My latest for Quartz is on the danger of generalizing generations:
Three years ago, TIME magazine published a cover story called “The Me Me Me Generation—Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” It was the print version of clickbait, designed to be devoured by TIME’s Baby Boomer base, or perhaps flipped through angrily by millennials killing time at TIME’s most reliable subscriber, the doctor’s office. That is, if the millennials in question were lucky enough to have health insurance, which roughly 23% did not at the time
Of course, these kinds of inconvenient statistics did not make it into the piece. When TIME’s cover story was published, millennials were in the fourth year of the “jobless recovery,” facing high unemployment, mounting debt, and an eroded social safety net. And yet, with breathtaking cluelessness, TIME framed the millennials’ desperate search for stable work as a privileged character flaw—look at the kids too flaky to handle “choosing from a huge array of career options.”
Fast forward to 2016, and millennials are now valued as an electoral prize and a revenue source. Media coverage has adjusted accordingly. But the idea that today’s young people are narcissistic and lazy lingers just beneath the surface. Browsing through news articles, two parallel worlds of millennials emerge. The first is inhabited by overtly political youth advocating for controversial initiatives like campus safe spaces. The second is filled with young consumers who are happy and prosperous yet prefer style over stuff–which, upon closer examination, is a euphemistic way of saying they cannot afford to buy much stuff anyway.
These narratives are more nuanced than TIME’s ridiculous 2013 attempt to capture millennials, but they still fail to accurately portray the reality of young people’s lives. For one thing, most depictions fail to define the age bracket of the cohort and relate it to historical context. In this way, critics often end up repackaging millennials’ economic desperation as lifestyle choices, leading to a sort of generational gaslighting over what life in the new economy is really like.