Being a Millennial


The millennial generation is being described in an ever-increasing number of ways. Search Google News for "millennials" and you will undoubtedly find an article purporting to have discovered some basic truth about this mysterious generation. These articles make sweeping claims about what millennials want: careers that give them purpose, products that allow them to express their individuality, apps that make their lives more convenient, and organic fair trade coffee to remind everyone of how enlightened they are.

These descriptions of the millennial generation are based on 20th century thinking — a self-fulfilling prophecy that says a person's primary concern is their own self-interest. Once assumed true, this belief allows a person's behavior to be interpreted through a lens of individuality. It reduces millennials to consumers making choices in an economy that must simply adjust to a new generation's set of preferences. This completely misses the point.

The theorist and author Jeremy Rifkin describes empathy as a fundamentally social phenomenon that is based on our ability to relate to other people. The earliest human empathy was based on blood ties that didn't extend beyond our own tribe. Later, religion pushed our empathetic boundaries to include those who shared our belief system. Eventually the nation state emerged and we began to empathize on the basis of geographic borders.

Today, technology allows us to communicate instantly with people anywhere. The millennial generation is the first cohort of humans, out of 100 billion people who have lived and died on this planet, to be globally connected. By Rifkin's logic we have crossed a threshold into a new era — the final inevitable step in the evolution of human empathy. One in which we can relate to and thus empathize with people all over the world.

Millennials grew up knowing their clothing and devices were being made in sweat shops half a world away, that billions of people still live in poverty, that a person's chance of success in life is largely determined by factors outside their control, and that climate change threatens to fundamentally alter life on earth as we know it.

Whereas previous generations could live in relative ignorance of such global issues, millennials are reminded everyday of the failure of the world's institutions to address them. Politics, religion, patriarchy, and nationalism — while held sacred to many — are regarded by millenials as the culprit of the problems they are inheriting, not the solution.

Thus, Millennials make decisions on a completely different set of rules. These rules are poorly understood by the rest of society, leading to descriptions of our generation that fail to capture the heart of the matter.

Millennials don't buy electric cars to show everyone how cool they are. We buy electric cars because we want to live in a world where our everyday habits don't actively destroy our children's futures.

Millennials don't purchase products to express their individuality. We use creativity to reject a culture that treats us as consumers.

Millennials don't seek jobs that imbue their careers with a sense of purpose. We want to spend our lives solving real problems in the world.

Purpose and self-expression are not commodities that millennials seek to acquire. They are byproducts of a new value system, one that rejects the status quo.