Now generation: Why there’s so much chatter about millennials

Serina Ong, the job-hunter. Photo: Amy Jackson Serina Ong, the job-hunter. Photo: Amy Jackson

Kids these days, amirite?

Seems we all just can’t stop talking about the millennial generation, and everyone has a different perception of who they are, when they were born, what they want, where they’re going and how they’re impacting society.

Stories about millennials—how to market to them, ways to teach them, why you should (or shouldn’t) hire them—are being published on a nearly daily basis. Universities and agencies are conducting surveys in an attempt to quantify this group of people, and each article almost invariably invokes a slew of outraged comments, pointed fingers and exasperated eye-rolls. Students and young professionals are annoyed by the negative attention brought on by the public assumptions of technological dependency, short attention spans and perceived laziness, and baby boomers and Gen X-ers scoff, asking why everyone is so obsessed with pandering to the needs of this generation.

But blaming everything that’s wrong with society on the millions of people who happen to be born within the same two-decade period (roughly between 1980 and 2000) is not a new concept by any means.

“It’s literally been around since the Greeks,” says Elizabeth Losh, associate professor of American studies and English at William & Mary. “It’s really an old joke, this idea of generational decay. It’s not a new idea, and it’s often tied to new media.”

Losh teaches a class called media seductions, which examines the history of technology and innovation, and the subsequent moral panic that comes with that evolution. “[Plato] cautioned that the ‘new media’ of ancient Athens might corrupt the young with images of sex and violence, dumb down popular culture into a state of amnesia, foster the moral deception of a gullible citizenry and encourage blasphemous behavior that would destabilize society,” the course description reads. In the millennia since then, moral panics have erupted around novels, plays, newspapers, paintings, films, comic books, video games, TV shows and social networking sites.

“When I see the generational labels, I’m curious about what else is going on in our broader society,” Losh says. “What’s going on, what kinds of explanations are getting deployed in our larger cultural conversations.”

Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy recently published a report based on the results of surveying 2,004 Virginians born from 1980 to 1997. The survey posed questions about economic well-being, views on job opportunities, news consumption habits and civic and political behavior. According to Quentin Kidd, the report’s co-author and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy, the survey was conducted because as of 2015, the entire millennial generation is fully franchised.

“The youngest millennials are now 18 years old or older. They all have the ability to vote and they’re independent, at least legally,” Kidd says. “We thought it was a good time to take a snapshot of Virginia millennials at the point where they’re at the height of their political power, see what they’re interested in, what they’re anxious about, what they want their future to look like, what they want their life to look like right now.”

The survey confirmed his belief that, overall, millennials are less interested in politics and more convinced that their own involvement and contributions will be more effective at solving problems than traditional politics.

“For a lot of millennials, their earliest political memory is probably a president being impeached,” Kidd says, adding that they’ve grown up with two political parties that have demonstrated a general inability to collaborate across party lines and get anything done. “It makes sense that this generation says politics isn’t the path to solving problems.”

Some results were less predictable, though Kidd says there’s a striking continuity between millennials, Gen-Xers and baby boomers in terms of what they ultimately want in life. Good schools, safe neighborhoods and clean, walkable streets all seem to be common themes from one generation to the next.

“The stereotype is that millennials are all congregating in urban areas. They all want to live in a 300-square-foot loft, ride a bike to their startup, stop at Whole Foods for a salad with a locally harvested piece of salmon, then go home and watch Netflix,” he says. “But, in reality, millennials aren’t that different from everybody else in the sense that they want the things that they want.”

Sherina Ong

The job-hunter

Sherina Ong has found herself in an in-between phase. The 25-year-old doesn’t go to the same office building at the same time every day, she doesn’t have employee benefits and she doesn’t know what she’ll be doing three months from now. What she is doing is working part-time for NextDayBetter, an organization that embraces a cause she cares about (telling stories inspired by multinational diaspora communities), trying her hand at freelance journalism (which she’s been interested in since childhood) and relishing a flexible schedule that allows her to travel and spend time with her friends and long-term boyfriend.

