I was born on October 10, 1980.
Depending upon the source you consult, this most often puts me on the older end of the self-absorbed, entitled Millennial Generation, but occasionally I’ll be lumped in with the counter-culture, self-starting Gen Xers. Increasingly, I might be classified as an “Xennial”, or part of the Oregon Trail Generation, covering those born between 1977 and 1983, raised doing book reports with actual books, but among the first to take advantage of the modern technological revolution. If I had to choose, I feel like I fit in mostly with the Millennials.
I’ve become interested in what it means to be part of a generation. What common traits do we share? Where are we most divergent from our closest generations? Within our generation, what axioms are most truthful, and which are just stereotypes that don’t accurately portray the majority? Where do I fall into? I do agree, to a certain extent, with some of the generalizations assigned to my generation: specifically, that we are self-centered, tied to our electronics to the fault of expecting instant gratification, and entitled. What I hope we’ll be remembered for, however, is being a generation that was aware and that cared – about the environment, human rights, and our future generations. If we can catalyze that caring into actual progress and change, we just might not be dismissed as the Selfie Generation.
First, a couple of disclaimers: though I enjoy reading articles and books on the subject of the human experience and characteristics of generations, I would not consider myself an academic on the topic, though I have peppered some links that I find especially interesting and credible. Admittedly, my perspective is built mostly upon personal experience and observations from my own life; I’m biased. I’m not trying to speak for my generation, just myself. Second, I will be using the word I a lot. I am aware that this is a word strongly associated with Millennials and their purportedly self-centered ways. I’ve read articles where the author has denounced himself for the numbers of I’s he used. Tsk tsk. Sorry in advance if I use too many I’s for your taste.
Now that that’s all cleared up, let’s get back to my generation, also known as The Me Generation. The first and foremost characteristic that may come to mind when one considers a Millennial is self-centered. Celebrities become famous by being self-centered; our social media pages are filled with images of ourselves celebrating our hobbies, talents, and skills. I do not think we are all as self-centered so much as we are misunderstood. From an outsider’s perspective, I could see how we might seem self-centered: we spend hours on our hobbies; we make special requests for everything from our coffee to whether the painter we hire uses non-VOC paint or not; and most of us share every last detail of our lives on social media. We were raised with a strong sense of self, and a focus on self-development. Most of the friends I knew growing up had multiple awards and pictures throughout their homes from all of their milestones and sporting events (my home included). We were celebrated for just being ourselves. But we focused on doing what we loved to do.
I realize that doing what you enjoy doing can make you come across as self-centered. In the contexts of the Baby Boomer and The Greatest Generation above me, I would likely be viewed as self-indulgent. Starting a blog just for fun, because I feel like it? You’d better get your priorities straight, they might’ve told me not so long ago. But thanks to the powerful fight of so many before us, it is considered acceptable if not encouraged today for someone to pursue their passions, whatever they may be, whatever age they may be. Our generation may be a bit less apologetic about making time for those interests. We enjoy enriching ourselves intellectually, physically, and emotionally.
Today, there are people in my generation who make a living by explicitly living out their dreams: outdoor athletes who travel the world, sponsored by big brands (rock-climbers, surfers, snowboarders, etc.); bloggers who resonate with millions like a ripple on the internet; people who have invented something. We Millennials love our hobbies like family and fiercely defend our time with them. There are so many interesting things to explore and learn about in the world, and that’s what I’d like to spend my short time on earth doing. Is that so wrong? Can’t I still show good civic duty while perfecting my mountain biking skills? Doing what you love to do doesn’t make you entitled, self-centered, or lazy. It makes you happy. Which leads me to a counter-argument against being self-centered: Millennials may be nicer (see article Why Millennials Are Generation Nice). A result of spending so much time making ourselves happy, and being raised in a comparatively more tolerant society, may be the nurturing of kinder, more accepting people. Certainly this isn’t the case for all of us, like when you throw the blanket of stereotype onto a group, and some are left with their toes uncovered. They don’t belong under that statement. Every generation has its bad apples. But I know many like-minded Millennials who do what they love, and are overall happy people who are kind and conscientious in their actions toward others. Millennials just may be the generation that truly considers its successors: many of us want to leave the world a better place for the next generation. We’re enjoying our time here, and want others to have the same opportunity.
