First of all, the sociological category of “Millennials” is an American invention. So whenever you make generalizations about “Millennials,” you’re only talking about Americans. But it gets even more specific than that.
We write blog posts and cultural commentaries saying, “Millennials this,” and “Millennials that,” but unless we’re using statistics to support our statements, we’re probably making generalizations about the Millennials we personally observe rather than statements that are actually true.
I do it, too, I must admit, though I’m working to get better at it.
I was speaking to a group of Nazarene pastors and lay leaders in New York a couple of weeks ago and I said, “The only generalization you can make about Millennials is that they are too diverse to generalize.”
Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history, a trend driven by the large wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have been coming to the U.S. for the past half century, and whose U.S.-born children are now aging into adulthood. In this realm, Millennials are a transitional generation. Some 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. About half of newborns in America today are non-white, and the Census Bureau projects that the full U.S. population will be majority non-white sometime around 2043.
And, to be honest, the diversity of Millennials goes far beyond their racial diversity, but that’s another blog post entirely. When we talk about Millennials, though, we’re usually talking about a small subset of people.
First of all, the sociological category of “Millennials” is an American invention. So whenever you make generalizations about “Millennials,” you’re only talking about Americans.
But it gets even more specific than that.
When we make rather off-the-cuff remarks like, “Millennials are liberal,” or “Millennials love adventure,” or “Millennials are spoiled brats,” and likewise, we usually only have one subgroup of Millennials in mind:
Upper-Middle Class, White Millennials
Unless you’re breaking out statistics like the massive work from Pew Research Center, the Public Religion Research Institute, or data from other such sources, you’re just making a bunch of generalizations based on personal experience that are likely only true of the most upwardly mobile, socially-observable kind of Millennial—the upper-middle class, white ones.
You say, “Millennials love adventure,” because you see a bunch of white 20-something girls posting pictures on Instagram of their latest expedition into the woods behind their suburban home—the kind of white girls parodied by Socality Barbie on Instagram. You forget that the Latina sisters in Los Angeles caring for their little siblings while their parents work are Millennials, too, whose “adventure” is collecting laundry while feeding babies, not collecting pinecones while sipping on a Pumpkin Spice Latte.
You write something like, “Millennials are moochers who live with their parents,” because you hear stories about your college friends living at home, playing video games all day, and not getting a “real job.” But you don’t think about the 25-year-old African American brothers in Harlem working three jobs to care for their aging parents, who actually depend on them rather than the other way around.
You joke, “Millennials don’t know how to grow up,” because your friends live with their parents or don’t get married. As you furiously blog your cute, anecdotal Millennial rage over a cup of expensive coffee on the porch of your suburban home, dozens of Millennials on the streets of Chicago grow up every weekend when their peers are gunned down by gang violence on the stoop of their South Chicago apartment.
“Those Millennials,” you write before you decide its time for a Netflix binge, “when are they ever going to grow up?”
When we write about Millennials, or any generation for that matter, we need to be careful about how we say what we say.
A Perfect Example
In July of 2013, Mainline Protestant blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog post for CNN entitled, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” which perfectly illustrates that the bleaching and personalization of the Millennial generation can even persist when you do have statistics to back up whatever statements you wish to make. Here’s a quote:
Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.
But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.
Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. –precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.
Mrs. Evans makes statements like the ones above simply because they reflect her experience as a white, upper-middle class, Mainline, high-church-preferring Millennial. If you want to make the case that Millennials aren’t attracted by skinny jeans, coffee, and performances, you have to ignore the popularity of churches like Hillsong, Cross Point, NewSpring, Elevation, and many others.
If what Mrs. Evans says is true, I suppose we’d be seeing a lack of interest in Hillsong and a burgeoning interest in Catholicism or Mainline Protestantism, which we definitely aren’t seeing.
Generalizations aren’t true simply because they reflect your experience. You may have a bunch of narcissistic Millennial friends, but you cannot say, “Millennials are narcissistic” just because you observe it.
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