Piecing together a career and dabbling in several different industries isn’t uncommon for recent grads (Ong graduated from the Curry School of Education at UVA in December, and she has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from William & Mary), but it’s a lifestyle that her parents’ generation seems to grapple with. In fact, her mother, a native of the Philippines, recently sent her a well-intentioned e-mail linking to an article about how to evaluate a potential employer, with an emphasis on things such as health insurance and paid time off.

Does she want stability, a retirement plan and an expense account? Sure. But being in her mid-20s she still has some time to take advantage of her parents’ health insurance, and, like so many others who find themselves cobbling together a career and a paycheck, for now she’s enjoying the unpredictability of it all.

“At NextDayBetter I was introduced to all these people who had these more creative flexible lives, and that really resonated with me,” Ong says. “I didn’t even know people lived like that, so it was really eye-opening for me.”

Ong says most of her peers can see the appeal of a less structured work life, but she does get irritated by the negativity associated with her generation.

“I get annoyed because it’s usually coming from a place of ‘Oh millennials are so entitled, they just want everything, they’re lazy, they want to just have money and not do the work,’” she says. “From my experience, people in the creative professional sectors are the complete opposite of all those bad things. They’re the most hardworking people I’ve ever met. They have multiple jobs and are probably not getting enough sleep. They’re not lazy—they’re passion-driven. That’s why they’re doing so many things.”

Blake DeMaso

The employer
Photo: Amy Jackson
Photo: Amy Jackson

At age 43, Blake DeMaso is the oldest person in his office. He owns Mountain High Media, a local marketing firm, and about half of his eight employees are millennials. Overall, DeMaso describes members of the millennial generation as people-pleasers who are eager to learn and work hard. With that work ethic, though, comes a quality that he says he doesn’t see much of in other age groups.

“If millennials hit a home run on something at work, they expect recognition in return. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, I think it’s just a different way to manage people,” DeMaso says. “And that doesn’t always mean that they expect to get paid more or get a promotion. They just expect to be recognized for the work they’ve done and to be able to stand out in that way.”

Learning and understanding how millennials operate is crucial, DeMaso says, not just as an employer but as a marketer. When he’s not interacting with his own employees who are in their 20s and 30s, he’s working with a client who wants to appeal to that age group.

“Millennials are very nostalgic,” he says, adding that the firm recently redesigned Bold Rock Hard Cider’s six-pack, giving it an updated yet rustic feel. “They want to be connected to simpler times, and what was once cool becomes cool again.”

They want to look at a product and make a judgment without being smacked in the face with it, he says. Don’t tell them it’s locally crafted cider—show them.

Another shift DeMaso has seen with this generation is a desire to support companies that promote a greater cause. They want the brands they spend money on to align with their lifestyle, he says, and they make their purchasing decisions based more on morals and values than cost. Two companies may sell nearly the same product, but the one that advertises that it uses recycled materials in its packaging or supports sustainable agriculture is more likely to attract buyers in their 20s and 30s, he says.

Kelsey Miller

The business owner

At 22, Kelsey Miller has been using computers her entire life. She recognizes that as a fourth-year UVA student she’s had the privilege of living in a bubble for the last four years. On Grounds she embraces her identity as a millennial, as an enthusiastic, hardworking people-pleaser who believes in following her passion and doing something important. But she’s also an entrepreneur, a business owner who’s spent the last three years interacting with clients and convincing them that she’s more than just a tech-savvy college kid.

“It’s something I play up and try to hide at the same time,” Miller says, noting that most of her clients want to appeal to millennials while at the same time they may initially be skeptical of a business run by that very demographic.

After her first year at UVA, Miller teamed up with three classmates and launched rADical, a student-run advertising and marketing firm with an office on the Corner.

“It grew out of this millennial idea of if you really love something and you’re passionate about it, you can teach yourself the necessary skills,” Miller says.

Miller says their undergraduate classes at the McIntire School of Commerce can only do so much to prepare them for the realities of the professional world, and she says she’s grateful she’ll enter that realm with more than just a high GPA. She already knows how it feels to agonize over three meticulously planned project pitches, only to have all three unapologetically rejected. She’s already dealt with challenging clients, made hiring decisions and figured out how to collaborate with an entire roomful of different personality types.

