What Makes A Millennial In 2016?

With a race spanning almost comically from grandpa hippie Bernie Sanders to his character foil of big business rich guy Donald Trump, it’s inevitable that people are going to have ideological differences in the 2016 presidential election. But for me, lately, the fight between generations has felt less like political discourse and more like a tired, old man shaking a cane in his yard at a group of kids with oversized hoodies spray-painting “Youth Culture 4ever” on his home’s aluminum siding.  

I was born in June of 1991, which means I’m a cancer, a sheep, and a Millennial. I have checked out enough books at the library on the occult to have a comfortable footing in the first two, but the third always kind of stumps me, and it’s not because I don’t understand what it is — although plenty of people in prior generations claim to.

Let me demonstrate what I mean, as any good Millennial would, with a Google search. The term ‘Millennial’ yields more than a few choice picks, of which these are only three: “How Millennials (Almost) Killed the Wine Cork,” “What Are Millennials Really ‘Entitled’ To?” and last (but certainly not least), “Millennials Think Eating Cereal Is Way Too Difficult.”

And this kind of Millennial obsession isn’t just limited to the internet. One time, while I was buying my usual multi-pack of underwear at TJ Maxx, I listened to two women in line ahead of me discuss Millennials’ annoying political correctness. And working as a secretary, I’m privy to conversations among clients and coworkers about how young people are voting for Bernie Sanders because we want free stuff so badly that we’re willing to surrender our democratic government for a socialist regime. I even have friends — other Millennials — arguing amongst each other over whether our generation will be America’s saving grace or final nail in the coffin.

Because, of course, the attitude towards Millennials tends to be negative: we’re lazy, unappreciative, and overly-sensitive babies who don’t know anything about how the world is supposed to work. A few years ago, I might have tried the non-argument of “I’m not like other Millennials” with a list of reasons to prove my worth: my parents cut me off financially after college, I’ve worked since I was 16, and eating cereal doesn’t seem that hard to me. But what does being a Millennial even mean?

In 2010, Pew Research Center released their report on Millennials with a summary of their findings entitled “Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change,” a goosebump-y title with underwhelming findings. Pew paints a picture of a twenty-something with tattoos and a smartphone who is college-educated, slow to marry, and self-confident. I don’t check every box, but I see the similarities: Yep, I have an iPhone, and yep, I have tattoos. It’s a vague enough list that I can agree with a passive “sure.”

I always imagined the pioneers in generational studies began their work based on the idea that they could build bridges over generational gaps. So why do Millennials seem to receive a vague welcome at best and outright hostility at worst? Norman Ryder, renowned demographer and full-fledged Baby Boomer, thought the bad feelings were spun around a fear of change, or, as he put it, a “threat to stability.” But Ryder also argued that these punk kids (paraphrasing here) brought along with them the potential for deep societal changes. Without a challenge to the generation who came before them, our culture would remain stagnant.

And the societal change over the past decade or so is staggering. Take the Supreme Court’s decision last year to make gay marriage legal in Obergefell v. Hodges. The DREAM Act — which makes it possible for undocumented immigrants to gain residency — or the Affordable Care Act, which attempted to make healthcare affordable and attainable. Take the Occupy protests, which normalized discussions about the wealthiest “1 percent” until they became a regular in American vernacular, so much so that they’re the largest talking point for one of our current presidential hopefuls.

Most recently, the Democratic town hall in South Carolina held a discussion featuring Democratic candidates who spoke on institutionalized, racial violence in the police force. I’ve heard enough people in my day-to-day life reject the very concept of racist institutions as nonsensical, yet here are two presidential candidates who at least recognize it as influential enough to warrant discussion. It wasn’t perfect or particularly decisive, but the recognition felt like a relief.

And although the work doesn’t fall solely on their shoulders, the Millennial leaders of Black Lives Matter have been instrumental in this discussion and have personally met with these presidential candidates to express their movement’s needs. Their methods are very much a product of our generation. Not only is the impact of social media on social justice tangible, but technology brings voice to a lot of people who major news stations continue to tune out. We don’t live in the world our parents grew up in. We don’t even live in the same world that existed ten years ago — the change feels exponential and, honestly, sometimes overwhelming.

Still, this ushering in of the next generation doesn’t render irrelevance to the previous one. Like Ryder said, so much of this hostility comes from a threat to stability — that life as you know it now won’t be the same once the gates are knocked down and the kids become adults. These are the years when everyone I considered young stops being our future and starts to become our present. My friend who interned at NPR is now a producer, the kids I went to class with are now teachers, and my fellow student journalists are going on to write on all of the websites we bonded over reading.

Just like it’s unnerving to pass over control to the next generation, it’s unnerving to take it, too. The issues at hand aren’t simple enough to be solved in one, swift move with a presidential election, and it’s likely that they’ll continue on for many years to come. We’ve learned a lot for those who have come before us, and we still have a lot that needs improvement. But other Millennials haven’t brought me down, made me weak or lazy. In fact — and maybe this is totally delusional of me — I think they’re making me excited about what’s to come.
Hale Goetz is a 20-something suburbanite, candy connoisseur and sci-fi enthusiast. You can tweet her at @HaleGoetz.