It’s a theme I’m seeing more among not only my age-group, but all generations today: caring more. We are aware of the plethora of serious problems facing our world, and care about them. The friends and family I have all share a deep concern for the state of our ecosystems and communities. They care deeply about the environment and animals, human rights, and making progress as a human race. They take little actions in their daily lives to make a collectively large difference, and consider their impact on the planet. We donate to charities; we volunteer at beach clean-ups and the like. We recycle every last bit of what can be recycled, use our own reusable mugs, water bottles, and cloth shopping bags whereever we go; we try to support Fair Trade businesses with sustainable farming or organic practices. We stay up to date on the latest news articles, and read the newspaper everyday. We watch the news fastidiously, to a fault, especially in our current political climate, and curse every step backward from environmental progress. We cry when we hear yet another study about how the record has been broken, yet again, for the hottest year ever, or when we read about yet another polar bear found drowned amid wafer-thin icebergs in the Arctic. I’d like to think I fit in with this group, even as images of Kleen Kanteen-swigging, big-bearded, techie hippies on a restrictive diet probably come to mind. Again, we all are affected by stereotypes, myself included. I can’t say that all Millennials care more. But I know the ones I hang out with do, even if they’re only in my bubble.
We are certainly not the only generation to care about the environment (Hello environmental rights era!), or care about endangered Amur Leopards (of which there are roughly only 60 remaining at last estimate), or donate to charities with a text from our cell phones (which anyone can do, obviously). But we almost have to care more: we see the consequences of human impacts all around us; they are no longer a future projection, but a reality harsher than our predecessors surely ever planned for. Since most of us plan to stick around for at least another seventy years or so, we’d better figure out how to fix them.
To most of the people I know, there is an obvious, scientifically grounded, and direct link between human activities and climate change, and the multitude of ecological disasters unfolding. I am sure I don’t need to inform you of them, but I’ll list just several of the most pressing environmental issues of the moment: climate change from increased global carbon-dioxide emissions, which brings its whole slew of side effects including, but not limited to, rising sea-levels and displacement of large populations of humans; species endangerment and extinction (we are currently causing the Sixth Mass Extinction event on planet Earth); access to clean groundwater (exacerbated by industrial wastes, including those produced from natural resources extraction processes like fracking); shifting agricultural zones, bringing food shortages and famine; widespread drought and extreme weather events, like Superstorm Sandy; biodiversity loss from monocultures (like palm oil), and invasive species inhabiting new niches as our climatic zones shift; widespread pollution of every state of matter – land, air, and water – particularly with neurotoxins and carcinogens, plastic pollution that is poisoning us and destroying our oceans, especially among the 5 Gyres; and at the root of most of these problems lies the pinnacle of human overpopulation.
Down yet? Or have you, like the rest of us, inured yourself to them like just another weather report? There’s a famous Tim McIlrath quote: “If you aren’t angry, then you’re not paying attention”. Words couldn’t summarize it better. There are some days where I feel so down and depressed about the state of affairs in our world; about the lack of significant progress toward ameliorating this seemingly infinite laundry list of problems; about my perception that most people just don’t care enough to change their behaviors to affect any real change. I can be a little bit fatalistic, thinking everything is just kind of doomed for most living things in the immediate future; that only Deep Time – that healing of millions of years – will cover the scar that Humanity left on Earth in the short time we were here; how in just about one hundred years time, we’ve stripped the earth of its most precious resources, degrading its intricately woven, complex ecosystems, thinking it wouldn’t matter. But we quickly learned it did matter; our government established departments (the US Forest Service, the BLM, National Park Service, the EPA, etc.) to protect and manage our natural resources after years of unfettered logging, mining, and fishing took place, collapsing the local ecosystems in many cases. There has been progress in renewable energy sources, toxic remediation, land-use management, and habitat restoration, but the bottom line remains the same: we’ve got a giant mess which will dominate for decades to come.
