Let No One Despise Your Youth

1 Timothy 4:12 (ESV) Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

As a fifty-something, and the father of two beautiful people who the world classifies as Millennials, I’d like to take a moment to offer some respect from my generation to theirs. Probably 90% of the members of Hungry Generation, my church, are in their 20s and 30s. These people are the movers and shakers in our congregation, and they lead the way in worship, service, and giving. And the teenagers in our congregation speak, lead prayer, and take leadership roles as often as possible. So I think it’s time my generation gave these younger generations a little respect. This article is essentially a re-write of my recent LinkedIn post (Fink, 2017).

First of all, let’s get this straight: there is no such thing as a Millennial. This is not an official term. The Census department does not define generations (Bump, 2015). Depending on whom you ask I am either a late Boomer or an early “Generation X” baby. Gen-X (probably the least creative generational name ever) was popularized in a 1991 book that incorporated the name in its title (Sandburn, 2015). Baby Boomers were so named by the Washington Post in 1970. Their parents, the so called “Silent Generation” (born 1920-1940) got their name in 1951 from a Time Magazine article. Their parents, the “Greatest Generation” (born 1900-1920) were previously called the GI Generation until Tom Brokaw renamed them in his book (1998). I’ve never heard of names of generations before 1900. Somewhere along the way someone got the idea that the value of 20-year cohorts of people as a whole should be reduced to two-word monikers. Maybe that wasn’t so smart. Someone wanted to get the credit for naming the people who came into the age of majority after the year 2000 by describing a nice box for them to fit in. But sometimes I think people in my generation made this box for people born in the 1980’s and 90’s simply out of fear and jealousy, and we have a whole bunch of pejorative stereotypes to enforce our fear. But we must pass the baton to the younger generation, and the Millennials, some of whom are about to turn 40, are already taking over.

People in older generations very typically call people who come after them lazy, entitled, and self-centered. But I think we forget how we looked to our own parents. GenX was looked down on as purposeless and “lost” by the prior generations. Baby Boomers were characterized as the hopelessly entitled, “Me Generation,” back in the 70s. This trend isn’t new. Disrespect for the young goes way back:

“[The young] only care about frivolous things. When I was a boy we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly… impatient of restraint.” —Hesiod, (c. 700 BC).

“Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.”—Socrates (c. 469–399 BC)

Older people devalue the young because younger people seem to take for granted the conveniences we’ve afforded them, and we characterize them as ungrateful and ignorant. A common complaint today is the amount of time young people spend on their phones. News flash: just about everybody, old and young, is addicted to smart phones. If my generation had had them growing up the selfie would have been born forty years ago. It’s not an aspect of an especially narcissistic culture.

A related complaint about “students today” is not particularly new either, nor is it indicative of the decline of society. In 1703 teachers were complaining that students were too dependent upon expensive and delicate slates rather than preparing bark to write on. In 1815 the concern was that students preferred expensive and disposable paper to practical and reusable slates. By 1907 the fear was that students were foolishly abandoning the irreplaceable pencil for the passing fad of ink pens. Just a few years later in 1928, the crisis was students who didn’t know how to make their own ink and were relying on store-bought ink instead. In 1941 the terrible extravagance of fountain pens was replacing the stalwart straight pen and nib. And in 1950 the shameful wastefulness of disposable ballpoint pens was expected to be the “ruin of education in our country” (examples from https://tech-book.tumblr.com/post/71621531102/students-today). I shudder to think what they would say about me as I rock in my comfortable recliner and type away on my iPad with spell-checking and a predictive keyboard. Then again, I scored 90% on the “How Millennial Are You?” quiz (http://www.pewresearch.org/quiz/how-millennial-are-you/), so maybe I’m just weird for my age.

Contrary to popular belief, narcissism is not on the increase. All people naturally start out narcissistic. I did too. This is part of growing up. Usually it subsides with age and responsibility. When they measured indicators of maturity among the recent cohorts (generations) Trzesniewski and Donnellan (2010) actually found several indications that narcissism trends were slightly reversing. Indicators of self-esteem were lower for younger cohorts and scores on life satisfaction and happiness were higher. This led them to conclude, “Today’s youth seem to be no more egotistical than previous generations, and they appear to be just as happy and satisfied as previous generations. According to the Pew Research Center (2010, p. 18), Millennials’ highest priorities are being a good parent, having a happy marriage, and helping those less fortunate. Career, free time, and fame are their lowest priorities. Doesn’t sound so narcissistic to me.

