When our team was brainstorming for this series and debating whether Millennials should be deemed the dominant or non-dominant perspective, we didn’t come up with a clear answer like we had for earlier investigations into the fragility of race and gender. Generational fragility differs from other subjects in always evolving and contextual. “Baby Boomers, to some extent, are still in the position of power—the dominant group,” Mary-Frances said in a recent essay, “even though the balance of power is shifting rapidly.”
As a generation emerging into power, millennials have sparked a slew of articles and debates centered on a couple of basic notions that are sometimes conflated: burnout culture and emotional fragility. In other words, when we stereotype Millennials, we usually do so in one of two ways: they’re lazy or “soft.”
I’m unsure how to make sense of the “millennials are lazy” stereotype because it contradicts the assumption that we’re all part of a widespread burnout culture. Even though a stereotype does not have to be true to be widely disseminated, I wanted to discover why it is still a part of the conversation about the Gen Y generation. Similarly, how is it feasible to have a millennial burnout culture in an environment where older generations may perceive us as lazy?
“Well, this one doesn’t pay as well as the others, but at least I wouldn’t be selling my soul to do it,” I thought back to all the times I had conversations with my friends while job hunting, flagging jobs based on how much meaning they brought me: “Well, this one doesn’t pay as well as the others, but at least I wouldn’t be selling my soul to do it.” “This one would bring me a lot of stability, but I’m not sure if it would make me happy,” I said to my parents in a language they understood better. My friends seemed to know that I was seeking a job that would fit my greater life purpose, whereas my parents saw work as a Monday through Friday commitment that helped pay for my broader life reason.
Reflecting on my own experiences, Mary-Frances’ GIF, and the popular BuzzFeed essay “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation,” I began to investigate how millennials work hard, perhaps in jobs and ways that are not readily apparent to previous generations. Is it possible that while millennials have a strong work ethic, we are guided by distinct values—such as doing good for others and maintaining a work-life balance—that cause our outputs to differ?
Many of the discussions about the generational divide, in my opinion, overlook the fundamental values that motivate each generation, as well as the many social and political climates that have shaped our worldviews over time. These considerations are critical because, by establishing a consistent understanding of what it means to “work hard,” we’ll be better positioned to address the other millennial stereotype: millennials are soft.
“This generation is a bunch of snowflakes,” “Back in my day, we just let those comments roll off our backs and move on,” “Millennials are too fragile,” and so on. The idea is that this generation, which is now leaving college and some of whom are already moving through the ranks to leadership positions, is more emotional and less resilient than previous generations. Our need or desire to push concepts like political correctness, space spaces, and trigger warnings are censoring the very conversations we need to be having; our need or desire to make concepts like political correctness, space spaces, and trigger warnings are censoring the same discussions we need to be having.