“Honestly the work with rADical is what has prepared me for the real world more than anything,” she says. “I’ve learned that you could be putting forth 100 percent of your effort and sometimes things just don’t work out. It’s been a really great reality check. Anything that gets away from the book theory, I think, helps you.”

John Anderson

The entrepreneur
Photo: Amy Jackson

John Anderson, 24, is his own boss. He gets to wear a T-shirt to his downtown office, make his own schedule and camp out at a coffee shop to do work when he’s tired of sitting at a desk. He also works in two fields he cares about. The ability to use his skills and pursue his passions were the driving forces behind his decision to launch Web Koils (which designs and builds websites and iOS apps) and Bundl (a digital platform for bands to sell VIP experiences). But he’d be lying if he said the flexibility and autonomy weren’t also a big part of the draw to entrepreneurship.

“You get a satisfaction out of having an end product and having ownership over things,” Anderson says. “Rather than just grinding away at something and not seeing the fruits.”

Anderson says he’s seen some peers graduate with the sole purpose of making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, but for the most part he associates his generation with passion and drive.

“That purpose seems to be much more prominent now [than in previous generations],” he says.

At the same time, he sees less company loyalty when it comes to making professional decisions. Even as a business owner, he says he understands the desire to hold off on decisions such as having kids or buying a house so you can keep your options open in case a new opportunity comes along. 

“What if I want to move to New York or Asheville? I think about that a lot,” he says. “Obviously you’re going to have ties, but at the same time you don’t want to commit too much to something. I think the dream has really been changing.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan

The professor

If you ask Siva Vaidhyanathan, the discussion of millennials is completely moot because the concept of generations is an arbitrary construct.

“There’s no empirical evidence that generations exist,” says the UVA professor of media studies. “It’s a sort of shorthand we use to generalize about a large and diverse group of people based on assumptions we carry, and generally when we’re talking about generations we’re willfully ignoring differences of class, race, gender, sexuality and nation of origin.”

Vaidhyanathan always cringes when he hears people talk about who millennials are and the impact they’re having. Especially as a college professor, he’s insulted on behalf of his students when he hears colleagues discuss, for example, ways to cater to this generation’s short attention spans.

“You could demonstrate that cultural habits and attention spans have changed over the last 20 years, but if you were to do that, you would probably find that attention spans and habits among 50-year-olds have changed as well,” he says. “Most things people say are stereotypes about so-called millennials apply to my 73-year-old mother too. She overshares on Facebook, she spends too much time watching YouTube and too little time reading novels.”

Vaidhyanathan has been teaching undergrads since 1996, and he says of course his teaching style has evolved in that time. But, especially as a media studies professor, that evolution has been a result of more accessible technology and not an overall shift in student attitude or personality with the turnover from one generation to the next. Though he has seen the levels of stress about achievements increase over the years.

“I sense that students are getting more focused, more serious and less willing to experiment with ideas and dreams and majors than they used to be,” he says. “They tend to now approach college in a much more focused and careerist fashion, and I contribute that to pressure from parents and culture to get out as fast as possible with the most marketable degree possible.”

But to attribute those shifts to generational turnover disregards other factors, he says. The nation’s economy and higher education have changed, and students are adapting to those changes.

“Times do change, but they don’t change abruptly enough for us to discern when one generation begins and one generation ends,” Vaidhyanathan says. “And they don’t change the same way for everybody.”

Photo: Amy Jackson.

Debbie Mosley

The student

Debbie Mosley doesn’t remember a time before the Internet. She vaguely recalls the existence of payphones, but, for the most part, technology has been ingrained into her life since she was old enough to type. She can’t help but marvel at how long it can take older adults to pick up what she considers to be basic technological skills.

“It’s crazy to me how lost my mom and grandma seem at doing basic things like printing, opening Microsoft Word, zooming in and out, whereas for me it’s just simple,” she says. “And I don’t think it has anything to do with intelligence. It’s just what I was exposed to from a young age.”

A third-year in the media studies department at UVA who’s taking Siva Vaidhyanathan’s media studies class, she considers access to the Internet a defining characteristic of her generation.

