Perhaps no generation has been ridiculed more frequently than millennials have. The generation has long been the proverbial punching bag in society, with mocking memes populating social media platforms on a daily basis. When society needs someone to blame, more often than not, millennials find themselves at the other end of the accusatory finger. In short—everybody hates millennials.
These criticisms have been society’s default for so long that few—both inside and outside the Church—bother to question them. But I plan to do exactly that. This post is not a rant against Baby Boomers and the older generations, nor is it a blanket apology for millennials (I am one). The point is simply to reframe the discussion and set us down a more constructive path. Because when we stop spending our energy complaining about the younger generations and see them for who they are (and who they aren’t), we can recognize today’s young adults’ immense potential to take the Christian baton and carry it forward boldly.
Will the Real Millennials Please Stand Up
First, the word “millennial” has come to designate all young people. As a result, millennials are often unfairly condemned and stoned for the sins of others. The beginning and end of any generation is always hazy, but Pew Research defines millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996. So, while society often scorns millennials for their political correctness and “safe spaces” on college campuses, the youngest millennials (23 years old) have (or will soon) graduate, and the oldest millennials (38 years old) will soon have their own children start college. Many of the issues people associate with millennials actually relate to their Generation Z successors.
Another erroneous over-generalization is speaking of millennials as one unified and like-minded body (like a hive-like alien species in a classic sci-fi novel). Whenever a person declares, “Millennials are all _______” (lazy/fragile/irresponsible/etc.), it is a sign that they have little (if any) real interaction with millennials. The polarization of American society at the time when millennials are becoming the prominent majority should dispel this myth.
Different is Not Always Worse
In a recent study, representatives of the four primary generations in American society were asked to define their generation. After tallying the five most frequently used words, guess what one appeared in every list? Smarter.
Every generation thinks they’re smarter than the one that preceded them and that they’ve corrected previous generations’ errors. For example, older generations scorn young people for their contemporary church music and lament the loss of hymns, ignoring that there was once a time when Gregorian chant was the acceptable form of music. Even the progression from monophonic to polyphonic chant music was a radical and controversial move (“These young whippersnappers and their polyphonic chant music…”)
People are self-centered by nature. We typically equate the “right” way of doing something with whatever method is most familiar. Our personal preference becomes the standard, and we frown on any deviations from this formula. In the same way, older generations often criticize millennials for their audacity to be different. Unsurprisingly, millennials fail the Baby Boomer test miserably. Being “different” is obviously not always good, but neither is it always bad (as we will see below).
The Contribution of Millennials
Millennials are often criticized for being lazy. When it comes to traditional 9-5 workdays and contributions to society, millennials certainly take a different approach. But they are not necessarily lazy. They merely have different motivations. Many (though not all) Baby Boomers had a shared motivation—the American Dream. When they became adults, they moved out, got a job, and worked hard (often in that same job) for years, earned money, sought promotions, and followed the established path of cultural expectations.
Millennials are different. The American Dream offers little incentive to them. Instead, what motivates many millennials is the loftier (and sometimes overly idealistic) desire to make a difference in the world. Far from being lazy, millennials are statistically more willing to volunteer and provide free labor for humanitarian and social causes and groups than previous generations were. Millennials are willing to work (and work hard); they just need a more tantalizing carrot dangled in front of them than the promise of climbing the corporate ladder.
A similar—and often related—criticism is that millennials are too emotional. This belief contains some truth. Yet, an important question is why so many of these emotionally charged battles still need to be fought. The Baby Boomers largely believed people should keep their head down, work hard, and just worry about their own responsibilities. Millennials (and to a greater extent Gen Z) tend to be less individualistic in this sense. The #MeToo movement, the gender pay-gap, and the racial divide, among other current issues, all focus on societal problems that are by no means new. The younger generations may not always address these problems in a healthy or level-headed manner, but it is not their fault that previous generations passed so many of these crucial issues down the line to them.
Millennials and the Church
One of the best resources God has given the Church today is its young people. With their infectious energy and enthusiasm, the Church’s future quite literally rests with them. One of the most tragic mistakes churches make, however, is focusing more on “fixing” or “correcting” this God-given gift than on helping guide and deploy their young people to use their unique strengths and passions to impact the culture for Christ.
Perhaps the millennial generation’s greatest shortcoming is not their passion, desires, or dreams but their failure to pursue these ambitions in a constructive and healthy manner.
Many within the older generations bemoan that young adults simply do not listen to what their elders say. Despite this critique, survey and poll results consistently reveal that millennials are actually more interested in mentorship and guidance than previous generations were. There’s a disconnect there. Could it be that millennials are simply not interested in listening to Baby Boomers lecture them on how to act more like Baby Boomers? What millennials need is wise counsel and encouragement to become more God-centered, culture-changing millennials.
Every generation has its skeletons. Some ideas and actions in the millennial generation require loving rebukes and corrections. At the same time, let he who is without hippie bell-bottomed pants cast the first stone! Society may hate millennials, but we would do well to remember that God doesn’t. The Church has only one opportunity to prepare and launch young adults into the world. Let’s be sure to look past these differences and prepare them to continue running the race long after the older generations are gone.