Everywhere I go, especially on the internet, I hear about how “entitled” Millennials are. At the same time, I see a lot of refutations to this claim. It’s been pointed out numerous times that millennials are living in an era where the economy is pitiful, the prospects are dim and life is in many ways stacked against them. It’s also pointed out that millennials grew up without certain parenting attitudes that “build character” and “toughen” a person. They are called “soft” and “overly sensitive”, the ultimate insult being they “want everything handed to them”
I have had enough of this circular argument.
We cannot continue to denigrate the latest generation of adults with such vague, pointless and unmoored attacks. We also cannot continue to defend them against attacks by pointing a finger back at the older generations. It’s true that the millennial generation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but it must be acknowledged that the expectations they have aren’t traditional either. We must understand what it is that Millennials truly want before we can begin to discuss whether their wants are extraordinary or not.
What do they want? They want the same thing every generation has wanted: they want to live and flourish. But what is different is not the Millennials in general, it is the privileged Millennials that is different than generations before: they want the rest of society to live and flourish too. Their expectations aren’t just about themselves; they don’t believe anyone, privileged or not, should have to suffer just to survive.
Who can truly blame them for their desires? Even before the “free love” days of the 60s, the youth of our country has turned its attention to their fellow human and little by little changed how society runs. This did not happen overnight. It did not happen in a vacuum and it wasn’t done for any other reason than to rectify grave injustices in our culture’s past. The youth has always been capable of the kind of enthusiastic energy that begets true change. Indeed, it is very nearly a defining characteristic of social revolution that leaders are young, and full of fire. Without mundane things such as a day-job, children and age-related illness, it has always been the youth en masse who lead us into the future by their actions and their numbers. As a society, America has pushed ever outward to create an egalitarian, inclusive culture that does not discriminate; does not crush some groups in order to reward others. Over decades, every successive generation has “woken up” to some extent and declared, “I do not want these benefits if they come at the cost of someone else”
What have the older generations done with this growing movement through the decades? We have derided, denigrated and even punished them at every step. We have tried to tear down these social revolutions with our words, our labels and our fists and our laws. But we have always lost in the end. Because ultimately, society moves forward. It is not a logarithmic movement, it is not even exponential, but it is always a groundswell that reaches a breaking point for every new awareness of inequality.
There have always been those who do not join in the enthusiasm for remaking our society. There have always been and there always will be. Backlash is real and often dangerous. But where backlash has sometimes slowed progress through the weight of oppressive defensive tactics, progress eventually wins out. Because as society has grown, technology has brought people closer together with every generation. No longer do people live in villages, sharing space with strangers based on proximity alone. No longer do young people feel the familial obligation that binds them to the land of their upbringing. People know that their tribe is out there, it exists and all they must do is meet it, to finally feel at home.
So, it is that we come to an understanding of the millennial mindset. The young adults of today are called “entitled” and it is true. But “entitled” does not mean someone who is lazy and wants the world handed to them on silver platter. “Entitled” is someone who expects to reap the rewards promised them. In the case of previous generations, this has always meant achieving “the American dream” but the tacit understanding was that this was an entitlement of the privileged. The definition of that dream was different depending on who you were. Millennials are the generation that rejects that final nuance; the notion of equality only for the few. Millennials believe the bar of life should be set at a point not just for themselves but for everyone. How is “privilege” defined? Why is privilege only for certain subsets of specific groups? Why should that rule continue unchecked? The very existence of a privileged group exposes the existence of imbalance in our American dream. Millennials aren’t entitled because they want a good life, they believe a good life is something everyone is entitled to.
It is this imbalance that is the root of Millennial discontent. Not for themselves but for their world. For what is possibly the first time in American history, we have a whole generation that wants to encompass all who were born into it, not just some of them based on how they were born or what family they were born to. For the first time in American history, there is a generation that is willing to carve itself into subsets and groupings of its own choosing. Based on hobbies, fandoms, feelings, visions and declarations of dedication, Millennials separate themselves by what is important to them, not what previous generations tell them. For once, a generation comes along and self-defines. So naturally, this generation cannot sit by and accept a society based on artificial and unmoving mores. They choose who they are yet remain free to change at any time. They reject the previous generations’ chains of birthright. This is their true difference and why they feel so “entitled”. From their viewpoint, they are “entitled” to a world they were promised in books, movies and songs – a world that values cooperation, tolerance and strong will to succeed. Yet we have not arrived at that world and nobody knows that more than Millennials.
Most millennials grew up being told over and over that what mattered most was trying, giving it your all, believing in yourself, and hard work, and they came of age knowing that it was all lies. Today, in their adulthood, they see how different races, different religions, different body types and different genders are treated in our society. They see the reality of what they were raised with. So the word that describes millennials isn’t really “entitled”, it’s “disillusioned”.
It’s not about “participation trophies”, it’s about the idealized worlds we showed them again and again, hoping that they would forge a better path for everyone. But along the way, we forgot that the path was being overgrown by ominous forests of inequity and patrolled by intimidating wolves of economic despair. We wanted to nurture their fighting spirit, sense of fair play, and love of learning but we failed to create an environment that would keep those dreams alive and let them take over. We raised them to be ninja turtles but let the cities turn into sewers. We nudged them to swim but never gave them land to walk on, and all they can do now is tread water. Is it any wonder they are angry? Is it any wonder they refuse to participate in the culture we have brought them to?
The most important aspect of the millennial culture isn’t their disappointment or their bitterness at having been duped, it’s their steadfast refusal to give up and give in to the state of the world. Of course, they are angry and full of criticism: they inherited a quagmire of economic slavery, outrageous societal expectations and laws that whiplash with every change in the government. They were taught, by Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers that all they had to do was cooperate, put their minds to work and be ready to fight for truth and justice, and our society would happily hand them a perfect world. Yet none of this has come to pass. Yet still they fight.
What is a genuine wonder, is that they continue to fight at all. Millennials are so irritating and annoying precisely because of what we taught them; to keep fighting for truth, justice and “the American way”. They threaten us because we never realized that their fight would be against us. Their fight underscores our failure as a previous generation. This humble, cooperative, egalitarian world we kept pushing them towards didn’t happen during our time and we full well know it. We overpromised and now they fight us for it. They will not let us rest until we let them bear the fruit of their labors… even if that means pushing us out of relevance.
Millennials do have a “problem with entitlement”. It’s a problem we created and the only solution is to accept their discontent, acknowledge the inequities they point out, give them the tools they need to recreate our society, and stop grumbling while they change the world.