We have the opportunity to take measurable actions to ebb the tide, and progress is being made. Many in our generation, though raised with the silver spoons of materialism, are embracing the adage Less is more. I hope that we’ll be a generation that shows you don’t need so many things to live happily; that we can strike a fine balance between enjoying electronics without being ruled by them. Millennials are known for being obsessed with their phones and electronic devices; many of the twenty-to-thirty-somethings I see prove that on a daily basis. You can do a lot of cool things with your phones these days: watch TV, order food, shop for anything under the sun, get a dopamine hit from your social media alerts. We’ve come a long way from the early days of the Internet. I remember being a junior in high school, spring of 1997, and our class was going to the brand new computer lab to go on the World Wide Web! We used Netscape as our web browser, and explored some government archives or something related to that. It took awhile to load content, undoubtedly, but it was the coolest new thing. I remember our teacher highlighting the significance of the moment: You guys are some of the first students using this; you’re lucky! We soon learned how much was at our fingertips. We were living on the crest of a new technological revolution, one which would prove to be a constant source of companionship for most people. We went from having to pore through books and articles for information, to googling that shit (or gts in textspeak).
We are never “alone” when we have our phones and devices present, it would seem, but really we’re drifting further apart from common social graces. Say “Hello” to someone in an elevator? They may just completely ignore you and keep looking at their phone, using it as an excuse to separate themselves from the strangers they share such a small space with. Patience? It’s hard to come by these days. We’re spoiled. Everything comes too quickly; we are overconvenienced. People’s people skills are worsening with every day spent not speaking and interacting with people face-to-face. None of what I’m saying is news. Less human interaction equals more distance between us; more human interaction equals less. Praise? It’s common to see it online, but it means so much more in person face-to-face. Kind words delivered eye to eye sink in that much deeper than a pixelated posting.
Speaking of praise, our generation may have gotten too much of that growing up. A common joke of our generation is, “Everyone gets a trophy”. Many of us were raised with no shortage of praise, pomp, and circumstance at life’s every event. We were told we could be anything we wanted to be, and that the world was our oyster to enjoy. And many of us ate it right up, believing the world was ours for the taking, and that we could truly do anything we wanted to. So we went after our dreams, with positive self-affirmation, and perhaps, too much confidence and naivete. We had expectations, and it made us entitled.
I remember when I graduated from UCSC, excited to have my BA in Environmental Studies. I thought I’d be off on some impactful career saving owls in no time. It wasn’t that easy, and I’ll never forget going for an informational interview with an environmental consultant who was kind enough to give me a few minutes of his time.
“Get experience,” he advised.
“How do I get experience if no one will hire me?” I asked.
“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but did you think you’d just graduate college and get a job right away, in Santa Cruz no less? Try interning; volunteer even. Keep at it, but it’s cutthroat around here for jobs. Don’t expect any handouts”.
He was right. I waited tables for a year and a half before landing an entry-level job at a groundwater quality consulting firm in Santa Cruz, only to leave within the year to pursue my teaching credential. His frankness stuck with me, though. I didn’t want to be seen as just another entitled Millennial who expected to be handed a job fresh out of college. It humbled me a bit, and reiterated a valuable lesson first posed by my father: no one owes you anything. Don’t be entitled. Prove yourself through your actions. Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk. I believe in a strong work ethic, despite my entitled whines about wanting to retire.
Recently, I won my first First Place award at a mountain bike race for the Beginner Women’s category. There wasn’t an awards ceremony that day, so I didn’t get a medal (pure gold that I’m sure it was!). I emailed the race director, asking if it could be mailed to me, but got no reply. There could be multiple reasons why, but part of me wondered if he just laughed at the request: Entitled Millennial wants her trophy, I could imagine him saying. Or my email just went to his Junk folder, never to be read.
Either way, when I think about Generation X, which I am on the cusp of depending upon how you look at it, the words that comes to mind are cool and fun; it’s actresses Alyssa Milano on the hit 80’s TV show Who’s The Boss?, Christina Applegate from the equally popular Married…With Children, Brenda and Kelly on the cult 90’s hit 90210. These were the cool chicks I wanted as my friends, out having fun and living like there was no tomorrow. There was a carefree spirit, but not an innocence. This generation had a skeptical edge to them.
