This happened a few years ago. I was called into the office because a new YouTube video had just been placed online that unveiled the secrets of the “Millennial Generation,” and my boss wanted to show it to the head of our HR department on my just-acquired iPhone -- my iPhone 1.0.
We rushed up to her office, and I slid my iPhone across her desk while telling her how to watch the video. “Just touch the screen,” I said. Her face lit up as the motion-graphic video snapped to life, bouncing 60 seconds worth of “quick facts” about the millennial generation backed by some pumpin’ electronica music.
I watched as the VP nodded her head at every one of the video’s stone-cold truisms that described a take-no-shit generation of shiny pennies loaded with fresh ideas and too much ambition, who eagerly embraced change and had no patience for putting up with the bureaucracy / authority / tribal wisdom of the Baby Boomers who had been running the show. There were new high-tech sheriffs in town, and if you wanted them to work for your company, you better figure out a way to convince them you were worth their time.
“We have to learn their ways,” the VP said solemnly after the video ended. “We have to understand them if we’re going to attract their kind.” If it meant bending over backwards and emulating every last perk offered by millennial-friendly companies like Google, so be it. There was a shortage of good, qualified college graduates to fill in the ever-widening hole soon to be left gaping by the graying generation about to retire.
And then sometime around September 2008, everything changed. All the fiscal hanky-panky caught up with us. The housing market tumbled along with Wall Street, and the world fell into The Great Recession or Lesser Depression or whatever you want to call it.
All the oldsters with dreams of living fat in Florida on a pile of their life’s earnings saw their 401k’s evaporate overnight, along with their pensions and the value of the property they intended to suckle throughout their Golden Years. Maybe retirement could wait, at least until this market recovered.
Corporations eager to hire just six months earlier suddenly couldn’t lay off their middle managers fast enough. They shut tight their recruiting services and waited for the long, cold economic winter to thaw.
The smug, new, go-go generation just emerging from college suddenly found itself entering the worst job market in 40 years.
And that was the last I heard about The Millennials, until this past week.
Call it a sign of economic recovery, but Millennial Fever is once again catching fire, this time in the form of a Time Magazine cover story called “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation.” In it, writer Joel Stein paints a two-sided portrait of the 80 million people born between 1980 and 2000. During the first 2,000 words of his piece, Stein defines the generation as a shallow, narcissistic, entitled group of assholes raised to think they’re destined to be celebrities thanks to a steady diet of reality TV and over-attentive parents who have been telling them that they’re “special” since the day they were yanked from their mother’s womb.
But by the end of the tome-sized story (which reads more like a personal rant than a piece of journalism), Stein describes a “nice” generation always four steps ahead of everyone else and more socially tolerant than any generation that came before it. He describes an army of youth overflowing with hope and ambition -- a sharp contrast to the downer “X Generation” that came before it, a generation wrapped in ennui desperately trying to find a place to hide, to disappear.
If there’s one thing Stein got right in a story filled with generalizations and over-simplifications, it’s how Millennials love nothing more than to attract attention to themselves and have all the tools they need to do it in the form of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and all the other social media doohickeys. For someone who goes out of his way to avoid a camera shutter, it’s odd to see people post photos of themselves on their Facebook walls on a daily basis. Just straight-up self portraits. Why?
But more disturbing is how those efforts at personal self-aggrandizement extend into their professional lives, especially for young creatives. In the pre-Millennials days, an artist, designer or writer stood quietly behind his or her work and let it speak for itself. Not anymore. These days it’s all about branding yourself -- getting yourself and your image known, becoming a local celebrity if only in your own mind.
Instead of posting a photo of that dress you designed, wouldn’t it be better to post a photo of yourself in the dress? Instead of posting a link to an article you’ve written, why not simply post the fact that you’ve nabbed an interview with a celebrity? Instead of posting a photo of your latest painting, why not post a photo of yourself in front of the painting?
Today you see and hear more about the young, hip people creating the companies than the companies themselves. The people come first; the product is an afterthought. It’s the opposite of what author David McCullough told a graduating class at Wellesley: “Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”
Stein used McCullough’s quote (attributed of course) in his article, an article written about Millennials that ironically likely won’t be read by many Millennials. Because no one reads printed magazines anymore. There’s no way to post your comments after you’ve read it.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.