May 4, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Millennials: We’re Just Like You

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By EMMA COURT

Entitled. Individualistic. Narcissistic. As a millennial, it’s easy to feel besieged by negative stereotypes — we graduate college without jobs, we live with our parents; we’re obsessed with posting, sharing and liking. The perpetrators of these conceptions are distributed across the political spectrum, their conclusions supported by the research of nonpartisan groups like the Pew Research Center. According to Pew, we’re big on Facebook and selfies (81 percent of millennials are on Facebook and 55 percent have posted a selfie on a social networking site), and more detached from politics or religion than previous generations.

Regardless of the truth of millennial stereotypes, as a part of a generation that faces the bleakest economic outlook after graduating from college, how can we help but feel that the odds are stacked against us? We exit an educational bubble into a world riddled with wrongs — political apathy, the detriments of globalization, Upworthy headlines, to name a few — and determined to think the worst of us, it seems.

Then again, when Generation X was growing up, they were also typecast, though they were seen as depressed, lonely slackers. Gen X grew up amidst natural, political and diplomatic disasters — the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, Watergate scandal and Iran hostage crisis, among others. Theirs was a time of rapid technological change, with revolutions in the size and portability of inventions like the phone and the computer. They faced economic difficulties, with the worldwide recession in 1980 causing unemployment and government deficit spending to skyrocket. They too must have found a shortage of reasons to be optimistic.

“There’s nothing new under the sun” is one of our oldest phrases for a reason. The current outlook is only so bleak because we simplify and idealize the past. But it’s a bad habit, the cultural equivalent of nail biting or chewing with an open mouth. We dress up in flapper dresses without a sense of the outrage many U.S. residents felt over the way Prohibition imposed a Protestant agenda on an increasingly religiously and racially diverse population. Most Americans think of the 1950s as a time of economic prosperity and suburban affluence, but it was also a time of great inequality and persecution. The civil rights movement was just getting its start, and so was the Red Scare. Today, we engage in historical appropriation — everything from art to fashion and music — and then tramp back to the present with selective remembrance of bright colors, fitted cuts and black-and-white photographic smiles. It’s because hindsight is 20/20. We don’t know how our unique set of challenges will work out, but we know that those of previous generations’ did.

Perhaps one of Generation Y’s biggest problems is public relations. And there is nothing that has come to symbolize the destructive tendencies of the millennial age quite like the selfie. It is the ultimate symbol of the way social media has allowed us to construct a universe that revolves around ourselves. And as a generation of “digital natives” — we grew up with digital technology and have an ease with it that our parents and grandparents lack — we’ll have to forge our own relationship with technology. The selfie represents the self-indulgent, individualistic side of that spectrum: Use of social media as a tool of affirmation. But social media also represents a tool of connectivity, of movement and social action and, yes, change. We’ve seen it globally, through the Arab Spring, but we see it on our own campus, too. I work on a consent education movement called the Every1 Campaign, which uses imagery and social networks to make social justice personal. The effectiveness of the Facebook newsfeed as a form of social action remains to be seen. Maybe social media will prove to be a crutch, a digital substitute for real-world action. But it was not such a long time ago that the glorious sight of equal signs filled the profile pictures in my newsfeed. Moving forward, more than any other group of people it is millennials who must interrogate our relationship with technology and determine what ends we hope to achieve by posting, liking and sharing.

Still, technology does not make a group of people born at the same time homogenous at their very core. If millennials are entitled, individualistic and narcissistic, we are only equal parts as much as previous generations. If we face unsurpassable challenges, they are only as bleak as those facing those before us. If we have a social media problem, it is only because we struggle to define our existence just like humans have ever since they were evolved enough to do so.

To the Class of 2014, a few weeks from graduation, you are not alone in being both afraid and exhilarated by what comes next. Just know this — we have been passed down a troubled world and been told that we do not have what it takes to make it better. But it is exactly the technology that has created these misperceptions that can be some of our greatest tools moving forward. Global warming; rampant income, gender and racial inequality; poverty, hunger and terrorism are just a few of the challenges that are waiting out there for all of us to take on. And who better than the selfie generation to rise to the challenge?

Emma Court is a junior in the College of Industrial Relations. She can be reached at ec598@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.