They might look at us Millennials as something like a flea: we keep bouncing back, we annoy with our incessant self-centered bites for your attention, and there are simply millions of us. That’s because Gen X’ers were a little too cool at times, aloof and unimpressed by our bubbly, look-at-me ways. This is the generation who challenged the status quo; this is the punk generation. They embody cool. I have friends who consider themselves firmly among Gen-X, and they’ve honestly said before how much my generation bothers them. Our narcissism, whininess, and entitlement are among the reasons given. We speak in annoying uptone, or voicefry downtone. We’re not always very cool, especially how we overshare. But we’re so close in age, I think there is a lot of camaraderie and harmony among Gen X’ers and Millennials.
How do Millennials compare to Baby Boomers (including my parents, born in 1950)? My father has worked not just a steady job, but usually overtime, in construction for most of his life. My mother worked hard raising us three daughters, and in her career in real estate. Together, they taught me to work hard if I wanted something; to be self-sufficient and prepared; to take risks and learn from them. When I tell them how much I’d like to retire, albeit in fantasy mode, I wonder if they think I’m being entitled? Someone in their generation was probably less likely to voice that dream, let alone with conviction and faith, less fear being laughed at or thought of as lazy.
I knew the word impose from a young age. I recall my mother gently reminding us not to impose when we went to our friends’ houses.
Mom, can I spend the night? I’d excitedly ask over the phone from my friend’s house.
She’d reply with something like: Well, yes, if it’s okay with her parents, of course. I just don’t want to impose. It wasn’t that she thought I was an imposing child, I’m sure, but she did teach me to ask permission, respect boundaries, and not be entitled. She was raised with a strong emphasis on etiquette and social graces, and it was important to her that we act accordingly in certain situations. Her good manners and upbringing helped shape me into the conscientious person I consider myself to be today.
My father was also similarly on-key with my mother. He definitely didn’t want me to impose on anyone, or be a spoiled brat, so to speak. I remember having so many conversations with him, especially in my high school years, about life and how to live it. I forget how this one particular conversation started, but I got some sage advice from him during it; he said something to the extent of, No one owes you anything in life. No one has to do anything for you, just because you want them to. You can’t control people. It wasn’t that he was saying you as a darted, personal you at me, per se, because I knew he didn’t think I was a controlling, entitled person. But the advice spoke to me in a powerful summary: Just do you, is basically what he was saying. Just take care of me and what I’m doing, without putting pressures, expectations, or stipulations upon others, and don’t stress over what others do or don’t do, think or misunderstand about you. If you want something, go after it with full ownership.
Both of my parents raised us to be respectful, conscientious, self-sufficient, and ultimately, empowered, women. I’m sure there are some Boomers, and those from other generations, including mine, who question why a woman these days doesn’t want to get married or have kids; or why one would rather travel the country living out of her car (that always sounded cool to me). That only reflects the reality they may have grown up in, when it was socially expected to follow a more typical “American Dream” pathway. Of course, mavericks exist in every generation. But I think there was more pressure in their generation to walk the line.
What about the Greatest Generation? I don’t claim to be an expert on our most esteemed, wisest of the country. I’d gamble that they most definitely think Millennials are lazy, entitled, and self-centered. When they were growing up? It probably wasn’t common to spend hours on sports and hobbies. If you did, you might’ve been called selfish for pursuing your hobbies with the regularity that people today do. Pragmatism, selflessness, and a steely work ethic are some of the traits that come to mind when I think of my elders, grandparents included. My grandmother, Sheila Prentice Craig, has often referenced a wonderful saying, which I try to live by: Don’t complain; don’t explain. It’s simple, but it works: keep it positive, don’t whine and be negative. And don’t feel like you have to justify yourself to everyone. You don’t have to explain yourself, and it’s okay to say no just because you feel like it.
Living through the Great Depression shaped them into some of the toughest, most steadfast generation. Through struggle, they persevered. Perseverance gave them resilience, which would serve them well in future challenges, providing a grounding faith and quiet strength. When I compare today’s youth to my elders, the main difference I see is in their perseverance.