“It’s not like we were all born under a certain moon or something,” she says. “But what each generation goes through shapes what they value.”

One of those common values that she says connects her and her peers is an overall desire to spend money on trips and events rather than material items, and especially rather than things like a mortgage.

“My generation is less concerned with stability and more concerned with experience,” Mosley says. “A lot of millennials are interested in traveling and going to concerts and taking road trips rather than putting money down for a house, buying a car, establishing themselves.”

For her, a lot of that wanderlust stems from her own parents’ regrets that they didn’t have that opportunity. Mosley is the youngest of six kids, and her mom didn’t have the chance to go to college until Mosley and her five brothers were older. 

“I’m sure that’s a very universal thought. Parents just want their kids to do better than themselves,” she says. “Once you have kids you have responsibility, and you can’t just take off and make selfish choices.”

While she notes that some stereotypes about millennials, such as the tendency to postpone putting down roots, can be fairly accurate, she’s frustrated by others—like the accusation that she and her peers spend so much time staring at their screens that they’ve lost the ability to interact effectively in person.

“I don’t think technology is impeding us from being face to face,” she says. “We’re not pod people. If you can’t communicate off the Internet, you’re naturally inhibited in terms of communicating with other people. That’s your personality, not technology.”

Jon Elliott

The stay-at-home dad
Photo: Amy Jackson
Photo: Amy Jackson

A couple of years ago, Jon Elliott announced to his friends and family that when his wife, Heather, gave birth, he would leave his job with Faulconer Construction  to stay home and raise their son, Parker.

“I think my parents were the most surprised in the sense that in their generation, the mom stayed home,” says Elliott, a 34-year-old whose days revolve around nap time, ACAC’s Kids Zone and household chores. “There was some confusion on their part as to why I was taking on the role of the mom and why we weren’t both working. But after answering those questions, they fully embraced it.”

Elliott says he’d always joked about being a stay-at-home dad, but it never occurred to him that quitting his job to raise kids would be financially feasible. But when his wife, who works remotely as vice president of development for National 4-H Council, got pregnant in 2014, some spreadsheet scrutinizing and long talks revealed that not only did it make sense financially, but it was what they both wanted for their family.

“The stars kind of aligned and I had this moment of clarity,” Elliott says. “Of all the things that I’ve done in my life, this is arguably the most important and would leave the biggest impact, and it’s something that I should jump at.”

A proud member of the local group Dads with Diaper Bags, which organizes regular playdates and meetups for stay-at-home dads in the Charlottesville area, Elliott has embraced his role in his 18-month-old’s life. It’s not how he pictured his adult life when he got his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Colorado, and it’s certainly a deviation from the norm of his parents’ generation. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Growing up on the edge of the millennial generation and Generation X, I figured you go from high school to college, you get a career right after college, work there until you’re in your 60s or 70s and then retire,” he says. “I thought my career would be the focus of my adulthood, and obviously that has changed. I’m almost having to reinvent myself in terms of what is my focus.”

Maria Redieske

The working mom
Photo: Amy Jackson
Photo: Amy Jackson

Maria Redieske is a 30-year-old teacher at Agnor Hurt Elementary and a mother of two, and she’s never not had a job. She worked throughout high school and college and started teaching eight years ago—it’s tough for her to imagine her life without a full-time job (and a paycheck). So when she and her husband, Bryan, had their first child nearly four years ago, the idea of staying home was on her radar but not her first choice.

“Teaching is my passion,” Redieske says. “And I was a teacher before I was a wife or a mom.”

Like a lot of parents, it came down to the numbers. Two sources of income made more sense than one, even though a significant portion of hers goes to childcare.

Redieske’s mother, who didn’t go to college, stayed home to raise her and her five siblings. It was hectic, with half a dozen kids running around, but Redieske says her own childhood was less structured than her children’s—she and her siblings woke up when they wanted to, stayed up later and had more freeform playtime. But as a working parent, Redieske says it’s all about scheduling.

“I think I have to be a lot more prepared than she used to be because I never know where I’ll need to go,” she says. “Now, we have to schedule time to play, whereas before it was a little more natural because you were home all day.”

