There is a war raging on the internet. That war centres around a rather stupid question: are millennials to blame for everything or are boomers? Typical of every internet debate, it is a debate which often lacks nuance; while there are informed pieces on both sides, most of the content amounts to blaming millennials for all the problems in the economy or blaming boomers for the problematic economy as a whole. Generation gaps are a natural part of human life, but why does this one seem so large?

Full disclosure

By some definitions, I am a millennial. I was born in 1981, just inside the widest definition of the millennial generation. It’s a label I heartily reject and I want to take a moment to explain why. All but one of my first cousins are older than me, though our parents’ age range from pre-boomers to early boomers. The majority of my cousins are part of Generation X by birth. Their oldest children are also considered millennials by the broadest definition of the term and I have nothing in common with my cousins once removed:

  • I grew up without a computer and without the internet. My family got a home computer when I was in junior high school. I was a tween when BBS was still a thing. I had access to modern computers at school only because I went to a special school. (Other kids my age barely had any access to computers until high school and those computers were old and shitty.) My young cousins once removed have had home computers their whole lives.
  • My father bought our family’s first VCR, for thousands of dollars, just before I was born. We had that VCR for decades and didn’t get a DVD player until I was in University. I’m not sure my young cousins once removed have used VCRs. So I asked a cousin if he remembered VCRs. He said he did, but he had one when he was quite young and it was because his family didn’t want to splurge on a DVD player.
  • Most of my friends didn’t have cell (mobile) phones in university. Seriously. It wasn’t until I went on exchange in Australia in my third year that I saw that cell phones were a thing in the rest of the world. My stepmother had a (gigantic) cell phone when I was very young, my dad had a “car phone” for most of my teens, and cell phone usage was becoming commonplace in other countries even when I was in university, but I didn’t grow up with phones everywhere. My young cousins once removed have had phones everywhere around them since they were kids and smartphones for their teen years.

The list of differences between them and I is very long and I won’t belabour it. The short version is that we grew up in different technological times. The idea of a 20- or 25-year “generation” has been rendered obsolete by the rapid progress of technology. I don’t think “millennial” is a useful designation if it’s both for people who were in their tweens in the early ’90s and people in their tweens at the turn of the century. Though the age gap is a blip in the grand scheme of things, the technological gap is massive.

I bring this up merely to note that, though I am a millennial in the eyes of some, I have nothing in common with millennials. Hopefully, that makes me more objective about this battle online.

Ageism and the Generation Gap

It is one of the commonalities of history that the old don’t understand the young and the young don’t understand the old. (Also, the young think their generation is either the greatest or the last, but that’s another story.) The acceleration of technology is only reinforcing this age-old disconnect.  Differences between old and young in pre-industrial times could be chalked up to a difference in life experience and changing fashions and fads. But now there are such drastic differences in the technological tools at hand for young people that it’s harder than ever to for the older generations to relate to relate top the young. My grandfather grew up in a house without a phone. If I had a child, that child would be growing up in a house which, if I so desired, could have a fridge which orders its own groceries and a digital assistant that does seemingly everything I could possibly think of. The difference is about 100 years. (100 years is literally nothing in the history of the human species, so this technological acceleration is not something the species has never experienced before.)

So there is a really sensible explanation as to why old people think millennials are killing everything and why millennials think old people ruined the world: old people are used to things that are being replaced (“disrupted!!!”) by new technologies, millennials can’t have some of the things their parents and grandparents had (as easily or at all).

The Generation Gap and Change

As you grow up, you get used to things being a certain way. For most of human history, things did not change much during a lifetime. It’s not just because a lifetime was shorter than it is now, but rather that technological and social change wer very, very slow compared to today. Until the Industrial Revolution, most changes did not happen over the course of one generation. Here’s a rather weird example.

For nearly 1,000 years, the music of Europe was relatively similar; there were little innovations here and there, particularly in how instruments were built, but a listener in 550 and a listener in 1250 would have heard relatively similar music in church. The Renaissance drastically modernized music in a variety of ways but, as a genre, Renaissance music dominated for approximately 200 years. Someone alive in 1450 and someone alive in 1550 would have been listening to relatively similar music. The Baroque era took music to new levels of complexity unimaginable to listeners of Medieval music or even Renaissance music. But a listener in 1620 would have heard relatively similar music to someone listening in 1720. (Though in this case musical technology and complexity were improving at an increasingly rapid pace, albeit a pace we would not recognize as rapid.) The Classical Era was the shortest period yet – roughly 90 years, but still longer than the average lifespan of any one person. Someone alive at the beginning of the Classical Era would likely not be alive at the end of it, so all drastic change they may have known, if they were born early or late enough, is the change from Baroque to Classical or from Classical to Romantic, not both; their life experience would have contained one musical innovation, if it contained any. The Romantic Era lasted longer than the Classical period, though at the tail end of the Romantic new forms of music had emerged but, again, longer than one person’s lifespan. Throughout the history of Western Art Music (i.e. “Classical Music”), prior to the 20th century, any one person alive would have at most experienced one drastic change in music, if they experienced one at all. (We are talking about the upper class, of course. Most people were not aware of any of this.) To people who did not live through those changes, it must have seemed as if the music of their lifetime was the way music was always played. (There were not the kinds of revivals of old styles that there are now.) So if you lived when Haydn was alive and popular, you likely assumed that this is all that music ever was and could be. This state of affairs you would tacitly assume to be just and right, not merely normal.

