray of its first wave, the “roughly 50 million millennials who currently span the ages of 18 to 29.”

What Pew found was not an entitled generation but a complex and introspective one — with a far higher proportion of nonwhites than its predecessors as well as a greater number of people raised by a single parent. Its members also have weathered many large public traumas: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, costly (and unresolved) wars, the Great Recession. Add to those the flood of images of Iraq and Katrina (and, for older millennials, Oklahoma City and Columbine) — episodes lived and relived, played and replayed, on TV and computer screens.

For a generation digitally wired from childhood, and reared on apocalyptic videos and computer-generated movie epics, not to mention the exploits of hackers, these events showed the real world to be as tightly networked, and for that reason as easily disrupted as the virtual one, even as the grown-ups in charge, the guardians of order, seemed overwhelmed and overmatched, always a step behind.

It is no surprise, as Pew reported, that the millennial generation is skeptical of institutions — political and religious — and prefers to improvise solutions to the challenges of the moment. It is one thing to own a smartphone, as so many of us do. It is quite another to have mastered its uses at age 10.

Thus, in a range of areas, millennials have not only caught up, but have jumped out in front.


In Their Own Words

CreditBon Duke for The New York Times

Consider the approach many take to the workplace. Thanks to the 2008 economic crash, millennials know how fleeting wealth can be. Their solution? For many, it is to acquire not more, but less.

“Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of millennials said they would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring,” the Brookings Institution recently noted in a report by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais titled “How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America.”

The generation that gave us Occupy Wall Street has embraced its own modes of entrepreneurship, found across the broad spectrum of “creatives,” from stylists to techies, who reject the presumed security of the corporate job and riskily pursue their own ventures, even if it means working out of their parents’ basement.

Consider millennial shopping habits. Even in the realm of fashion, many are indifferent to prestige brands and lavish ad campaigns, preferring to buy online or get “disposable” clothing at H & M or Zara, which boasts that its organically farmed cottons are “completely free of pesticides, chemicals and bleach.”

The do-goodish pitch is aimed squarely at millennials, who collectively favor companies that embrace the values of good citizenship. The Brookings report says millennials overwhelmingly “responded with increased trust (91 percent) and loyalty (89 percent), as well as a stronger likelihood to buy from those companies that supported solutions to specific social issues (89 percent).”

And consider food. The new generation may have had health-consciousness drilled into them at home or in school. But they have raised it to a new level. “For millennials, food isn’t just food. It’s community,” The Washington Post reported last year in an article on the Silver Diner chain, which has developed an up-to-the-minute locavore menu and “started actively catering to those on vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets.”

It was a shrewd calculation. An estimated 12 percent of millennials say they are “faithful vegetarians,” compared with 4 percent of Gen X’ers and 1 percent of baby boomers, according to one study.

Taken together, these habits and tastes look less like narcissism than communalism. And its highest value isn’t self-promotion, but its opposite, empathy — an open-minded and -hearted connection to others.

Exhibit A may be LeBron James, the N.B.A. superstar who in July announced that he would be going back to rust-belt Cleveland after four glamorous years in Miami, becoming, at age 29, one of America’s wealthiest boomerang children.

“Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids,” James explained in a statement on exuding millennial earnestness. “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

Four years ago, he meant, when he seemed the picture of self-importance, proclaiming on a live ESPN spectacle that he would “take my talents to South Beach.”


The generation that gave us Occupy Wall Street has embraced its own modes of entrepreneurship, found across the broad spectrum of ‘creatives,’ from stylists to techies. CreditBon Duke for The New York Times

But James didn’t develop his new vocabulary of civic obligation and social responsibility overnight. On the contrary, he was a model teammate in Miami, insistently deflecting praise to others. He also helped lead the campaign to hold the former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling accountable for racially charged blurtings when they became public last spring.

Tellingly, James reacted forcefully on Twitter. In common with other millennials, he has made social media, with its many opportunities for “oversharing” self-display, a means of communication that pushes outward, instead of turning inward.

And he is not alone. We all know about celebrity-stalking websites like Gawker and TMZ, and the harm they wantonly inflict. But the millennial Brandon Stanton, a 30-year-old former bond trader and self-taught camera portraitist, has created a counterexample in “Humans of New York,” his popular photo blog.

Combing streets and parks, Mr. Stanton takes pictures of ordinary people and interviews them about their lives. The resulting images and excerpts give dignity to what might otherwise be forgotten faces in the urban crowd. Published in book form, “Humans of New York” became a No. 1 best seller last fall.

A similar theme illuminates the writings of Leslie Jamison, a 31-year-old Yale graduate student who has emerged as an accomplished essayist in her acclaimed book “The Empathy Exams.” On the surface, Ms. Jamison’s confessional writings look like exhibitionism — including the title essay, which records her time as a “medical actor” enacting a script of symptoms for the benefit of medical students.

Yet she has been deluged with mail from grateful readers, who have poured forth their own, often harrowing experiences. “I found myself becoming an unwitting confessor to countless strangers,” Ms. Jamison wrote last month in The Guardian. “I started to feel like confession could be the opposite of solipsism.”

On book tour, Ms. Jamison clinched the bond. “Whenever someone asked me to sign her book, I would ask her to sign mine,” she wrote. “It was a way to create, for a moment, the kind of symmetry that felt impossible in the letters I received.”

Empathy was a theme sounded repeatedly by some of the millennials photographed for this article, and interviewed in an online slide show that accompanies it.

One said he hoped to succeed because “the better you’re doing, the more you can share with other people.” Another pointed out that while he was nursed on the traditional American dream — “this idea that if you worked hard and got good grades and did all the right stuff you would succeed” — he has developed a more pragmatic version of it suited to the economic realities of the 21st century.

“I know that as hard as I work — and I work very hard — I very well may fail. And it’s liberating to know that.” The key word is “liberating.” In the age of the start-up, of fortunes gained and lost overnight, of flawed ideas in need of continual debugging and re-tweaking, failure is the default outcome and also, at times, the ground zero of eventual triumph.

No wonder, then, that “millennials are the nation’s most dogged optimists,” as Pew reported in a new study this spring. “They believe their own best days are ahead.”

They, and we, can expect some less-than-best days, too. Cultural transformations are seldom cost-free. And they’re not always permanent. A new generation, as yet unnamed, is growing up in the world the millennials have made and may already be working on its own revision of the nation’s moral life.

Correction: August 24, 2014
An article last Sunday about the millennial generation’s civic-mindedness included several errors. Applications to the Peace Corps recently have been in decline, with a 34 percent decrease from the peak in 2009, and applications to Teach for America decreased slightly last year; neither organization has seen “record numbers of new college graduates” applying for jobs.Nor are there comprehensive statistics showing such an increase for AmeriCorps, a federal program partnering with thousands of organizations nationwide. Because of the program’s decentralized structure, some applications go to its member organizations; therefore, AmeriCorps says, it cannot account for all those applications.”


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