Why Millennials See Differently
“Well, what’s an example of a turning point in your life so far?”
I couldn’t get these two words out of my head.
I was asked this simple yet daunting question during the beginning stages of this project, and my lack of response—or at least extreme trepidation to respond at all—was one of those moments you know you will never forget. I am twenty-two years old. Does that mean I haven’t had any significant or life-changing experiences? Or are my experiences automatically less valuable because of my age—because over the next ten or twenty or fifty years, new, more important moments will occur that will inevitably replace the old? I couldn’t get away from this concept of age when I began to think about life’s significant moments.
These were some pretty deep questions for a Monday afternoon, but as I walked home through the beautiful campus I have been lucky enough to call home for the past four years, I wondered if I would look back on my time at The University of Michigan and think, “Yep, that was the moment my life changed.” It sounds somewhat dramatic, but how could I not think this way when college is thought to be the time where we find ourselves? The time where we figure out who we want to be, often because of what we want to do or why we want to do it.
So is college all that us twenty-something-year-old’s have to offer when it comes to turning points in our lives? For some reason, every bone in my body hoped that this isn’t true. I firmly believe that it’s the little things in life that matter most, therefore there has to be a way for turning points to manifest in these small moments.
I. A what?
Let me start out by saying that the phrase “turning point” is probably—no, definitely—a cliché. I think it has been used so often and thrown around in such a casual manner that its definition has become hazy. This makes determining whether or not I believe that I’ve experienced one that much harder, because who’s to say whether or not a moment in my life is significant enough to be a turning point other than, well, me?
As any fellow millennial might do, I turned to BuzzFeed for some initial answers to my question of what exactly a turning point is. It turns out, the phrase has been used to identify pivotal moments in a television series, a moment of sudden stardom for a celebrity, and even an important political moment when it comes to climate change. Turning points are also often used when talking about key historical events or even a game-changing occurrence in a sports match. I know my life is nowhere near as momentous as the history of our country or even the Olympics, but there is something to be said for the way in which we view the experiences we have and the things that happen to us.
In a world where many things are left up for interpretation, not to mention having your own opinion is highly encouraged, I’m here to argue that yes, it is possible for someone as young as I am to have had experienced a turning point already. But I’m also here to prove that my generation’s view of what these turning points look like is significantly different than our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The world we live in is dominated by digital technology, leaving little room for a life lived free from the ever-present need to stay connected.
II. Who are millennials?
“Millennial” is another one of those oversimplified yet often misleading words. If you were born between the years 1980 and 1999, guess what? You’re a millennial—it’s as simple as that.
Well, kind of.
If you’re a millennial, there’s more to you than just the year you were born. According to a research review produced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, being a millennial means having a team orientation, a desire for seemingly constant feedback, and a social-minded view of the world. You are known to be technologically savvy, since most of your life has been lived in an extremely connected world. Your childhood may have been full of precisely-scheduled activities, and you might even have been exposed to the infamous “helicopter parent” who formed an occupation around knowing (and influencing) anything and everything about your life. But don’t worry, you are probably an excellent multitasker, especially when it comes to media use. Burt, no, “able to watch TV, do my homework, and post on Instagram at the same time" shouldn’t appear on your resume.
Speaking of social media, us millennials are “masters of self-expression.” With 75% of our generation existing online through a social network profile, we tend to get a little too confident and and little too into ourselves. Oh, and if you sleep with your precious cell phone next to your bed, you’re among the majority of fellow millennials (80%) who do this nightly. If this doesn’t freak you out, how about the fact (found in an SDL study) that you probably touch your smartphone 45 times a day? I’m a bit overwhelmed by this reality—as I check my Snapchat while simultaneously finishing this sentence.
If you aren’t already a little turned off by the details of this classification, you may want to brace yourself. Researchers love to explore generational stereotypes as well as differences, and millennials’ latest nickname is “Generation Wuss.” This may be only one guy’s opinion and these may be broad generalizations, but I believe that there’s always a little bit of truth in the ideas that are so widely spread. I’m not saying that I fully agree that everyone in my generation is over-sensitive, lacks the ability to place things into context, tends to overreact, evokes passive-aggressive positivity, and insists they are right despite proof that suggests otherwise.
I’m also not not saying this.
To take things one step further, let’s also say that all millennials are in fact needy and always anxious, try desperately to be liked, and create victim narratives in response to hard times—what does this really mean? More often than not, this means that the seemingly infinite outlets in which we can display our work or portray our personality make for an absurd amount of content about ourselves out in the world for anyone to see. This constant cycle of producing and sharing leaves a lot of room for criticism, but the millennial generation is not known to handle this criticism well. Bret Easton Ellis makes the point that millennials are more of curators than artists, in that we are constantly gathering, organizing, and showcasing personal information in order to reveal the best version of ourselves. I believe this practice is one of the key reasons for my generation’s unique position in how we see the world and more importantly, our place within it.
III. Why is our view skewed?
So what makes millennials so special? Why do we see things differently?
The reality of the situation is that we live in a world where technology is increasingly relevant and even necessary in almost anything we do. More specifically, MIT professor Sherry Turkle has coined the phrase “always on” to describe our relationship to technology. She introduces the idea of the “tethered self,” in that we are both physically and mentally attached or “tethered” to digital technologies and therefore crave the fulfillment or gratification that these devices can provide. As millennials, we were born into an emerging digital world, as many of our childhood memories involve computers, the Internet, and other digital devices. Millennials are often classified as “digital natives.” Using and interacting with technology just comes naturally to us.
