Talkin’ ’bout my generation

The Millennial Meltdown

My grandfather, while leading a particularly stimulating series of family discussions one fine Saturday evening on subjects ranging from Barack Obama’s real birthplace and the “Gay Agenda” to the trials and complications of having an Asian landlord, paused rather suddenly. He put his fork down, wiped the sauce off his face with great ceremony, and turned to look straight at me. When anyone over the age of 65 initiates direct eye contact with you, there are two main avenues for response.

The first option is to stop talking, hold your breath and stay completely still. (The elderly, like your garden-variety mountain lion, tend to be pacified by stillness and gestures of nonaggression.) From there, all you can do is pray that if you die, the afternoon you spent at that Cub Scout charity gift-wrap will be enough to get you into heaven.

The second option is to return the person’s gaze with unswerving ferocity and hope that he or she backs down. Complement this strategy by raising your arms up over your head to appear larger and more threatening, and/or by distracting the person with a cup of strawberry Activia fiber yogurt.

Or stop being such an ageist, patronizing beotch, and listen to what your elder has to say.

And I did. After my grandfather glanced my way, forgetting all about Obama’s place of birth (which is Kenya — let’s be real), he asked me the question that in many ways inspired me to write for this newspaper and certainly write this week’s piece.

He asked me what my generation was called — simple enough question, one would think.

Nobody in the room knew, it turned out, what my generation was officially called. I knew we’d been called the most selfish generation, the most connected generation, the generation of technology, the most-fucked-for-job-opportunities generation (can I get an amen?), the worst generation, even. Eventually, my uncle pulled out his phone and Googled it (total our-generation move, #amiright?) and announced that members of my generation, in all our snot-nosed, tattooed and pierced, entitled, jobless, technology-obsessed glory, are called “Millennials.”

Millennials. What does that actually mean? It’s certainly more evocative than “Generation Y”, the other oft-used title, but it still proved difficult to explain. My grandfather’s question, more than just a factual inquiry, was really about the deeper issue of what really, truly defines this generation. Who are we? How are we different from past generations?

This column will attempt to answer that question.

There are a lot of things that could speak to the last 20 or so years of human beings. Where to begin? Most people think it’s with technology. Certainly, we are the most technologically advanced of any of our predecessors. Life is light-years easier for us than it was for our grandparents, who were at any given time either trekking through the snow or suffering. Our technology is shinier and thinner. It’s also everywhere. Technology used to improve people’s lives, facilitate them or enrich them. But people in today’s generation sees technology as a PART of their lives — and a part of themselves. So could that be what Millennials are all about?

Another term thrown around occasionally is the “Trophy Generation,” the generation that was told it was all beautiful, special, amazing and could be anything it wanted when it grew up. The generation that got trophies for finishing first, last and everything in between at club soccer. The generation with lots of self-esteem but no tough love. The generation with the most education and the least common sense, the most qualified and least employable.

So what is our generation? Yes, we love technology and have fancy cappuccino makers and lots of iPod choices. And yes, we were told we could be president if we wanted to be, and YES, in the current job climate, it’s hard out here for a pimp. But the irony here is that the true measure of our generation lies in my grandfather’s question: What is our generation?

I think we’re the generation that asks questions.

We ask the tough questions. Like, should I get an iPhone 4S or a 5? And why aren’t second-semester game days a thing? They need to be a thing.

Other questions that we ask of each other, our government, our parents, the universe, our cats — when no one is around and we need meaningful life advice — and ourselves, are changing the world in ways that may not even be totally quantifiable until quite a few generations down the road.

We’re pushing the boundaries of science, and technology, and politics, and social taboos (like talking to your cats) and social norms (like not talking to your cats) and film, and literature, and art and just about everything. And it’s not because we’re the generation with our heads buried in our phones. It’s because we have access to more information than anyone else has ever had in the history of ever, and we’re putting it to good use.

In fact, we’re not even the generation that’s asking the questions anymore. We’re the generation that’s getting the answers.

Jacob Leonard writes the Thursday blog on coming-of-age issues. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @leonardjp.