Have you heard of the generation called the “millennials”? This the generation that I am a part of, apparently – those born after 1980 and before 2000 (that is, between 15 and 34 years old).  If you have heard of this generation, then perhaps what you’ve heard is that we are: 

“Coddled and helicoptered, catered to by 24-hour TV cable networks, fussed over by marketers and college recruiters, dissected by psychologists, demographers and trend-spotters…”

 Since I write on a demography blog, it’s about time that I dissected this generation too – or, actually, dissect this NYTimes article about the millennials. What is it that millenials are known for? What sets them apart from other generations? 

“The usual answer seems to be ‘narcissism’ — self-absorption indulged to comical extremes. We all can recite the evidence: the breathlessly updated Facebook profile, the cascade of selfies, the Kardashians.”

Now, there are always older generations that complain about younger layabout, good-for-nothing ones, but I think that today’s technology certainlyt gives more scope for millennials self-adoration to shine. “Look at me and my amazing life” has surely never been easier to say than with Instagram and facebook etc etc. But, according to the NYTimes and the Pew Research Center, the epithet of “narcissism” is less accurate than it appears. 

“What Pew found was not an entitled generation but a complex and introspective one — with a far higher proportion of nonwhites than its predecessors as well as a greater number of people raised by a single parent… It is no surprise, as Pew reported, that the millennial generation is skeptical of institutions — political and religious — and prefers to improvise solutions to the challenges of the moment. It is one thing to own a smartphone, as so many of us do. It is quite another to have mastered its uses at age 10.”

 Apparently millennials are less likely to want high renumeration if it comes at the cost of job satisfaction:

“‘Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of millennials said they would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring,’ the Brookings Institution recently noted in a report by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais titled ‘How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America.’”

I wonder how much this would change if we broke the millennials down into two groups: those who have a family to financially support, and those that don’t. There are many people, I am sure, in jobs that they do not like but they do them for the money and for their family. I wonder if millennials think the way they do because they are younger and less likely to have financial and familial commitments?

Aside from the insouciance when it comes to take home pay, the millennials are also described in glowing terms by the author, Sam Tanenhaus:

 “…these habits and tastes [of millenials] look less like narcissism than communalism. And its highest value isn’t self-promotion, but its opposite, empathy — an open-minded and -hearted connection to others.”

Wait, what!? Millennials are empathetic? The last time I checked Twitter that did not seem to be the case. As a member of this generation I can be forgiven for being a little sceptical about this claim.  So what is the writer basing it on? As far as I can tell from the article itself, only three pieces of behavioural evidence and three members of the generation in question. The first two exhibits relate to millennials shopping habits. Those born between 1980 and 2000 tend to buy on the internet and look for clothes made from organically farmed cotton. They are also vegetarians.

“Consider millennial shopping habits. Even in the realm of fashion, many are indifferent to prestige brands and lavish ad campaigns, preferring to buy online or get ‘disposable’ clothing at H & M or Zara, which boasts that its organically farmed cottons are ‘completely free of pesticides, chemicals and bleach.’… The Brookings report says millennials overwhelmingly ‘responded with increased trust (91 percent) and loyalty (89 percent), as well as a stronger likelihood to buy from those companies that supported solutions to specific social issues (89 percent).’”

And when it comes to food?

“The new generation may have had health-consciousness drilled into them at home or in school. But they have raised it to a new level. ‘For millennials, food isn’t just food. It’s community,’ The Washington Post reported last year… An estimated 12 percent of millennials say they are ‘faithful vegetarians,’ compared with 4 percent of Gen X’ers and 1 percent of baby boomers.”

So far the evidence seems pretty thin – we’re more likely to be part of a fad to buy organic clothes (I am so far out of the loop I didn’t even realise that was an option; I wonder if one can get organic polyester…) or not eat delicious meat. But does that make us empathetic?  Hmmmm. Well, let us see if the rest of the evidence is any better. The third piece of evidence is that we millennials do not bow to the man in a corporate monkey suit job:

“The generation that gave us Occupy Wall Street has embraced its own modes of entrepreneurship, found across the broad spectrum of ‘creatives,’ from stylists to techies, who reject the presumed security of the corporate job and riskily pursue their own ventures, even if it means working out of their parents’ basement.”

The fact that many of us do not have the option of working for big corporates and, instead, have to make a virtue out of necessity in working from out of our parents basement does not necessarily mean that we are empathetic. As for millennials’ “open-minded and open-hearted connection to others”? Well, the first example is a surprise: 

“Exhibit A may be LeBron James, the N.B.A. superstar who in July announced that he would be going back to rust-belt Cleveland after four glamorous years in Miami, becoming, at age 29, one of America’s wealthiest boomerang children.

‘Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids,’ James explained in a statement on SI.com exuding millennial earnestness. ‘My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.’”

Now surely at this point the author is taking the proverbial. Here is what Business Insider Australia has to say about the transfer: 

“LeBron signed a two-year, $US42.1-million deal, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN. The second year is a player option, meaning he can opt out after the 2014-15 season and become a free agent again. The contract is unique among current NBA players. It gives LeBron the most power he could have gotten in the short term, and the most money he could have gotten in the long term.”

Whatever the deal may be, “empathetic” is not how I would describe it…

The other examples in the piece concern a blogger and an author.  While both seem accomplished at what they do and both are best-selling authors (one on random people in the New York crowd and the other on something called “The empathy exams”) I do not really see how their stories add to the author’s thesis that the millennials are the “nice generation” as claimed in the headline. 

I don’t want to just point out a flimsy argument, but I do think that these generational comparisons are somewhat silly. A generation born at the same time might have had similar experiences and will generally have access to the same technology, but one cannot generalise to say that it is more “empathetic” than its elders. Nor, conversely, can one say that it is more “narcissistic” than the generations that have gone before (although I do think that there is more opportunity to cultivate that narcisssim publicly nowadays). 

I don’t think that the generation born before the end of the millenium is a “nice generation”. Instead, it is a group of individuals who have their good and bad traits and who are as humanly flawed as the rest of the world.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...