On Millennials and Special Snowflakes

I’m really sick and tired of all the boomer and gen X tsk tsk-ing those dreaded me-first millennials. All of these articles, which you’ve no doubt seen by now, follow a similar pattern:

  • Start with a reference to “too much praise” and too much emphasis on self-esteem. Bonus points if the writer mentions “everyone gets a trophy”
  • Then the writer lays down the hammer! And writes as if they’ve stumbled upon some grand discovery! “You’re no special snowflake” indeed.
  • Cue up some old-school expressions of insecurity that the writer mistakes for “tough love.” Back in my day, grown-ups rubbed our faces in our own failure. And we loved it! It was character building!
  • Add in some almost too revealing subtext of bitterness upon entering middle age while accomplishing zilch in the writer’s lifetime. Which, of course, has NOTHING AT ALL to do with the writer’s irrational jealousy of a whole generation of kids. NOTHING AT ALL, I SAY.
  • Add a sprinkling of cherry-picked facts to support the argument. Because I said so, that’s why. ZOMG, millenials will sic their parents on you when they fail!
  • Get off my lawn!

The most heinous example of this was David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, who stupidly masturbated to his own self-importance at a high school commencement address, wagging his finger and telling them all about the BIG SCARY REAL WORLD and how “they’re not special!” Contrary to what many commentators may have written, this is not some refreshing new phenomenon, and I remember it well – adults who couldn’t get over their own failures trying to cut us down to size to help them cope with their own failures, insecurities and underachievement. We’re afraid that the next generation may show us up, so we better chop them down while there’s still time.

There’s a lot to be said about how middle class values have evolved over the decades, evolving from working class, blue collar families to white collar workers looking to get ahead. At every single stage, with every hand-off from the preceding generation, the new kids were always told to a.) get an education so they could improve upon the older generation b.) follow their dreams, unlike their elders, who didn’t have that luxury and c.) marry for love, not settle for whoever happens to be around. In the boomer generation, that means improving upon your parents farming or blue collar background. In the “gen x” days, it meant bettering your parents service jobs or blue collar history.

And now it means… what, exactly? Seriously, if the whole “improve on your parents outcome” has been completely baked into every facet of society, what did we expect out of this current crop of kids? Pretty much everyone with some means has gone to college and worked in the white collar world their entire post-education lives. And now, with a present and future of very limited growth, the world is an extremely competitive place, rife with fear, loathing and self-doubt, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. Parents are hell-bent on making sure their kids “get ahead”, so they enroll their kids in every competitive sport, spend exorbitant amounts of money to send their kids to the best public schools, enroll them in art and music programs, and push them into every extra-curricular thing they can afford. The archetype of the millenials’ parents is not the coddling, always-praising sunshine pumper, it’s the tiger mom. And the implicit message to the kids is, “you had better succeed. You cannot fail – you’re our only hope to maintain our status. And we will do *anything* to protect that hard-fought status.”

I call outright BS on the special snowflake business. That’s not the problem. They’ve been taught since they were plucked from a crib to go to art class that this is a hyper-competitive world in ways that it never was before. I do not understand how anyone can look at the lives of young adults who came of age in the 90’s and 00’s and come away with the impression that they didn’t face enough consequences of losing. They faced those consequences quite often, thank you very much – from the first time they learned they weren’t in the G&T classes, to the first time they didn’t make a sports team, to the times their teams, in whatever activity, didn’t win. There is now an unprecedented pressure on the middle class, not to mention baked-in anxiety of of falling down the status pole, with many people from below trying to rise up to the “American Dream.” Then add to that the stories shared by parents about that other kid/cousin/neighbor down the street who’s accomplished some amazing thing, evoking pangs of anxiety and jealousy from their kids. To magnify that effect, there’s now social media with its pervasive humble braggers to drive home the point that you’re a loser, baby, and no special snowflake. The pressure on millennials is about performing up to higher standards, achieving perfection, and making the impossible possible.

There’s an interesting psychological concept that manifests itself in particularly pernicious ways as society becomes more taxed by inequality. People tend to focus on those who are above them in status, which means that they don’t even notice those who are lower in status. The result is that the more successful you are, the more elusive success becomes, due to the goalposts of success always being in motion. You don’t notice those peers you’ve just joined – only those who are at a level above you. So, parents who may have started from modest roots never quite appreciate the distance they’ve traveled, and this class anxiety transfers seamlessly to their progeny. And that anxiety, and how they deal with it, explains many of the complaints you hear about millennials.

I don’t think millennials think they’re special snowflakes. I think they’re scared shitless that they’re losing. The era of lowered expectations means that everything they’ve been told when they were growing up is a complete lie. There is no attainable success – it’s always elusive, just beyond your grasp. Having established that, forgive them if, frankly, they don’t feel the need to jump through your horseshit hoops because, ultimately, it doesn’t really amount to anything substantial. Forgive them if they’d rather pursue their wild-ass dreams instead of whatever you think they *should* be doing. Whenever I read articles full of free, unsolicited “advice” for millennials, I’m reminded of my med-school friends who told me about the horrors of 36-hour shifts. When I asked them why they continued this practice despite its obvious potential for failure, their response was simple: because their predecessors had to go through it, it was only “fair” that this next crop go through the same self-abuse. Lather, rinse, repeat. Got that? It’s not about better results, it’s about equal suffering. So no, I don’t think millennials are a blight on humanity. In fact, I think they’re our best hope for a sane, future work-life balance.

Because they, more than most, understand that our current systems of blind obeisance to fascistic organizations should not be a mandatory rite-of-passage that everyone follow. Rather, we should seriously analyze how we got where we are, study the results of our current systems, and if need be, either reform them or start over. Don’t fight the millennials – pay attention to what they have to say.

 

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