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Do millennials have an image problem?

Nov 23, 2015

Credit flickr user Elizabeth Hahn / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Research seems to suggest that millennials are suffering from a self-image problem, especially when compared with baby boomers and Gen Xers.

And considering that millennials – the age group between 18 and 34 – now make up the largest demographic in the United States work force, it’s worth trying to understand why they think of themselves the way they do.

A Pew Research Center study found that well over half of millennials describe their generation as “self-absorbed,” just under half say they are “wasteful,” and 43% describe the generation as “greedy.”

John Cheney-Lippold is an assistant professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan and a self-defined millennial.

Cheney-Lippold tells us these results “kind of did and … kind of didn’t” surprise him.

As a professor, he says he interacts with a lot of millennials and sees many of them express the same attitudes, “lot of the times that they project outward, that they’re talking not about themselves but they’re talking about somebody else.”

He adds that it’s then unsurprising that the same Pew study that only four in 10 millennials identify as such.

“It’s almost like the idea of being a hipster. Nobody wants to be a hipster and nobody says, ‘I’m a hipster,’ but everybody is a little bit of a hipster,” he says.

Cheney-Lippold tells us that when we look at these defined generations, we’re not seeing “essences of who we are” so much as we are seeing the way different groups of people understand power and how they relate to “the system.”

Just as each generation has in a way been defined by its response to the set of conditions presented them at the time, Cheney-Lippold says our perception of the millennial generation and the way it sees itself is taking shape against a framework of war, threat of terrorism, economic crisis and unemployment.

“A lot of the ways that we like to approach these problems or situations is through saying that, as a generation, they’re going to deal with it together. So while you might be an independent person, the context that you have and your social cohort, you’re going to deal with those in a collective way,” he says.

Cheney-Lippold feels there’s a sort of “'kids these days' mentality” at play here, where the blame for many of society’s ills is placed on the shoulders of younger generations. 

“Who are millennials? Well, the millennials are actually people who are less inclined to be part of political parties. They’re less inclined to believe in religion,” he says. “They’re less inclined to exist within the kind of modern notion of what is a good citizen, what is a good laborer.”

And because of that, he says millennials are often considered not to be good workers or productive members of society, “even though they might be working three jobs.”

According to Cheney-Lippold, social media could be the largest source for this intergenerational disconnect. He tells us that while its use is seen in some settings as self-absorbed, narcissistic and damaging, social media has also proven to be a valuable tool for younger generations to interact with and affect the world around them.

He points to the Black Lives Matter movement, which utilizes social media to allow marginalized voices that “historically … were disallowed participation in the mainstream media and politics” to be heard.

“So when we think about how especially millennials are stopping or not participating in institutions, they’re not participating in political parties, they’re not being as patriotic; that might suggest a certain apathy in one frame, but in the other frame it could be that they’re actually doing something different,” Cheney-Lippold says.

All things considered, Cheney-Lippold tells us that this isn't a new story, and that we should be wary of that "kids these days" mentality.

"Research has shown that people love to dismiss and malign the younger generation. They love to say that the cause of the problems of our world are not the actual structures that run them but the people who are at the whim of them, and that since they're not able to succeed then it's their fault," Cheney-Lippold says. 

"Do not blame the youth because they are actually the ones who bring new ideas."