There are many problems with Joel Stein’s cover story about Millennials—people born between 1980 and 2000. The most glaring substantive one is probably that, in his discussion of my generation’s relatively slow start and disappointment in employment, he finds plenty of time to talk about the widespread availability of social technologies, and none whatsoever to talk about the dramatic contraction of economic opportunity that has made it harder for Millennials to find jobs, and more dependent on their parents’ financial help and health insurance as a fallback, rather than as a lifestyle choice. I can believe that Stein would make that omission, but it’s difficult to believe that his editors let the piece into print that way.
But one thing I think is useful and clarifying about the article, even as I find it frustrating, isn’t in the text at all. It’s the way that it’s being sold to the public: namely, with a picture of a well-dressed young woman, gazing into her iPhone, seemingly taking a picture of herself:
Stein’s piece wisely acknowledges that the condemnation of Millennials that’s a common trope these days, and that makes his piece feel like trolling, is only the latest iteration of a generational cycle. And what might have made the article interesting rather than repetitive is a discussion of the way this cycle is different from the ones that came before.
One avenue the choice of cover suggested is that there might be a gendered component to the irritation with Millennials. Dependence, interiority, and the careful construction of fantasy lives aren’t solely the provenance of girls and women of course, but they’re traits that are coded as feminine. And technology and economics have made those traits much more visible when men and women display them. If a scrapbook was something you kept for yourself to archive your memories, Instagram is that scrapbook, except shared with everyone. If you kept one of those inspiration boards with ribbons sewn into fabric stretched over a board in your dorm room or your childhood bedroom, you’re probably doing the same thing on Pinterest. And where your parents might have paid your first and last month’s rent as a deposit—or if you were spectacularly lucky, bought you an apartment—a version of support that wasn’t necessarily obvious, though it could be deduced by a reasonably intelligent observer, their reduced circumstances and yours might leave you living at home, a much more visible sign of your economic interdependence with your family.
Neither Stein’s article, nor anything else I’ve read about generational research suggests that women are exhibiting the traits he calls out as negative out in greater numbers. If anything, Millennial men and women are coming into alignment in certain ways, whether it’s wanting equal flexibility in work so both men and women can balance their careers and family responsibilities, or using social networking tools (though men and women tend to gravitate to different services). If what irritates non-Millennials about the current generation of young adults, male and female alike, isn’t just that they’re self-absorbed, or entitled, or dependent, but self-absorbed, entitled, and dependent in feminine ways, that’s telling.
And it says a lot about the second half of Stein’s thesis, which is ostensibly about how Millennials could save us all. If what Millennials have to offer is lessons about genuine introspection, more reasonable expectations of work-life balance, and the need for a fair social safety net and reasonable return on the investment of getting a college education, that seems like a genuinely valuable conversation. It’s just too bad that it’s one implied by Time’s cover, rather than discussed in Stein’s article.