I Googled ‘millennials’ and found out, through Wikipedia, that the term is a synonym for “Generation Y,” the generation that contains people born between the early 1980s to the early 2000s. The reason I decided to finally look it up was because I was pretty sure that I’m a millennial. Born, 1982. But I wanted to be sure.
The reason I was checking was because of all kinds of noise and panting I’ve been hearing, here at Patheos (see this, this, this, and this) and on social media, about what is and isn’t wrong with millennials these days.
I’ve also recently read reports reporting on a report posted on Yahoo!, reporting on a cluster of reports that seem to report about how much smarter atheists are when compared to religious people. I won’t link to it because I have no interest in reporting on it beyond the content of the previous sentence.
There is nothing spectacular about these constant studies and reports and articles finding all sorts of things about cancer and what food is really healthy for you and will make your skin smooth and how to lose weight in any number of ways and days and pills and natural organic fizzy drinks and phonies and all sorts of stupid or obvious things related to having amazing sex (Have you heard the latest nonsense about Catholics having better sex?) and cheap but very expensive self-help rewrapped in sleazy bacon, fried, then sprinkled with powered sugar philanthropy and zoo animals.
Nothing new here.
But I must admit that the millennials talk bothered me. I couldn’t just ignore it or make fun of it. It made me itch.
In 2007 I gave a talk at my home school district, Brady Independent School District (in Brady, Texas) about some half-baked nonsense that I don’t recall very well anymore. Before I was introduced by the superintendent, I sat through a presentation based on powerpoint slides, showing the rankings of BISD through a variety of metrics. Of most concern were the demographics: low SES — “social economic status” — minorities, most of whom were (and still are) Mexican-Americans. The numbers were compared to the regional, state, and national averages and my skin started to crawl and sweat.
I knew what they were talking about and why it was important, but there I sat, a guy in his early to mid twenties, of Mexican heritage, experienced in all the shameful revelries of being eligible for free school lunches. I didn’t know whether I should feel pretty good about myself, in a cheap and filthy sort of way, or feel bad, like an awkward elephant in the room, the rare exception, interrupting the statistics and figures. “Hey, look at me, a poor-ass Mexican about to get a Ph.D! Ain’t that some shit? Shall I dance for you? May I have an award, please? How can I help you reach those poor, wretchedly-brown folk like me who are pulling your stats down?”
I felt embarrassed and insecure and angry inside.
(I have a lot more to say about quantitative studies, and social science more generally, by the way. If you’re interested, you can read some of it here, in an article I recently published.)
I see “generations” as arbitrarily reliable organizational tools for converting platitudes that would otherwise be stupid into claims that seem to be informed and intelligent. Add a list or some categories and you’ll really shine. Appeals to generations in order to do social critique always strikes me as being problematically indirect at best, and mindlessly uninteresting at worst.
Or, more generously, when a certain event coincides with a certain duration of time, generations emerge as emblematic of that era, symbolic of some aspect of history or nostalgia or romance. There is a place for generational talk when doing historical narrative, but this sort of stuff often gets very messy and shatters the walls dividing one generation here and another one over there.
However you want to see it, when generations are being invoked, one would do well to take it all very cautiously.
The details within the opinions about millennials that have been flying around have a lot to do with the devotional habits of people born after 1980 — as if that could be neatly summarized into some sort of universal claim, with insight into future implications for, I presume, “Generation Z” — and beyond.
They seem to boil down to a fear that, regardless of who is to blame, these damn millennials are just not going to church like they should be. Who is to blame? Them or us? On and on.
Wait. You mean to tell me that the older people are speculating on why the younger people are not doing what they should be doing? Yes. That is what seems to be happening. Shocking isn’t it? And now the younger guy is telling the older folks to shut up and leave him alone. Amazing. Earth-shattering. Alert the planets.
Look, maybe we’re just running out of material, and this is a reliable go-to act, but I am absolutely flummoxed as to how anyone, of any age, could take this any more seriously than another magazine at the grocery store offering three exclusive, secret tips on how to please your man.
Generational alarmism is nothing more than generational alarmism.
In my little hometown of Brady, a town I only lived in for five years but still call my home, religious sentiment seems to have grown exponentially amongst my peers. And, sadly, if Facebook is any indication, it lends some credence to the Yahoo! report on reports. Some of my most vulgar, cruel, and profane high school classmates, who often made fun of my religious upbringing and family, seem to have found religion — the kind that goes well with memes that try to guilt you into “liking” them to verify that you really love Jesus or want to go to heaven and Joel Osteen quotations and alike. Alarmism might be in order, but I doubt it has much to do with Boomers, Gen Xers, or Millennials.
As a bonafide Millennial — according to the always-infallible Wikipedia — speaking on behalf of no one else but me: leave me alone. If you have beef or questions with someone, or a whole group of people, or even a sneaking suspicion of something that is happening more broadly, then go ahead and just say it and give your reasons without playing the generational platitudes game.
I doubt this will disabuse anyone, myself included, of returning to the generational tool box from time to time, but at least I’ve had my say about all this stuff about millennials.