You've no doubt heard the tropes about millennials: they're destructive and self-absorbed; they're lazy; and, worst of all, they're ruining our economy by refusing to buy homes (or even napkins) and preferring to share cars instead of owning them.
A nice narrative, but almost certainly false (and itself pretty lazy). What's more likely, writes Laura Marsh for the New Republic, is that young people are actually locked out of a lot of these choices. So where do these ideas about millennials come from? Laura talks to Bob about the two popular historians who are responsible for the myths about how young people are living, and why the media love those myths so much.
“We Are Young” by Fun.
BOB GARFIELD: And it's no coincidence, of course, that the supposedly coddled students that demand trigger warnings and safe spaces also happen to be - you guessed it – millennials. If you don't know one personally, you've certainly heard of their kind. They’re irreligious and worship only the meme. Whatever their parents embraced as fundamental to a stable lifestyle, they reject. They have no respect for what previous generations have built. They’re Snapchatting themselves stupid, embracing the sharing economy so much that the Fortune 500 are doomed and – they go to an artisanal dentist. Anyway, so the media would have us believe.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Forget buying a TV, car, or even a house. millennials would rather spend money on touring Southeast Asia, going skydiving or rocking out at music festivals, then showing off what they’re up to in pictures.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: So many millennials, they just don't buy the idea of going to a bank and doing all the paperwork and dealing with a teller. They’ve been “Uberized.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Cereal sales could be in jeopardy because millennials don't like to wash dishes.
BOB GARFIELD: Laura Marsh is a story editor at The New Republic and her recent piece, “The Myth of the Millennial as Cultural Rebel” challenges the stereotypes. Laura, welcome back to OTM.
LAURA MARSH: Hi.
BOB GARFIELD: So I listed some of the myths surrounding millennials. What's on your top three?
LAURA MARSH: That millennials are killing the housing market, millennials are killing car ownership and that millennials are killing the napkin industry.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] The napkin industry?
LAURA MARSH: In March, there was an article by Business Insider, with the headline, “Millennials are Killing the Napkin Industry.” It reports that sales of napkins are down but sales of paper towels remain the same, and that's because millennials find it too much work to buy paper napkins and that they have this laid-back lifestyle and they would rather buy paper towels.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the coinage of millennials, where did that come from?
LAURA MARSH: The term “millennials” was coined by two kind of pop historians called Neil Howe and William Strauss. In 1987, they had preschool-aged children who they realized would turn 18 in the year 2000, so that's where they got the name from. And right around then, they started walking out a theory of what millennials would be like, what kinds of character traits they would have and, from that, the kind of world that they believed this generation would build.
BOB GARFIELD: They were making their postulation based on what?
LAURA MARSH: So I’m a millennial and I wasn't even born in 1987. Their ideas about this came from a much bigger theory, which is best described as a wacky theory, about generational flux. So they believed that there were four types of generations and that they repeat in a pattern, the same pattern over and over again throughout history. There are prophets, nomads, artists and heroes. Their generation, the boomer generation, was a generation of prophets and they believed that millennials, this generation they were looking forward to, would be a generation of heroes.
I think what I object to is the idea that each generation has a kind of destiny. That’s the idea that seeps into a lot of commentary about millennials, that we’re hardwired to share and we don’t like commitment and that we’re coddled in some way and that we've always been that way.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's just stipulate, for the purposes of this conversation, that napkin usage and other attributes associated with the millennial generation are just so much baloney.
Is there anything dangerous about this kind of glibness in our thinking and writing?
LAURA MARSH: Yes, definitely, I think especially when we’re talking about really important aspects of life, like work, housing, family. We can’t accept the narrative that people are choosing not to join these institutions because they don’t like them when there isn’t evidence for that, because these are things that need political solutions. If people can't buy houses and they’re saddled with very high debts and they have to keep moving all the time, you can dismiss that by saying, oh well, these young people like to move around and they don't want to own a home and they think that's just, you know, for the older generation. But you can also engage with it as a real problem and see it as something that is drawing more young people to candidates like Bernie Sanders who want to see more equality. I think that young people actually really want to see these problems addressed through our political system.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it possible that what, if anything, makes millennials different is that not just their technology but their circumstances are radically different from some of the generations that preceded them, in the sense that upward mobility is no longer a given? Is that the nub of the situation?
LAURA MARSH: I do actually think it's that young people, at the moment, are the first generation in American history to have lower living standards than their parents, and they look at establishment politics and think, there's nothing for me here. They can’t buy a house, they can't buy a car, they can’t really afford to have kids. Home ownership, for instance, is at its lowest since 1968 right now, and that's largely because young people can't get into the housing market.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s not like, ugh, I’m off of owning my own car. It’s like, I really can’t even begin to think about a car payment.
LAURA MARSH: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: I’m still in my parents’ basement.
LAURA MARSH: Right. And I think that especially car use is a very interesting example of the intersection of technology offering people some kind of alternative. You can rent a car by the hour, using various car-sharing services, and you might feel that that is actually a really great thing that you want to celebrate and that it connects with values that you have. Does that make you actually not want to buy a car? No, that probably just dovetails with the fact that you can't buy a car and this is a good solution.
But I think what we see in reporting is the fact that people love car-sharing so much that they don’t want to buy a car. And I think that's a mischaracterization of this historically unique economic reality that young people find themselves in.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there something particularly about the millennials that lends itself to generalization and stereotype and these very broad, sweeping conclusions?
LAURA MARSH: Every generation gets bashed. Every time there’s a new generation, the older generation has something disappointed to say. So I would like to invite boomers to start bashing us for the clothes we wear and the music we’re listening to. I think that would be much more appropriate.
BOB GARFIELD: Laura, thank you very much.
LAURA MARSH: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Laura Marsh is a story editor at The New Republic and author of the recent piece, “The Myth of the Millennial as Cultural Rebel.”
[FUN SINGING ”WE ARE YOUNG”/UP & UNDER]:
We are young
So let’s set the world on fire
We can burn brighter than the sun
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the music of your life, if you live in a swing state.