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Meg Murphy

Millennials have heard it all before.

They are technology addicts and would rather fire off illiterate text messages than entertain a deep thought. They are narcissists darting from one virtual stage to the next. They have zero attention span.

Those are only a handful of the unflattering media assessments millennials have been hit with in recent years. There’s plenty more where those came from: show-offs, shameless, and selfie-absorbed, for a start.

A generation gap, or even chasm, has developed as more than 80 million millennials push forward with a new set of values and habits shaped by the technological revolution. They are the first generation to grow up with early access to the Internet, social media, and smartphones, and that has changed them immeasurably. Older generations, meanwhile, are stubbornly resisting the new normal millennials bring from the digital world to ours.

When this rift began to surface, New York Magazine announced: “As younger people reveal their private lives on the Internet, the older generation looks on with alarm and misapprehension not seen since the early days of rock and roll.” 

A recent Time cover featured a girl taking a selfie on her iPhone with the headline: “The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents. Why they’ll save us all.” In response, The Week joked that millennials “stopped sexting and emoji-ing just long enough” to notice the controversial article. It published the best reactions in list form, asking teasingly: “Millennials like listicles, right?”

For their part, millennials have grown fed up with the negative stereotypes assigned to them. They want to write their own narrative. This year they launched Millennial Week D.C., a conference in the nation’s capital designed to improve their image. Organizers declared millennials are on the rise and that it’s time to explore and celebrate what that means. Soon enough the Washington Post reported: “The millennials are going to prove that they aren’t self-absorbed, and they’re going to prove it by holding a week-long conference to celebrate themselves.”

Let’s just say that when it comes to generational warfare, it’s on.

The truth is that millennials are the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers, says Gen-Xer Joel Stein in Time. New technology has empowered them to compete against huge organizations, he says: hackers vs. corporations, bloggers vs. newspapers, app-makers vs. entire industries. They are shaking up the Establishment by ignoring it. “Millennials don’t need us,” Stein says. “That’s why we’re scared of them.”

The personality of the millennial generation is inseparable from their relationship with technology, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Millennials have taken the lead in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era to construct personalized networks, says the study. They are by far the most enthusiastic users of the Internet, mobile technology, and social media.

Technology is essentially part of the millennials’ DNA, according to a 2014 Nielsen report. They connect in two worlds — real and virtual. When asked what makes their generation unique, millennials rank “technology use” as their most defining characteristic. In contrast, boomers rank “work ethic” first. About 75 percent of millennials feel new technology makes their lives easier, and more than half feel technology helps them be closer to their friends and family. They use smartphones more than other generation, and more than 80 percent say they sleep with one.

Access to technology and devices is fueling millennials’ ability to stay social any time of day or night. Younger millennials go to social media sites more on their laptop while older millennials log in more by mobile devices. Both groups are checking in socially between 20 and 21 hours each month, according to Nielsen. Thirty-two percent of the younger half (age 18-24) use social media from the bathroom and more than half of the older group (age 25-34) take time out of their work day to use social networking at the office, which is more than any other age group, says Nielsen. They switch their attention between media platforms 27 times per hour, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

We have come to expect millennials to pay attention to many things at once: working on a homework assignment while also watching a YouTube video, reflexively checking an iPhone, listening to music, and posting on Facebook. They have been considered excellent at multitasking but its efficiency is proving to be a myth. A recent article published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” by three Stanford University researchers says that processing multiple incoming streams of information is a challenge for human cognition.

“Young people have the same attention as you or me but they lack a depth of understanding,” says Bill Gribbons, professor of Information Design and Corporate Communication at Bentley University. Their mindstate is different; social media defines their lives.

“I could use Facebook or Snapchat but choose not to. My generation didn’t mind not being in constant connection,” Gribbons adds. “We feel no need now to be connected with people we barely know and be told the minutia of their lives.”

Millennials are 2.5 times more likely to be early adopters of technology than older generations and more likely than the others to use the Internet, broadcast thoughts, and contribute content, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Young people send an average of 88 texts a day, says Pew. They are interacting all day but almost entirely through a screen.

Critics describe the millennials’ reliance on virtual platforms as stagnating and stupefying. They say it inflates their egos because they grow up thinking of themselves as having an audience. But is it fair to blame millennials for adapting to and embracing the technology that exists now?

Scott Hess, senior vice president of human intelligence for SparksSMG, asked Time: “Can you imagine how many frickin’ Instagrams of people playing in the mud during Woodstock we would’ve seen?”

Here’s another thing: If you look for statistics about millennials, you’ll find plenty of contradictory studies. For instance, Time claims to have hard data proving millennial self-involvement has soared out of control. Stein writes: “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58 percent more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.”

An Atlantic Wire article uses a different NIH paper titled “It Is Developmental Me, Not Generation Me” that proves Time’s narcissism statistic wrong. In this case, scientists show that when new data on narcissism are folded into preexisting meta-analytic data, there’s no increase in narcissism in college students over the last few decades.

Are we dealing with a lot of smoke and mirrors? Even The Week’s “listicle” includes a reaction that suggests older generations find it hard to be impartial when it comes to assessing the millennials. Journalist Elspeth Reeve brings readers on a nostalgic tour of alarmist magazine covers past, including a 1976 New York article by Tom Wolfe titled “The Me Generation,” and another Time special that informed readers that Gen-Xers would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder and crave entertainment but have an attention span that is as short as one zap of a TV dial.

In a piece titled “Every Every Every Generation Has Been the Me Me Me Generation,” Reeve says: “Basically, it’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older. It’s like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are ‘Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences.’”

Perspective is everything, right? Technology is a fascinating part of today’s generation gap, but let’s also remember that older generations never seem to get the young, and that hasn’t changed at all.

Meg Murphy is a freelance writer.