I’m not happy about it, but I am learning to come to terms with it.
I’m talking about those of us in our 20s and 30s, otherwise known as Generation Y
We’re said to be fickle, flaky, and frivolous. People say we’re privileged and often averse to hard work. And we have a difficult time with commitment; when we say yes to one thing (or to one person) it means we have to say no to everything else.
I grew up in a middle class home in Canada with two loving parents. My parents were frugal, but I was denied no basic opportunity. I played sports, went to summer camp, and traveled the world. My parents helped me pay for university, and after I graduated, I moved back in with them in good millennial fashion.
I have no doubt I am better because of these opportunities, but there’s no denying it: I am a millennial.
I am 29, I have two Masters degrees, one in science, one in theology, and I have yet to settle on a career. This has not been from a lack of effort though (at least that’s what I tell myself); I have knocked on many doors, just none of them have opened.
This doesn’t mean I haven’t walked through any doors — I have a wife of three years and we’re currently living in rural Uganda, which I think decreases my millennial score — I just have a hard time walking through some.
There are a number of reasons for this that we often hear about: increased competition, unrealistic expectations, etc. But I am convinced the most important reason is the need for choice.
We want the ability to say no, even though we paradoxically don’t want the responsibility that comes with saying yes.
Living in Uganda has made this all too clear. My wife and I don’t have any kids but we live in a country with one of the highest birth rates in the world. One mother in our village has 18 kids. 18! And that doesn’t even take into account the husbands who have multiple wives.
We are often confronted by older women who point to me (sometimes below the belt), then turn to my wife and ask, “Does it work?” We side-step this question (for obvious reasons), and usually say we aren’t ready to have kids.
It’s a satisfying answer for ourselves, but not for anyone who isn’t a millennial (like Africans or parents). “What do you mean you aren’t ready for kids [insert career, marriage, mortgage, etc.]? When will you be ready?” My usual reply? “I don’t know, just not yet.”
This may be a privileged, entitled, or even a flaky response that perhaps even deserves a good kick in the butt, but it’s not necessarily a bad response. It doesn’t deserve the contempt that many people, including myself, often lob towards “those lazy millennials.”
In fact, it’s similar to something a well-known writer once said, who himself wasn’t a millennial but who very well could’ve been:
“What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever…. I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees…. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”
King Solomon, the privileged son of King David, wrote this in the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon, who is said to be the wisest man who has ever lived (even though he curiously did many unwise things, like have 1,000 wives and concubines), asks the question so many of us ask: where is meaning in life? Solomon mockingly responded by declaring that everything is meaningless. He understood, as with many millennials, that the fruits of privilege and labour are not enough to nourish life.
Another would-be millennial, the well-known American naturalist romantic Henry David Thoreau, echoes this sentiment:
“[M]en labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”
I can’t help but think there is a certain amount of wisdom in the millennial approach to life. It‘s incomplete wisdom — I will be the first to tell you that — but it’s not misdirected wisdom.
As millennials, we ask why, not how. These why-questions always get people into trouble — they are a hotbed for existential or institutional angst — but they are also some of the most important questions to ask.
We search for what is good, not what is profitable. We’ve seen the fruits of profit and have deemed them lacking.
If millennials fail to understand that work and commitment are essential parts of life, it’s not merely because of our own fickleness — although it’s not always in short supply — it’s because previous generations have failed to provide a compelling narrative that can capture our hearts and imaginations.
So millennials are forced to construct one for themselves. But it’s too heavy for any one individual, which is why many millennials are crushed by the weight of their own expectations.
Millennials certainly don’t get it right most of the time. But at least we’re searching.
Flickr photo (cc) by old_skool_paul