How would you describe yourself?

Is the millennial generation “discontinuously different” than the generation before it? Are changes in technology and culture shaping a generation that is unlike any that have come before.

David Kinnaman explores this question in Chapter 2 of You Lost Me, the book my dad and I are reading together on young Christians walking away from faith. Last week I talked a bit about the split I believe exists within the millennials. Dad then continued the dialog (sorry Dad, I refuse to call it a blogversation 🙂 ) with a post about three distinguishing characteristics of the mosaic\millennial generation: access, alienation, and skepticism of authority. I think Dad correctly assesses that alienation and skepticism are characteristics that have been present in at least his generation and mine (and probably the Gen X’ers as well). Access, or the ubiquity of technology is the thing that may uniquely characterize our generation, and even my perception of a split within millennials.

But how do millennials describe themselves?

According to a 2010 Pew Research study cited in You Lost Me the five things millennials use to describe what’s unique about their generation are the following:

  1. Technology use
  2. Music/Pop Culture
  3. Liberal/tolerant
  4. Smarter
  5. Clothes

Previous generations use terms like work ethic and morals to describe themselves, respectful is also popular. And pretty much every generation believes it is smarter than the last.

I can’t argue with point 1 (Technology Use), sitting in front of the TV listening to music on my headphones while typing on my netbook with my Kindle open beside me. At least the beagle curled at my feet is analog and not digital. I think the toughest question our generation will face is how we raise our children with technology, but that’s the subject for a future post.

Point 2 (Music/Pop Culture) kind of makes me wonder when the question was asked. Are you telling me that boomers of the 60s and 70s didn’t describe themselves as having unique music and pop culture? I have a feeling that if you ask any 20 something what defines them, music is going to make the list. But if you ask each generation in the same year, but different times of life, this answer might change.

Point 3 (Liberal/Tolerant) is again born of the legacy of the civil rights movement. We all tend to be more liberal when we’re younger and that’s where the millennial generation is right now. Many of us, even Christians, see the issues of gay marriage and same sex rights playing out in our culture as the next logical step of the civil rights movement begun in the 60s. We don’t have the same reaction to war that our parents did, at least not to the same extent, but many of us feel as strongly about what happened during the war in Iraq as our parents did about Vietnam. Perhaps as we grow older we will grow more settled, more conservative, less radical and more traditional, as our parents did. This doesn’t seem quite so “discontinuously different” to me. It’s not conservative, but it is morality and values, just a different set of them.

Point 4 (Smarter). Millennials are smarter. Of course we are. Get used to it. Every teenager is born knowing everything there is to know about life, and their parents have nothing to teach them from their decades of experience. It’s just useless to even try. Hopefully members of the previous generation have at least the rudimentary intelligence to realize I’m being a bit sarcastic here. The human brain hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. We just get better at storing information and making it available. That doesn’t make us inherently smarter. Pluck a child from the 10th century and plop him into the 21st and assuming he doesn’t die from shock, he’d learn to adapt pretty quickly. Get over yourself.

Point 5 (Clothes). Those who know me well know I have nothing to contribute to this question. I do not care about clothes. I am not a man who is defined by my clothes. Nor do I particularly think from what little I’m able to observe that our generation has contributed anything particularly unique to clothing, except for maybe wearing less of them. Taken more broadly I might classify this as consumerism which defines Americans as a culture, not just a generation. I don’t think millennials are the first to do this, and we aren’t going to be the last. (Yes, Dad my house is full of books and media because we went to Half Price Books all the time as a kid, that one’s on you 🙂 ).

This may be how we describe ourselves now, but in 20 years we might have a different set of words. Maybe we’ll be less honest with the question, most likely our view of ourselves will have changed over time. We’ll have a better understanding for our relationship with the world and each other, and how technology shaped us long term. And maybe we’ll see what we have in common with the generations that have come before, and the ones that follow us.

How would you describe your generation? Does that describe you?


Filed under Faith + Life, Trube On Tech

5 responses to “How would you describe yourself?

  1. Great post, Ben–even apart from the digs! I appreciate the perceptiveness that other generations may also have thought themselves unique with regard to music, liberal/progressive stances, and that we knew more than our parents. We certainly thought this way as well! Frankly, I think that whatever music is playing during our “coming of age” with all the intensity of feeling (and hormones?) is the music that we think “the greatest ever”. There is probably some brain science connected with this! Maybe the lesson for every rising generation is to realize that the other generations were young once, and that those memories are there and if, given a chance, can be a place for fruitful connection.

    With regard to clothes, the generation that thought paisley and huge bell-bottom slacks cool cannot point any fingers!

    • James Paternoster

      Thanks for the post, Ben! That’s a good description of the change in attitudes as we grow older.

      Taking on responsibilities of various sorts (a house, a spouse, a child) typically changes our view of the world a great deal. Criticism of how others handle the levers of social responsibility will sometimes give way once we’ve had to try handling them ourselves and discovered how difficult it is. It’s easy to think societal problems can be fixed by passing a bill in some legislature until you’ve tried it.

      I would add that your dad’s generation of Christians (of which I’m a part, though on the younger end) was distinctively taken up with cultural critique as a way of being Christian — think of the ways you’ve heard the word “prophetic” thrown around. I remember, when we were expecting our first child, a shift happening in my mind and heart: cultural critique would not suffice to bring up a child; culture formation, with all its risks and trade-offs, was needed. And my wife and I, who had grown up in quite different cultures , would have to make whatever we did work and accept the consequences, consequences our child(ren) would bear most keenly. That’s a sobering moment when it comes.

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