All that changed when the Classical Music tradition fractured into many different pieces at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the numerous disruptions of tradition by modernity. Suddenly, everyone who was aware of Classical Music could recall a time when music was different and many of those people thought it was a time when music was better. (The same thing happened with Jazz in the 1960s, as anyone who has suffered through the last episode of Ken Burns’ Jazz can tell you. The same thing happened with pop rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s but most of those people who were upset about that have fortunately been forgotten. The same thing has likely happened with Hip Hop though I can’t tell you about that.)

The old have always viewed the young as foolish and naive and overly emotional, but once the Classical Music tradition fractured the old could view the young as different, as wrong, as morally culpable for the terrible atonal and poly-tonal music that was now being inflicted upon them. There was a now a cycle of new music appearing every generation – or even quicker – and appalling the older generation. We see it multiple times within Jazz. We see it with rock and roll – the Beatles “killed rock and roll” after all. We see it with Punk. I’m sure we see it with Hip Hop.

The same thing that happened with music has happened with technology, but it isn’t just one generation technology is splitting up. Rather, it’s every generation as there’s new technology all the time. Moreover, as I implied at the beginning when I declared that I am not a millennial though I fall within the broadest definition, it is breaking generations into smaller mini-generations. Our old ideas of what a generation is are now irrelevant because our technological circumstances change so much. Instead of thinking about generations in terms of when they happen in time, we should think about them in terms of the technology the generation grew up with: the cable TV generation (that’s me!), the first generation to grow up with personal computers (that’s also sort of me), the first generation to grow up with the internet, the first generation to grow up with smartphones, the first generation to grow up with Uber, etc.

There is now a major difference in circumstances between people born even a decade apart. That means the difference between those born decades apart is far greater than it ever used to be. And so, the natural disposition for the old to view the young as foolish and irrational and naive is reinforced by so many new things, just as it was with new music, only in so many more ways (social media, phone apps, etc.).

The Generation Gap and the Just World

The natural inclination to view the changing world as unfamiliar and weird, and to view the desires of the young as irrational is in part a function of the Just World Fallacy. The Just World Fallacy is the belief that the world is a Just and Fair place. The vast majority of us, if not all of us, believe in it to some extent.  In aging, it expresses itself as the belief that the way things were when I was young are the way they ought to be forever. Things were better in my childhood not because I was a child with fewer responsibilities, but because the world was a better – a more just, a more fair – place. Atonal music or smartphones disrupt this as does the idea that millennials are spending money on avocado toast – as a proxy for life experiences – rather than saving for home ownership or whatever it is you think they should be doing.

But it’s not just the old who are to blame here. The young also fall victim to the just world fallacy in their belief that previous generations wrecked the world. The flip side of the belief that the world is a Just or Fair place is that, when we encounter obvious proof that it is not actually Just or Fair, we must blame someone for the unfairness we see in the world. In this case, it’s the older generations who have wrecked what was once a Just World. In the millennial vs boomer debate, the boomers have mismanaged the economy, preventing home ownership from being accessible by turning their economy into one which is only concerned with shareholder profits and nothing else.

The way millennials choose to spend money is not some kind of indictment of an entire generation. For one thing, statistical trends do not do an accurate job of representing individual values, obviously. But, more importantly, who are you to tell people how to spend their money? The old are always trying to tell the young what to do and this is no different.

On the other hand, millennials are living at the best time to be alive in the history of the world. The boomers didn’t ruin the world, the world isn’t ruined. Yes, the wealth gap could be a lot better but that’s a way better problem to have than a life expectancy of 35 years.