Today, the tethered self can be extended to social media, which are especially popular within, if not a key component of our generation’s identity. We are in a state of permanent connection, even just due to the fact that communication or information sharing is one click or swipe of our smartphone away. In addition, social media allows people to share aspects about themselves with a given network—whether that be information shared through status updates, photos, videos, text messages, and many other apps and websites that foster connection. But this constant need to share and communicate does more than provide a glimpse into someone’s life or allow friendships to withstand long distance. Social media’s constant presence in our generation’s world has created a very specific type of viewing the world around us.
Name any situation—a concert, meal with friends, walk through the park, party, visit to a local coffee shop—and you can almost always guarantee that someone will be documenting it. “Pics or it didn’t happen” has become a popular phrase among young people, and points to the idea that documenting an experience with a photo is the only way to validate that it actually happened. This has transformed into a type of cultural premium being placed on broadcasting one’s life, which fosters the urge to share solely to establish your presence online and thus in the real world as well. We document and share moments of our life not only because it has become a natural urge, but because now that sunset, latte art, or pose on top of a mountain does not feel as important otherwise.
More broadly, this relationship with social media changes how we perceive the world. At any moment in time we can tweet a funny line that comes to mind, or upload a beautiful photo that we are proud of in the hopes of receiving gratification in the form of “likes” and comments. Since we are increasingly aware of how our lives will appear to our audience on social media, we have developed what Nathan Jurgenson calls the “Facebook Eye.” Whether we recognize it or not, we often see the world in terms of how we can document it on social media. The idea of being “likable” is now actually quantifiable, and any experience can be viewed as significant, depending on how we package it to others. Since millennials dominate social media, it is clear that we are guilty of and used to this Facebook Eye. To us, any moment worth documenting on social media is important, or at least important enough to put the energy into perfecting a Facebook status update, Instagram caption, or Twitter hashtag.
IV. Say what?
If we accept the fact that millennials do in fact have a different view of the world because of their constant social media use, it’s important to point to some examples of what this looks like. In addition to just simply documenting one’s life, a trend has emerged to brag about oneself as well. I’m sure we have all seen countless Facebook posts about someone’s new job, acceptance to college, engagement, or maybe just the fact that they are having an especially good day. Yes, social media is all about documenting your life—but more often than not it is about documenting the good, rather than the bad. Rather than taking the time to call your friends and family and tell them about an accomplishment, Facebook allows us to instantly share exciting news on any given day, at virtually any time.
To give a more concrete example, last week one of my roommates got into grad school. How did I know this? Because I saw it on Facebook. Although there are twelve of us, my roommates and I are particularly close and therefore usually aware of what’s going on in each other’s lives. We have an ongoing group chat that we communicate through daily, and always find ourselves gravitating towards our living room couch or someone’s bed to hangout and swap stories. But on this particular day, while scrolling through my Facebook feed during class (guilty as charged) I saw multiple posts on her Facebook Timeline, congratulating her for her acceptance into PA school. My roommate never actually posted anything about it herself but instead other people—everyone from her parents and siblings to friends from both college and high school—felt the need to share their excitement for everyone else to see.
V. So what?
At this point you may be thinking, so what?
There is definitely merit in the idea that social media has created a potentially harmful reputation economy, in that often all we care about is our likability. I also believe there are more positive effects of social media than just the negative consequence of wanting to impress our followers. It’s clear that technology is changing the way we think about things, since we are hyperaware of how we are presenting ourselves online or how others might perceive us. But I can’t help but hope that this also may give us a greater sense of self. Some people might use their online identity to explore aspects of themselves that haven’t fully manifested, for example a love for photography or the simple joy of sharing a weird hobby with an online community. Additionally, knowing that an audience is present often forces us to bring out the best in what we are doing, which can lead to better content or even a heightened confidence that comes with a sense of pride in being able to share our lives with others.
Although one could argue that social media causes us to see the world in a more superficial way, I believe it also allows us to celebrate the small moments—the beauty we see each day in addition to the large “life-changing” events. Social media enhances our ability to reflect, as our Facebook photo albums, tweets, or Instagram posts serve as reminders of moments from our past, specifically the moments we felt were important enough to share.
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about turning points already.
As I sit on the front porch of the house I’ve called home for the past nine months—in shock of the 75-degree weather Ann Arbor has been blessed with—I am still questioning my ability to say I have experienced a turning point in my life so far. And maybe that’s just the nature of turning points: you may not recognize them until long after they have occurred. But I can’t help but also think about the world that I live in. I am constantly flooded with details about my peers’ lives. Each day (especially as a graduating senior) I hear about someone’s new job, impressive LSAT score, or pride in finishing their last exam of college. At this point, I am essentially numb to this information. Everyone has something to share on social media, and whether or not I realized it before, I think the act of constantly sharing our accomplishes discounts the excitement of each additional post.
What I will proudly argue is that millennials do more than just post a lot on social media. We see the world differently. We are used to hearing how our classmate started their own company or won a research grant. But we also celebrate the small things, the things that automatically feel more important when we receive validation through “likes” and comments. So maybe I haven’t had a life-altering turning point yet. Maybe I’ve had a delicious latte at my new favorite coffee shop (as seen in an Instagram post)—the same coffee shop that I realized that I want to continue writing as a professional career, or that my score on this one Econ exam will not dictate my success therefore should not dictate my happiness right now. For us millennials, a turning point does not necessarily mean marrying the love of our life, having our first child, or completely changing our career path for the better—
at least, not yet.