How to Explain the Millennial Generation? Understand the Context

By Darrin J. DeChane
2014, Vol. 6 No. 03 | pg. 2/3 |

A Unified Theory of Generational Change: Explaining the Millennials

The historical events that change a generation are the most interesting because both the event and reaction have separate consequences. Such events and reactions are why both Strauss-Howe and Mannheim’s generational theories must be used simultaneously. Furthermore, the influences on the Millennial Generation were magnified because millennials were able to see what many generations did not see: photographs and footage, in vast quantity. While the GI Generation read about Pearl Harbor in newspapers and listened to commentators on the radio and the Baby Boomers watched day old footage of the Vietnam War, the Millennial Generation watched the second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center on live television. Millennials also saw how other generations reacted to events and millennials learned from them. Millennials did not learn what to do, but they learned what not to do.

Every so often, an invention appears that no other generation has had access to. These times are very interesting because it is usually the youngest generation that fully accepts these inventions. For the Millennial Generation, this is modern technology: personal computers, smartphones, and the Internet. Technology provides a clear turning point when both Mannheim’s Theory of Generations and Strauss-Howe Generational Theory are mixed together. First, personal computers and technology were invented, an example of a historical event. Then, it was the millennials’ parents who wanted the best for their children and gave them computers and the Internet. The Internet was so new, no one knew how to use it and if there were any Internet rules or etiquette. Millennials were left to their own devices and Mary Donohue believes it was events like 9/11 that taught millennials how to use the Internet. Instead of confiding in their one best friend, millennials went to the Internet and confided in many groups of people that may or may not geographically live near them (Donohue, 2012). Technology and the Internet have promoted three qualities among the Millennial Generation: the rise of groups of friends, globalization on a personal level, and online politics.

Technology has had the greatest impact on the Millennial Generation and following closely behind are the events of September 11th, 2001. At the time of 9/11, millennials were young toddlers at the youngest and were in college at the oldest. The majority were in school, surrounded by their peers as teachers decided how to approach the tragic situation. In this moment, the Millennial Generation became fearful of the unknown. Subsequently, many young men and women volunteered to defend their country. The Millennial Generation feared innocent and not-so-innocent backpacks on the sidewalk. They feared their friends and family would not return from Iraq. The events of 9/11 instilled a fear into this generation uncommon since Pearl Harbor. When a man promised to return troops home from the War on Terror, millennials that were of age voted in record numbers to elect “President Obama, a man who ran on hope and change, of promises of a new day and a better, less fearful future, who vowed that it will get better and that war would be over” (Racine 2013).

Katie Racine further explains this disillusionment in a persuasive essay titled “We Are the 9/11 Generation.”

We are the war-weary and indebted, the jaded and the idealistic, the ones tired of a broken system. We are the ones who will carry the burden of debts of war on our back. We are the children who grew up in a nation fearful of the world around us. We are the young adults on the brink of college, changing our life projections to answer the call of our nation. We are the crying and confused teenagers who wandered the halls of their high schools as we watched the world change around us (Racine, 2013).

September 11th clearly caused many fears, sentiments, and life changes that each have their own effects. The Millennial Generation, the fearful generation, does not object to the government spying on its own citizens or strict screenings at airports: they understand why these things are necessary.

The characteristics of any generation evolve from both historical events and the family sphere and therefore, both theories must be combined to explain these characteristics as completely as possible. Although it is impossible to imagine the generational impact of most notable events, it should be noted that they do exist and occur every day. The multigenerational influence begins as soon as humans enter the world because a child’s world is encompassed by their home life for roughly the first decade and therefore individuals become a product of their parents: a different generation. One popular cliché that arises from bi-generational households is that the Millennial Generation is much “more optimistic and confident than the generations preceding them especially when compared to the cynical and individualistic Generation Xer’s” (Nimon, 2007, p. 34). With the contrast between the two generations, the “turning” is much more obvious.

This is sometimes looked at negatively because of the association between confidence and arrogance. Nimon’s analysis is supported by Telefónica’s millennial study, which surveyed more than 12,000 millennials and found that that 83% believe they can make a local difference, 52% believe they can make a global difference, and 60% believe “one person’s participation in the political system makes a difference” (Telefónica, 2013). These characteristics are due to the increased optimism and confidence of this generation.

The answer to how millennials become confident lies in the manner in which this generation grew up. Millennials were “considered special since birth, and generally more sheltered” and therefore, they were shielded from failures and the general hardships of childhood (Donohue, 2012). Howe and Strauss explained the increased optimism and confidence largely seen in this generation by applying their theory that emphasizes generational influence. In their essay called Millennials Go to College, Howe and Strauss wrote:

Unlike Generation X’s traumatic, latchkey childhood, the Millennials grew up in an area that placed high value on children – reflected in everything from the products on the shelves (Cabbage Patch Dolls, “Baby On Board” stickers) to the media (pro-kid movies like Baby Boom and Three Men and A Baby, a sharp rise in kids magazines and TV shows). Even the TV show, “Barney and Friends” (featuring teamwork and commonalities) stole the limelight from “Sesame Street” (which featured individualism and uniqueness). Part of this trend is the emergence of “helicopter parents” – always hovering, ultra protective, [and] unwilling to let go (Howe & Strauss, 2003, p. 21).

The “turning” of this generation can be found in “hovering” parents, even in the earliest stages of childhood. In May 2013, Time published a cover story titled “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” authored by Joel Stein. In this article, Stein described research findings suggesting that “kids with high [confidence] did better in school and were less likely to be in various kinds of trouble,” suggesting that confidence was instilled in the generation by attentive parents (Stein, 2013, p. 23).

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