(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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The millennial generation, or Gen-Y’s as they are often called, were born between 1982 and 2001. They are the first generation to have mostly come of age during the digital revolution when all forms of technology like facebook, iPhones and YouTube became popular. They are mostly the progeny of Baby Boomers.
David, who lives in San Francisco, is part of a millennial trend called nouveau hippies. He lives in a large Victorian house named the “Embassy” that he shares as a type of commune with fifteen other millennials. He spends his days taking yoga classes, waiting tables at a coffee house to pay for his share of expenses, and attending Edwardian themed parties at which he wears monocles and dresses in period clothing.
Becky, another millennial, recently mourned the death of her mother. She received many condolences from friends but they all came to her by text message – with words like “How are you?” or, “Sorry”. At her mom’s funeral, many of her millennial friends had never attended one before. They took “selfies” at the funeral – “selfies” being a millennial coined word defined as a picture a person takes of oneself by holding the phone camera at arms length. The pictures were promptly posted on facebook both as a way to share community sorrow and to mark a new phase in their lives when attending funerals will be more common.
Shani is a single millennial who lives in New York. Her dating life is defined by text messages she receives from various men who will contact her a few hours before an event and ask her to “tag along.” She has occasional sexual encounters with the men she tags along with but they usually happen at his apartment which is shared with other guys and resembles a fraternity house room. She says most men her age spend more time worrying about their Netflix list of movies than they do planning an evening out with a girl. Marriage for most of her friends is still a distant prospect with most millennials waiting until their late twenties or early thirties to tie the knot.
Forbes magazine indicates that millennials are smart and tech savvy but they have certain quirks that employers must understand. They want to listen to music on their iPhones while they work, they want more time off then they do higher pay, and they are not very loyal to an employer but instead constantly look for other jobs with a better workplace environment.
It has become a trend to express concern about the millennialgeneration. They are often derided as self-indulgent, spoiled, narcissistic and with an inflated sense of self. In a recent poll of millennials, 80% believe they are “gifted”.
But millennials are also driving the current technology revolution and economic expansion. Some commentators call them the new pioneers as they push our nation into unknown cultural and technological realms. They are focused less on amassing large sums of money and buying expensive material goods than they are on quality of life issues like time off, recreation, and social benefits. Millennials typically are happy living in cities and small apartments. They shun the suburbs and their large, cookie cutter houses. Many do not want to own cars but prefer biking, ride sharing and mass transit. They are environmentally conscious and are pushing for renewable energy resources. They are strong advocates for GLBT equality, immigration reform and inter-racial relationships. Organized religion is not relevant to many of them. Being literate and completely comfortable with all forms of digital technology is mandatory. The trauma of 9/11, two wars and the worst recession since the Great Depression haveprofoundly shaped their attitudes.
And while such a discussion of millions of millennials can lapse into stereotype, their cultural characteristics do broadly hold true and they do cross racial and ethnic lines. In a recent book entitled Black America Study, black millennials are just as tied to technology as their white peers. They take for granted an increasingly multiracial society and it is noted that there exists a growing divide between blacks born before the Civil Rights era and those born after – many younger blacks call their parents and older blacks “the enemy within”. African-American millennials are optimistic about the future and believe their generation will finally push the nation into full multiculturalism. Hispanic millennials are much the same. They shun the religiosity and traditions of their parents at equally high rates as they embrace a positive, change focused outlook with technology leading the way.
While many of the millennial attributes seem foreign to those of us who are older, it is clear that this generation will soon dramatically change our nation, its culture and its politics. In most respects, that will be for the good. My two daughters are millennials and they closely mimic its culture. My oldest daughter is 29. Marriage and having children is at least a few years away. At her age, I was married with a four year old child and another on the way. Sara once shared an apartment with a gay guy. They remain close friends and they often double date. Having a variety of diverse friends is both important but unremarkable to her. She has many friends who have moved back in with their parents. She texts friends constantly. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are constant media resources – a newspaper, TV newscast or printed book are rarely accessed. While she is now in nursing school, she spent her years after college working in a home for mentally challenged women – displaying an indifference toward high pay but also a deep empathy for the disadvantaged.
