Over the weekend, the New York Times gave America the latest entry in the tired genre of freaking out about millennials with a piece titled, "What Happens When Millennials Run the Workplace?" It was a wonderful example of the genre, with an entire age group defined in broad generalizations based on anecdotes from a single workplace.
But there's just one problem: Millennials don't exist.
Obviously, young people who fit in the common definition of millennials do, indeed, exist. But as comedian Adam Conover, who dispels myths in his show Adam Ruins Everything, pointed out in a recent talk at a marketing conference, "the entire idea of 'generations' is unscientific, condescending, and stupid."
Specifically, Conover took on the common image of millennials — one that the Times perpetuated in its recent piece — as an entitled, narcissistic generation. He pointed to a Time magazine cover from 2013 that described millennials as "lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents."
This is a stereotype as old as time: Even as the world steadily improves, there are always older people ready to complain about the younger generation. Here is Greek economist Hesiod, who lived nearly 2,800 years ago, describing younger generations in a way that might sound very familiar: "They only care about frivolous things. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly … impatient of restraint."
"This could have been in that damn Time magazine article about millennials," Conover pointed out. "This just goes to show that old people have been saying, 'When I was a boy,' since there were boys."
In fact, this has been present time and time again in the US. Conover pointed to a few examples of media characterizing younger generations, including Life magazine's 1968 story that claimed "the phrase 'to make a living' could have absolutely no meaning" to baby boomers, and a Time magazine cover in 1990 that characterized generation X as "Laid back, late blooming, or just lost?"
Life magazine's 1968 story claimed "the phrase 'to make a living' could have absolutely no meaning to" baby boomers
There's no truth to this stereotype. Conover cited one statistic to drive this home for millennials: 61 percent of graduating college seniors in 2014 had an internship or co-op experience, and nearly half of internships were unpaid. Conover asked, "Can you guys imagine a previous generation that willing to work for free?"
More broadly, the idea that people actually fit into neat definitions of generations is ridiculous. Generations are typically based on arbitrary years: Generally, millennials are people born between 1980 and 1999, generation X was born between 1960 and 1979, baby boomers were born between 1940 and 1959, the silent generation was born between 1920 and 1939, and the greatest generation was born between 1900 and 1919.
"This is an artificial way to divide it up," Conover said. "There are boomers whose kids are also boomers. And there are millennials who have kids who are millennials." But he added, "If you look at the demographics, here's what really exists: people."
The point of dividing people into groups should be to explain something that's unique about them. But more often than not, generations put a tremendous, diverse group of people into a broad category that doesn't explain much. That's especially true for millennials, the most racially diverse generation in US history.
In its media usage, "Millennial" just seems to be a synonym for "elite educated white 20somethings from relatively affluent backgrounds."— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) March 19, 2016
"You can't treat them as a monolith," Conover said. "Almost any statement made about millennials as a group other than how diverse they are is going to be false by virtue of how diverse they are. Right? All they are is young."
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Correction: A Time magazine article was mislabeled as from 1960; it was from 1990.