Today’s youth? I taught sixth grade Math & Science (11-12 year olds) from 2006-2016, before switching to seventh grade Math & Science in 2017 (12-13 year olds). I’ve watched this age group go from the dawn of the I-Pod, one of the first no-no’s to be snuck into class my first year of teaching, to the I-Phone, a bread-and-butter staple of almost all of my students today. This newest generation, of which there is no official agreed upon name for yet, would be in the roughly twelve to twenty-two age range. In the time I’ve taught this age, I’ve observed some overall trends, many of which have already been expounded upon by expert sociologists.
First, the obvious: they want instant gratification, too. If we can have it now, why can’t they? With technology and the internet, they’ve been raised getting what they want with the push of a button. If the answer isn’t found easily, spelled out in black and white, they may give up on finding it. They don’t always know how to persevere. I’ve had kids google “What is global warming?” when they were asked to explain it in their own words. Surely I’d hit the concept hard enough with them, right? I pondered. Why did they feel the need to consult Dr. Google when asked for a simple summary? I was disappointed.
But then again, how many adults, of all ages, don’t enjoy the impressive computing power now available to us? Haven’t we, too, become a little accustomed to instant gratification? It’s hard to say if it’s a sign of the times, or a sign of the generation. With every year that passes on, it certainly feels more like a sign of the times.
Second, they are more self-centered. Pot calling the kettle black, you may ask? I realize how hypocritical it may sound for someone who doesn’t want to be called self-centered calling another group of people that very same thing. It’s what I see, though, and some of it is almost inherent within the context of technology. Because of their smartphones, because of the Internet and social media, this upcoming generation is by default more self-centered. They spend more time looking at things that interest them specifically; they can spend hours watching YouTube videos on any hobby that exists. They spend time updating their settings and preferences on their devices; adjusting their screenshots and profile pictures. Screentime is driven by interactions on social media platforms, participation seemingly required less they miss out on something. Yes, other generations, including mine, do this too. The difference is we weren’t raised doing it as children and teenagers during our formative years like they are now. Being raised among our new Internet reality challenges our youth because they are forming their identities in the process.
In the eleven years that I’ve been teaching, I have seen a devolution in both overall awareness of others, and expressing interest. They’d often rather sit with their computers among each other than actually get to know each other. Few questions are asked. I used to have several students ask me how I was doing, or what I did on the weekend. Now? Virtually none of my students ever ask me how I’m doing, or what I like to do when I’m not teaching. I’ve had times where I decided to share something, and had my students ignore me from the very start: they open up their Chromebook or silent-reading book; the binder opens to the classwork. I know it’s part of teaching middle-school aged children, but sometimes I wonder if this is a sign of their generation. Are they really this self-centered? Is conscientiousness a rare-earth mineral now?
Conscientiousness. It’s the trait I try to foster in my students. Conscientious means being aware that you are not the center of the universe, nor the center of anything; that you share your surroundings with other equally important beings, human and non; that your actions, large and small, affect others. It starts with awareness, and focusing on what’s happening around you; being less self-centered.
Their physical awareness of their bodies seems to have diminished as well. I’ve had so many students walk into each other (or me) because they were looking down – not at their phone, but just in that habit of looking down and not paying attention. I’ve seen people get hurt walking into objects in and out of the classroom – the playground at recess, after school as they walk around town. There is a tendency to look down and not look up in front of them as much. As they adapt to looking at their phones more, their overall focus shifts downward, too. To be fair, there are many students who do not follow this behavior; however, this is the overall theme I see.
Lastly, their perseverance is in decline. This goes partly with the whole instant gratification idea. Being used to getting things so easily has created a misconception that everything in life ought to be that way. As a Math teacher, I struggle with this a lot. A student will struggle on a concept, surrender, and give up trying. Despite what any research says about methodology, pedagogy, or theory about mathematics instruction, the bottom line is a student is only going to get better by practicing more often. They have to put in the hard work, the blood, sweat, and tears, so to speak. And it can be like pulling teeth to get them to take ownership of their efforts. When they do have that ownership, however, it can be the difference between mastery and proficiency. Calculators? That’s a whole different topic, but I personally think math through Pre-Algebra doesn’t need it. My kids hate me for it, and go crazy on the rare occasions when I do allow it (large number statistics and data analysis problems, typically). It would be so much easier if they could just use their phone calculator on their homework, but alas, I enforce a common math teacher policy of “No work, no credit”. The answer doesn’t have to necessarily be correct, but I need to see the process used to get there. It’s in the process that they learn the perseverance.