Like her fellow millennials, Sara is a wise and caring person. Issues like equality and happiness in life are important to her. Being rich or driving the best car are not.
I relate all of these characteristics of the millennial generation as a way to highlight a current concern expressed by older people. Themillennials, they say, were raised by Baby Boomers like myself who chose to indulge their children and spare them, as much as possible, the hurts and setbacks of life. My ex-wife and I practiced what is referred to as helicopter parenting – monitoring the lives of our girls constantly. They were a part of youth sports teams at which winners and losers were not important. Every kid was acknowledged, praised and earned ribbons, medals and trophies just for participating. As a child, Sara was not a great soccer player. She would stand in the field and pick dandelions while play happened all around her. Even so, her mom and I, as well as her coaches, praised her as if she were the very best.
We kept the lives of our girls constantly busy with ballet lessons, youth sports, homework and summer camps. We would do anything for our girls – sacrificing most of our free time for them. We were like many Baby Boomer parents reacting to the less involved way we were brought up. Raising kids and meeting their needs was an obsessive project – we were incubating our girls in a protective cocoon for as long as possible.
And cultural commentators now say millennials, as a result, lack the basic ethics of hard work, strength, resilience and humility. They are ill equipped to deal with the real world of being fired, suffering a loss or economic insecurity. They are spoiled narcissists who collect Facebookfriends like they used to collect participation ribbons. Some millennials do believe that success in life is merely a matter of just showing up. Both conservatives and liberals decry the millennial generation saying that they were spoiled as children in ways that shape their ethical approach to life – they can’t handle suffering, they want things given to them, they don’t know how to sacrifice and work hard.
In many ways, this kind of thinking is shaped by old style economic and theological ideas. Life is tough. People suffer. People must therefore work hard just to survive. There is no free lunch.
Economically, older Americans expect people to earn what they get in life. Differences in income are often believed to be determined by how hard a person works. This carries over into how many Americans understand religion. We earn God’s love by being moral, nice and upright – by how we act and what we do. We reap what we sow, as the Bible says.
This is a conditional view of life which, as I said, is shared between liberals and conservatives. Success in life and being loved by God are conditioned on doing good work. That is an ethic which many of us believe should be taught to children. Sadly, many of us now believe, that ethic was not well taught to the millennial generation.
The striking fact about how many millennials were raised is that they were NOT taught a conditional understanding of life. Millennials were often parented unconditionally. They did not have to earn recognition for what they did. They were praised and rewarded simply for being – simply for being a child. And many experts now see this as a strength and hallmark of millennials. Far from being ill equipped to deal with life setbacks, far from having the neuroses and insecurities many Baby Boomers have,millennials have an inner sense of well-being and positive attitude that will serve them and the world well. How they were raised, therefore, can give us insight in to how one might raise an ethical child.
Millennials, for instance, do not see diversity as a threat to them even if they are, like my Sara, straight, white and relatively privileged. Every person has value because that was an ethic millennials were taught. Thisis having an important impact on culture and politics. Millennials are a driving force in changing attitudes about gays and lesbians as well as other racial groups. Their happiness and inner security do not come from external rewards and recognition but from having a healthy self-confidence. If 80% of millennials believe they are gifted, experts believe that will transfer into how they will achieve and innovate – as fearless people who embrace change unlike more fear based older generations.
Many millennials do not need a theological God to make them feel valued. They have been raised to feel that. Love was not given to them conditionally. It was freely given in the form of affirmation no matter what they did or did not do. And this view is beginning to show up in how young people see economic inequality and social welfare. Hard work does not alone determine success in life. A teacher or social worker provides more value to the world than a Wall Street hedge fund trader. People are good no matter what. Success in life is measured more by happiness, personal fulfillment and recreation.
While no generation of parents are perfect, many experts believe that Baby Boomers got it right in terms of raising children with confident inner selves. As infants and young children, experts today believe that constant nurture and affection are vital. One cannot spoil a child too much but instead build into him or her an intrinsic sense that the world is relatively safe thus translating into a willingness to take on challenges without fear or doubt.