In fact, today’s youth seem to have psychological profiles that are remarkably similar to youth from the past 30 years.” Roberts et al. (2010) demonstrate scientifically that there has been no increase in narcissism in college students over the last few decades. Instead, they show that narcissism is much more related to age than to generational differences. They conclude that, “every generation is Generation Me, as every generation of younger people are more narcissistic than their elders.” But the young of each generation from as far back as we can measure have been no less narcissistic than the young in this generation. A problem with characterizing people by the decades they were born in is that people are a moving target. Their priorities change as they grow. It is entirely unfair to characterize an adult by how he acted when he was a baby, yet that is exactly what generational thinking seems to engender.

Often cited as proof that the younger generation is spoiled is that many young people seem to be unable to get or hold a job. Instead they may remain dependent on their parents much longer than was true of previous generations. But is this a product of narcissism or of the economy the new generation was given from my generation? I do not believe it is wise compare the accomplishments of generations socioeconomically. For as long as I can remember employers have always said, “It’s so hard to get good help anymore.” I also believe it was a lot easier to get a job when I was a teenager. And generally, we got paid for our work. Nowadays, unpaid internships are commonplace. In the field of journalism, only 34% of internships were paid positions as of 2010 in the U.S. In the UK only 8% of journalism internships are paying jobs (Economist, 2014). People in my generation wouldn’t have stood for this. But the number of jobs has so dwindled in recent decades that more and more qualifications are needed to obtain steady work. My summer job at the lumber store was easy to get—no résumé or job interview was required. The only real requirement was that I show up for work every day sober. It was hard work, but I confess (now that it’s safe to admit), when I got tired I took naps on top of the lumber piles I was supposed to be endlessly straightening. Unfortunately, laziness was not invented by the younger generations.

People of every generation are bigger than the box prior generations make for them. “Generational thinking has always been reductive and condescending,” says Adam Conover, author of the “Adam Ruins Everything” research-comedy show (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=-HFwok9SlQQ). The most damaging effect of these stereotypes is what happens to Millennials who believe them. I see what these disrespectful voices do to the ability of people in this generation to believe they can accomplish the difficult tasks they face. When a job is tough, the last thing we should do is discourage the person undertaking it. After all, society depends on their success.

So I think it’s time my generation gave this new generation a little respect. They are working much harder to obtain things that I took almost for granted. They are working against greater odds than I ever dreamed of when I was young. If we must use the term, “Millennial,” I’d like to see it be one of respect for the rising generation not a pejorative that holds them down. The leaders in my own church constantly demonstrate for me that our young people are examples of the faith, leaders, prayer warriors, stewards, and workers. As the world transitions from my hands to theirs, I want them to know I trust them. They have what it takes to succeed. And as they learn and grow, I want them to be secure in the knowledge that I respect them for who they are and what I know they will successfully become.

References

  1. Glenn A. Fink (2017), “Some Respect for Millennials, Please,” https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/some-respect-millennials-please-glenn-fink.
  2. Philip Bump (2015). Your generational identity is a lie. Washington Post, 1 April 2015.
  3. Josh Sandburn (2015), “How Every Generation of the Last Century Got its Nickname,” Time Magazine, http://time.com/4131982/generations-names-millennials-founders/.
  4. Thomas Brokaw (1998), The Greatest Generation, Random House.
  5. Kali H. Trzesniewski and M. Brent Donnellan (2010). Rethinking ‘‘Generation Me’’: A Study ofCohort Effects From 1976–2006. Perspectives on Psychological Science5(1) 58–75.
  6. Pew Research Center (2010). Millennials: A portrait of Generation Next. Confident. Connected. Open to Change. February 2010, Pew Research Center.
  7. Roberts, Brent W., Edmonds, Grant, Grijalva, Emily (2010). “It is Developmental Me, Not Generation Me: Developmental Changes are more Important than Generational Changes in Narcissism—Commentary on Trzesniewski & Donnellan (2010).” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(1), pp. 97-102.
  8. The Economist (2014), “The Internship: Generation i,” Sept 12, 2014.

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