Perseverance doesn’t just pertain to academics, technology, and daily life activities, but spirituality and emotional well-being. How connected do today’s youth feel to nature and the environment? I hope most of them do. Perseverance isn’t just getting through something hard, it’s having the integrity to stand strong and trust yourself through dynamic situations. How many of today’s youth spend time outdoors in challenging situations that test their mettle? Again, I’d like to hope that it’s a lot, but I think many of them may be on their electronics inside. The same could be said for my generation, though; many of us were raised with Nintendo, Sega, and X-Box.
There are moments when I am truly inspired by my students, when I believe one of them just may be the one to invent a better plastic substitute, or develop some new kind of nanotechnology that will break down all the waste we’ve already produced. I have to believe in their potential, because my future lies partially in their hands. How they treat the environment, are informed, and care will influence the next generation. It’s a domino effect. If I can get them to care about the environment, and to take some accountability for doing something about its infinite problems, I feel I’ve done my most important role as a teacher. I’ll never forget the times my students make important connections. There was the day when a girl asked, quite matter-of-factly, “So, they’re putting toxic plastic microbeads in our toothpaste?! Like what we use to brush our teeth and put inside our bodies?! That’s disgusting! How is that allowed?!” Bam! She hit the nail on the head, and it was one of my most inspired moments teaching. There’ve been other equally astute observations made in class that sometimes gives me a sense of promise within this next generation. I believe they will find their balance between using technology and having real human interaction. They sure do make me laugh, though. Middle-school is never short on sarcasm and humor.
It’s All Been Done…Just Not Like This
As unique as I’d like to think any generation is, or this particular time in history is, part of me who believes another old adage: It’s all been done. When you look back in time, the same themes play out over and over; the same roles are played, only by different actors and actresses. The emotions range the same, whether you lived 1,000 years ago, or live right now. There has already been a “Katrin” just like me, so when I write about “my generation”, I do so knowing how fleeting, insignificant, and unimportant my words are. None of them will mean anything in the not too distant future.
But what will matter is how we leave the planet for the next generation. That hasn’t been done yet.
As much as there are similarities among age groups and people, each generation is given the privilege and opportunity to impart their footprint in their own unique way. We ought to consider not only our children and future generations, but the future of all living things on Earth. What kind of legacy do we want to leave for the future? A nuclear wasteland; a toxic dead zone? How we treat the organisms we share this special home with may determine our future success or failure; how we manage our natural resources, and their wastes, is paramount to sustaining a large, technologically dependent human population. We haven’t done the best job yet in meeting these challenges, but, sometimes, I’m hopeful.
I invite everyone to consider what they can do to reduce their impact on the environment, and help leave a better planet for our future generations. Whatever generation we are part of, we ought to consider the next. We ought to be aware of the trends, problems, and challenges of our times, and care deeply about tackling them. The issue of our time is our environment, and we all should be doing our part to help. Do the “little things” on a daily basis that add up to make bigger differences; take whatever action you can to reduce your footprint. Stay informed.
Be aware. Care.
I hope that Millennials will be remembered as a generation who genuinely and effectively cared about the environment and the next generation; that instead of being just a bunch of selfie-posting egomaniacs, we actually knew our place in the big scheme of things: we were just a small part of something much bigger. I hope we’ll be remembered for using our voices to make a difference on the environment and the advancement of human rights, building upon the efforts of the courageous generations who came before us. We are merely a puzzle piece among the jigsaw of Humanity. Whether we are a keystone in that puzzle, or just a small detail piece, remains to be seen. Being a keystone isn’t about being important or recognized, but actually helping to strengthen the planet and our civilization for our predecessors. Like the keystone of an archway, it helps bridge and strengthen; or a keystone species, like a sea otter eating urchins in a kelp forest. Take away the otter and the urchins will overpopulate, eating away the kelp’s holdfast, eventually making the entire kelp forest ecosystem disappear. If there are not enough urchins, on the other hand, the entire kelp forest community suffers. The sea otter has a crucial niche to fill as a keystone species, balancing consumption and production. Like the otter, we too must find our balance.
We ought to aim to be a keystone generation.