Other experts encourage the use of nouns instead of verbs when praising a child. For instance, saying to a child who has willingly cleaned his or her room: “You are a very helpful and good person” versus “You cleaned your room really well.” The use of a noun encourages a child to understand that he or she is already good and as a result does good things. Psychologically, that translates into a child and adult who feels good about him or herself. That further translates into greater empathy, humility and kindness. One need not act arrogantly or selfishly if one already possesses inner confidence.
Above all, raising an ethical child understands the difference between a child feeling shame and one feeling guilt. Shame feelings are rooted in inadequacy and a sense that one is inherently of no worth. Shame filled children are told they are bad. They are only praised or loved when they do good. Guilt, however, is legitimately felt as a result of a bad action. One can still be good even with occasional lapses. Emotionally healthy children and adults do not feel shame. They are confident enough such that mistakes do not set them back.
Raising an ethical child is therefore focused on building a core sense of self that is appropriately confident. As we all know, one cannot love others unless one intrinsically loves oneself in a healthy and non-egotistical manner. Experts say that parents should spend as much time with a child as possible – choosing to frequently interact and play with them. They should also put up a so-called “wall of fame” that prominently displays a child’s works – from drawings to homework to pictures and awards. Doing these things lets a child know that they have value as a person who is wanted, enjoyed and unconditionally loved.
Parents should also model ethical behavior to children instead of preaching to them about good or bad behavior. In one study, children and parents were asked to play a game of marbles. Children whose parents played the game with a fun spirit and who generously gave away marbles to others – the kids were twice as likely to act in the same manner. Children whose parents simply told them to be generous were much less likely to practice it.
This gets to the other side of raising ethical children. Parents must not only be ethical themselves but they must model the kind of inner confidence they want their children to acquire. Experts encourage parents to work on their own insecurities and depressions as a way to help instill self-confidence in children. Insecure parents often raise insecure children. And insecure children and adults are not as likely to be ethical. If the world is a place to be feared, people are more prone to be selfish, to act and speak unkindly, and to see life as a conditional exercise where only the hardest working and wealthiest deserve good things. .
If we believe we are all children of God, or of some force greater than ourselves, then how we feel loved by that figurative parent is crucial. Most world religions believe that life on earth is like a test – we must not only learn right from wrong but then we must live it out with a passing grade. But life is not a test. It’s an experience and a gift – one that we only get once. To be a genuinely ethical person, generous, empathetic and compassionate behavior must come from the heart and soul. We cannotearn the title of goodness. We must simply be good in ways that pour out of us in unconscious ways. To encourage that development in children, its essential that they be raised in ways that allow them to feel safe, loved and valuable – not for what they do but simply for who they are.
This attitude transfers to how we ought to see other people – as children of some powerful force – God, natural forces, the power of love – ones who were wonderfully brought into being. Since that is so, every person has value. We all deserve equality of opportunity. We all deserve the basics of life. We all deserve the honor of being respected and valued. So much of the hate, violence and political divisions in our nation and world come from a root sense of insecurity about self and life. If each person were raised in a way that told them they are a champion, that they are special, there would be far less resentment, jealousy, and anger in our world. Those negative attitudes do not come honestly – they come from deep insecurity and fear. People can be gay, straight, black, white, liberal, conservative, religious, Atheist, native born, immigrant, whatever – and that’s OK. That’s good! Humanity is a beautiful and colorful tapestry woven by our maker in a way that says each unique thread is vital to the well being of all. This is a KumBahYah ethic but it rings eternally true.
The hunger of any human heart is to feel loved and appreciated. Such a feeling is oxygen to the soul. For any of us who may have lacked such love and respect in our upbringing, we can find it in how we give, serve and treat others. We can let go of anger at our parents and try, instead, to break cycles of insecurity by building into others – and especially children – the kind of self love that is uplifting, pure and modest. Only by finding such inner peace can we, and the children over whom we have influence, grow into ethical and intrinsically beautiful people. Long live the millennial generation!
I wish you all much peace and joy.