The Past is Always Better

We subconsciously or semi-consciously believe the world is fair but we obviously have tons of evidence – our life experience plus all sorts of data – that demonstrates the world is not in any way fair. Our brain reconciles this in part through victim-blaming but another way in which our brain reconciles reality with this false belief is in the view that the world was once fair but has somehow been corrupted and made unfair by whichever bogeyman a person wants to blame. For those who lionize the past, change is the bogeyman that has made the world unfair or less fair than it was in their childhoods. And whatever they are convinced is driving that change – immigration, globalization, socialists, feminists, civil rights reforms, Social Justice Warriors, even millennials – are responsible for causing the world to be less fair or unfair, and are causing all our problems.

Millennials don’t appear to behave or think like their parents and grandparents – even their older cousins – for any number of reasons, particularly rapid technological change, and so it is extremely easy to blame millennials for the problems in the world, or specific problems in specific industries. Millennials don’t know how to behave because the world is changing but by not knowing how to behave they are further driving that change and making things worse. (Yes, it doesn’t really make sense when you think about it. It’s circular logic. But human beings are very good at circular logic.)

The victim-blaming aspect of the Just World Fallacy also comes into play here: when millennials complain about injustice in the world, older generations dismiss them as snowflakes because millennials were coddled by their parents and don’t know how to be adults. So it’s not the fault of the boomers and gen x that millennials cannot afford houses; its millennials’ inability to save and spend money properly, or to care about the “right” things.

The Old Ruined the World, We’ll Fix It

The other side of the coin is the idea that previous generations – the previous generation, in particular – ruined the world, but us idealistic young people are going to fix it, all of it. Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with idealism to a point, and it’s a good thing that young people want to change the world for the better. The fallacious part is rooted in the reasoning that the world was better at some point in the past, but it isn’t now, because Old People. Not only does the Just World Fallacy convince us that the world is fair, but it convinces us that if we perceive the world is unfair, that we can remake it back into a fair world. Both of these things are totally wrong. In part due to 24-hour news and the way news is shared on the internet, millennials are mostly convinced their world is going to shit. With the very notable exception of Climate Change, it most certainly is not. It’s actually the best time to be alive in human history, for the most part, but millennials think its awful in part because they think their aunts and uncles are racist and in part because they can’t buy houses as their parents could.

Then there’s the idea that previous generations have been irredeemably bad. While bemoaning how awful the world is today, millennials look into the past and think “how could you?” about so many things their parents’ or grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ generations “did.” (I put quotes around “did” because generations don’t do things; they are not individual people.) Again, with the notable exception of Climate Change, this is not a very fair portrait of people who used to exist. The world has indeed improved but judging the people of the past based on the standards of the present is inherently unfair and essentially ludicrous. Millennials who believe their generation is morally superior because it’s their generation, are extremely deluded. People don’t change, only circumstances change.

So, basically, what this stupid debate comes down to is that both groups are totally wrong: millennials are not destroying the economy and boomers didn’t destroy the world. Articles about either are misleading at best and, at worst, contribute to baseless stereotypes. Both of these stereotypes are just manifestations of the same cognitive bias expressed in different ways, which is kind of amusing if you think about it. (Imagine a group of 20 somethings and a group of retired people yelling at each other for destroying the world, but they’re mad for the exact same reasons – at least I think this is funny.) All the rest of us can do is stop sharing these stupid pieces and, instead, share more nuanced pieces about actual problems, based on actual research.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem with Millennials

  1. As I’ve said, you’ve gone way too easy on boomers. Ruined the world may be strong, but ruining isn’t it.

    We’re still dealing with the continued failure of Reganomics. We’ve had to deal with business continually working hard to make.a buck at the expense of the future. Life Expectancy is starting to decline, wealth rapidly expanding. This is all traceable back to the policy decisions of the boomers. They’ve greatly accelerated us towards these issues.

    1. I agree that we’re still dealing with the failure of supply-side economics (and, unfortunately, still dealing with governments who seem to think it works) but that, to me, is not just a legacy of the boomers. Yes, some boomers championed it and many voted for it, but other people did too. I think anyone might have in the stagflation climate that helped kill Keynesian (temporarily, I guess). I do think most of them fail to see that they had a role in this problem, and that is a problem.

      As to the life expectancy, I’ve heard the same thing about the US, but I haven’t seen much data, and I don’t know that this is happening anywhere outside of the US (or too many places outside the US). Moreover, unless I’m mistaken, we’re really far off from dropping back down to, say, pre-boomer levels, in terms of life-expectancy.

      The wealth gap is a huge problem. My understanding is that gaps like this are only ever resolved by violent conflict. The past doesn’t determine the future but I’m not sure I trust our current representative democratic systems of government to figure out the problem before that happens. I think I might trust those in Canada and Europe to partially mitigate it, but not the US government.

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