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Stop treating millennials like a punchline

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DECEMBER 05, 2013

Whether it’s on the front pages of decaying media conglomerates or the stuff of “sharebait” BuzzFeed listicles, bashing — or at the very least poking fun at — millennials is “in.”

In May, TIME columnist Joel Stein wrote a glitzy cover story about millennials, or, as the magazine referred to them, the “Me Me Me Generation.” In September, McSweeney’s wrote a deeply unfunny caricature of a millennial as a FOMO-driven (Fear of Missing Out) zombie who “loves to engage actively with brands if they approach him in an authentic fashion.” And again, in September, the New Yorker ran a fake lease application for millennials, mocking them for a having primitive understanding of personal finance and being indolent hipsters.

Much of this humor comes from a place of honesty. It’s true that we millennials — generally speaking, those born between the mid-1980s through the 1990s -— are on our smartphones more than previous generations. It’s true we are living with our parents at a higher rate than previous generations. It’s true that we want the products we buy not to just play music or call our friends — we want to feel as if there’s something authentic in how we use them. There’s no harm in cracking jokes about #millennialproblems. Many of us do the same when we think of baby boomers who still use Internet Explorer or the awkward Facebook behavior of Gen Xers.

But what happens when the jokes, the humor and the derision resulting therein become the norm for how we talk about millennials? As our semester comes to a close and thousands of UC Berkeley students — a sample drawn directly from the heart of the millennial generation — inch ever nearer to graduation, this concern is very real. How are millennial college grads going to a fare in a world in which we’re assumed to be selfish, attention-seeking brats?

Instead of asking critically minded questions about millennial behaviors, attitudes or the issues we face, it seems like most of the media is comfortable with lazy, condescending quips or the trite, sterile marketing material designed to produce pageviews and Facebook likes.

Our generation doesn’t need patronizing concern-trolling over smartphone addictions or sexting problems. We certainly don’t need any more Joel Steins stupidly labeling us as excessively narcissistic.

This isn’t to say that we should shut out conversations about millennials from the public discourse. Far from it. But let’s drop the pretense that there’s something innately “problematic” about our generation and instead talk about what’s problematic with the world around us at this point in time.

According to November labor statistics, job hunters ages 16 to 24 face an unemployment rate of about 15 percent. As UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich explains in his “Wealth and Poverty” course every spring, the explosion of economic growth since the end of World War II has largely benefited baby boomers and the wealthy — a reality made all the more gruesome by the late-2000s financial crisis that marked most millennials’ coming of age.

In addition to the high structural unemployment, many recent and soon-to-be college graduates have job prospects that offer them the oh-so attractive opportunity of an unpaid internship or working minimum wage. While the minimum wage in a different, seemingly long-ago time was enough to support a family of three, today it barely pays for clothes on one’s body, let alone a roof over one’s head.

And if you want to talk about the corrosive effects technology is having on the younger generations, then let’s stop with the needlessly trollish articles about millennials’ sexting or obsession with Candy Crush. The real technological dangers facing millennials include embattled privacy rights in a cyberspace increasingly occupied and regulated by the NSA surveillance state and social media colossi such as Facebook, Google and Snapchat. Although millennials remain largely unsure about what to think of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, large majorities are uncomfortable with increasing government control over people’s data.

At UC Berkeley, perhaps we don’t bear witness to the insane level of millennial self-absorption many claim is all around us. Our campus is a deeply competitive one, and many of us come from more staid, middle-class backgrounds than our private-school counterparts. As students attending a public university, most of us are aware of the distinctly millennial poverty traps and crippling inequalities that seem to less significantly affect the ivory bubbles of Stanford, Harvard and Yale.

Our generation has a tremendous set of challenges in front of us, most glaringly the climate change crisis our parents have so successfully ignored. For those interested in cracking jokes about us shallow millennials, at least be prepared to talk about the struggles on our long road ahead.

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DECEMBER 06, 2013