Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Talking 'Bout My Generation

By Eric Hanna, S.J.


I've been hearing a lot of talk about “millenials” lately. There are many criticisms of the generation, but very few genuine attempts to outline the resources and insights that have emerged from the millenial perspective. It is the Ignatian model always to view others with an eye towards what good is already present in them and nurturing that good before worrying too much about criticizing error.

Time magazine has defined the millenial generation as those born from about 1980-2000. Basically, it contains those who grew up in the context of the internet. I was born in 1984 and was at the cusp of the phenomenon. I am quite able to critique some of the excesses of the past few decades. But since few people are looking for the positives, I will put my focus there. I will examine two popular criticisms of the millenials and reply by examining the potential for good in each situation. The two criticisms are: screen-time and selfishness.

First, screen-time. Mistrust of a medium is inevitable. From film to television people were certain that the new technology would ruin the generation that grew up with it. Both media have problems but they also feature brilliant contributions to culture. The internet and its accompanying handheld devices are no exception. Millenials spend immense amounts of time on screens. The argument is that the medium has reduced the general depth of people's understanding. Millenials take in data in myriad tiny portions, often disorganized and grammatically incoherent. This would indeed by awful if it ended there. But millenials also have an unprecedented skill for gathering and interpreting data. They collect information from many sources, assemble it and make connections. They are comfortable performing this task as a community or a team. We no longer search for a definitive text on some topic. Rather, we skim the sum of expertises and opinions and gather what is relevant to our interest. While this may lack depth, the process is fast and forces readers and writers to make relevant points quickly and effectively. It also allows those taking the data in to rapidly make connections across various, diverse fields.

There is still a great need for millenials to develop depth and coherence in the way they manage information. But the medium of the internet presents many opportunities for millenials to develop a facility for using information effectively. Millenials will never use a 10-page report when a list of three essential points would suffice.

The second criticism of millenials is that they are self-absorbed. People broadcast the minutia of their existence across blogs and social media. They are seen to have a sense of entitlement because they believe their jobs should be fun and fulfilling. They have little time for authority and do not perceive their elders to be entitled to any extra attention. Rather than look at these traits from the negative perspective of selfishness, let's look at them from the intriguing perspective of irony. Millenials are ironic. While they trumpet their opinions, they are quick to laugh at themselves and any who take themselves too seriously. They do not assume that their security can be assured by dedicating themselves to any long-term structure and so live and work as part of rapid collections and dispersions. In this way, their tendency to organize is more pluralistic than hierarchical. People come together when it is useful and disband when the usefulness is no longer served. And at the last, millenials are not simplistically suspicious of age. Rather, they are ironic critics of ideology. They distrust any members of the older generation who absolutize certain values. Millenials contribute to charity by volunteering and donating to small, independent organizations aimed at solving particular problems. Their irony is not apathy.

Every elder generation since the beginning of time has criticized the younger for being self-involved. I suspect that this is more because people are generally self-involved. All human beings must overcome their interest in their own little affairs and learn to care for others in a genuine way. The millenials are no better or worse prepated to meet this challenge than any other generation. And millenials bring unique talents and points-of-view to the mix. One of the best ways to approach the future is to understand and make use of these new talents and points-of-view.

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