The upside of scheduling everything, though, is the ability to maintain an adult social life while still being parents. Most of her friends also have children, she says, which means they don’t have to give up dinner parties and weekend trips to breweries—they just pack bags of snacks and toys and make sure wherever they’re going is kid-friendly.

“Our generation doesn’t want to give up our friends,” Redieske says. “So we blend our social life with our kids.”

Although there are times when she has to focus more on one role than another, like when her students are preparing for testing or one of her kids gets sick, she says the greatest challenge as a young working mother is striking a balance.

“I have to wear a ton of hats, and I think it’s important to keep them all balanced,” says Redieske. “You can’t be too much of one thing or you’re not enough of another.”

Just the Facts

According to the 2016 report Virginia Millennials Come of Age: Social, Economic and Political Traits of the Generation Shaping the Commonwealth’s Future:

40 percent of Virginia millennials have volunteered in the last 12 months

California, Florida and North Carolina are the top places to live for Virginia millennials who are considering leaving the Commonwealth

22 percent of Virginia millennials are currently not registered to vote

7 percent of millennials nationally identify as LGBTQ

According to Millennials in Adulthood, a 2014 report published by the Pew Research Center:

29 percent of millennials say they’re not affiliated with any religion

85 percent of millennials believe in God

49 percent of millennials would call themselves a “patriotic person”

A difference of opinions

Quentin Kidd 

Vice provost and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University

Author of the 2016 report Virginia Millennials Come of Age: Social, Economic and Political Traits of the Generation Shaping the Commonwealth’s Future

Mark Bauerlein

Professor of English at Emory University

Author of the 2008 book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)

Quentin Kidd and Mark Bauerlein have both been in academia for decades. They’ve seen generations of students come and go and they’ve watched technology evolve and reshape higher education. They’ve both researched the millennial generation and its impact on society, and they’ve come away with different perspectives.

On words or phrases associated with millennials:

Q.K.: Optimism and energy. I’m surrounded by them all day, and I think millennials are very optimistic about their future.   

M.B.: The final decline of Western civilization. The downfall of the American nation.

On teaching millennials:

Q.K.: I think millennials are more demanding in and out of the classroom. They want to engage and participate, they want to be a part of their education process.

M.B.: I used to get a lot more of the bookish, off-beat-type kids who read a lot, were maybe a little out of the mainstream. They didn’t care so much about grades, they were more interested in reading and ideas. They have largely disappeared in the selective schools where I’ve taught. Now it’s the achievement race, career advancement. It’s a pretty mercenary group.

On criticism of millennials:

Q.K.: There are people who fundamentally don’t know how to appreciate that things are going to be different in the future than the way they were done in the past. And I find that richly ironic because the generation that probably created the most change in America and did things their way is being critical of the generation that’s going to be bigger and probably will have a more profound impact on society.   

M.B.: I’m an elitist in matters of culture, but also a populist. Every single person should be able to participate and be drawn into Shakespeare, Mozart, the best that we can offer. This is where knowledge of great traditions of the past gives us grounding of judgment. They help anchor us when we face new cultural works so we’re not carried away too much by just the concerns of the moment.

On technology:

Q.K.: People have a hard time embracing new technology, and they don’t appreciate or understand the role it’s going to play. Imagine the generation before the printing press, and what they had to say about it. “Oh, the day of verbal storytelling is gone, it’s never going to be the same. We have this contraption here putting words down on tablets and the world is doomed.” You can’t fight change.

M.B.: There’s this intensification of adolescent peer-to-peer contact. [Social media] cultivates tastes that are adolescent, which spells the decline of high culture and maturity. The mass distribution of adolescent attitudes and interests is a disaster for our culture and, by extension, our society. 

On individuality:

Q.K.: This is the generation that grew up in a time when everyone was a “winner.” Not in a negative or positive way, but everyone had potential. You may not have won this time, but you got a participation trophy, and that says the potential to win is there. They’re optimistic and they really feel like they can do anything.

M.B.: They’re awfully diplomatic and conformists. The funny thing about the digital age is we’ve never had so much opportunity for free and independent expression, yet I’ve never seen so much conformity in my life.

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