This past week, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the Rural Economic Development (RED) Group in Minneapolis that focused on my much-maligned generation. (Or, rather, one of my millennial colleagues and I saw that we were on the agenda and invited ourselves, entitled millennials that we are.) Media narratives about millennials are dominated by discussions of highly educated urbanites who made social media over-sharing, excessive student debt, and avocado toast go mainstream. That life isn’t reality for most of the millennials we talk about in a forum on rural economic development, and any discussion of this age groups usually involves the objects of study griping about how they’ve been painted with an absurdly broad brush. Even so, it’s certainly true that generations, formed by certain common experiences and changing demographics, and many millennials have developed a righteous sense of anger over our inheritance from past generations.
Unlike some panel discussions in which people talk about issues faced by certain groups of people without inviting said people into the room, this room featured real life rural millennials as the main focus. We listened as nine of our colleagues, including several whom I work with regularly, shared their life experiences to date. Almost all operate somewhere in the community development world or are otherwise very active in public service, so they aren’t a representative cross-section of a generation either, but there was enough variety to give the enterprise some weight. Some of these rural millennials are rooted in communities they’ve never left, others left for a spell but found their way home, and others came as immigrants and have looked to build a new life. Their stories were compelling, and the subsequent report-out session was cathartic, as participants reveled in a forum where they could speak freely.
In broad terms, the panel revealed a generation in search of places to put down roots but struggling to do so. Financial anxiety underlined many of their considerations, and they were often willing to make sudden job leaps or commute long distances in search of something that worked. Housing and job markets pulled them in different directions. People of color struggled to resist both loneliness and tokenism. And most fundamentally, the millennials were frustrated when they found themselves shut out of certain situations, their youthful ambition to join community groups at best a curious novelty and at worst a play to steal their elders’ positions. With the 30-year career path at a single employer largely dead, there need to be new ways up and forward, and millennials therefore require conscious engagement in a way their predecessors perhaps did not.
The torrent of millennial passion at the forum had the effect making me feel ridiculously well-off, unable to say much as others spoke eloquently about their travails. I am the rare millennial for whom the system more or less worked. I’m a white, straight, able-bodied dude. By and large, my rewards in life have followed my effort. I’ve taken a few odd turns, perhaps, but my wandering journey of self-discovery was very much an inward, self-inflicted thing for which I hold no grudge against broader society. The pay sacrifices I’ve made in my career path are the consequences of conscious choices, and I’m fortunate to have a light enough debt load to be able to do that.
While my path more or less worked for me and can for other people, I also recognize that I can’t project it too far. I had a lot going for me, and was lucky enough to have the freedom to dabble along a few different paths before diving in to my current course. Some of our most powerful motivators are the bad things that happen in life, and I also have some more unique experiences to draw from there as well. The worst characteristic of any generational analysis is the belief that one person’s success is somehow a model for everyone else, when instead it was often the product of particular circumstances that made it possible.
This isn’t to say I don’t have my laments about millennial life. We’re right to have serious economic and ecological concerns, and our troubles run the risk of lapsing into despair. I’m something of a tech skeptic. I have a bit of student debt, and if I were in a particularly self-pitying mood, I’m sure I could muster up some woe-is-me tale about modern love. (Note to fellow millennials: acknowledgement of challenges is valuable, but wallowing in such places is not attractive.) I think critics who have characterized my generation as drowning in freedom are on to something, and many millennials live out a tension between wanting to be given direction by some outside force and also not wanting anyone to tell us how they think the world works. An old David Brooks column captures this paradox as it attacks the stupidity of the “follow your dreams” advice that proliferated when we millennials were graduating from college (the 35-40 percent of us who did graduate from college, anyway): our lives were often very structured until they suddenly weren’t, and we came out ill-prepared for a world that is far more competitive and unpredictable than the one our parents inhabited.
The need to resolve this millennial paradox is the reason I’m a fierce defender of the liberal arts and a holistic education, and shuffle my feet uncomfortably when economic development panels start bashing the utility of four-year degrees in favor the trades, as they often do. The value that comes from learning how to think instead of just learning to perform tasks has myriad benefits both in career and in life, and while there are high-demand trades that pay well and bachelor’s programs that are questionable paths to gainful employment, the statistics on the lifetime earnings gap between the two are still stark. Viewing education as an accumulation of skills is a bankrupt idea of what it means to be a human moving through life. The fact that many people may not have the means to pursue knowledge and virtue through education does not invalidate that path as a worthy goal.
We’re probably nearing the end of the millennial thinkpiece era, as Generation Z is starting to render us as old news. If you believe the broad-brush pictures, Gen Z has learned from some millennial flailing and takes a more practical, stability-focused approach to career and life decisions, and has lower rates of drug abuse and teen pregnancy. (Some of this is probably generational: we millennials are the children of Boomers formed by 60s tumult and radicalism, while Gen Z members are the kids of allegedly apathetic Gen Xers.) We millennials have some memory of a rosy world before tech seemed ubiquitous and before the late 00s recession, while both loom large in Gen Z members’ lives. Their world is also even more hyper-competitive, more fraught by winner-take-all competition, more economically uncertain. Rising teenage anxiety and suicide rates are symptoms of these extremes, and point to a malaise that public policy alone cannot solve.
The consistent response to the troubles of contemporary life, both from my millennial peers and our Gen Z successors, has been one of anger. Anger has value as a motivator, clearly, and we certainly have a right to lash out at commentators who trade in cheap, context-free generalizations. But anger alone can lead people to blame vague past others, and too often today, even many practitioners of the humanities are more interested in judging the past by contemporary standards than learning from the mess of past successes and failures. If those of us who have come out of the millennial coming-of-age travails with few scars have something to offer, it might be some stability here: in place of anger, we can offer a steadfast commitment to gauging the emotion around us and putting it to productive use. We can isolate root causes amid all of the noise and go to work. And we can live in ways that make sure we model lives that aspire toward knowledge, toward decency, and toward constructive ends for more and more people.