Tom Chivers

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His first book, The AI Does Not Hate You is out now.

July 31, 2019

Millennials, right? The younger generation. Don’t know they’re born. Can’t face an honest day’s work. Expect everything to be given to them on a plate.

We know this, because every few days there’s a story about how they are too overprotected to be police officers (they have been “wrapped in cotton wool”, are routinely shocked that police are expected to work nights and weekends and “do not like confrontation”, apparently). They’re “entitled, spoilt and molly-coddled snowflakes”, they’re “flaky”, “self-centred”, “narcissistic” and “oversensitive”.

But as far as I can tell, it’s all nonsense. For a start: millennials aren’t that young any more. The usual cut-off point, where Generation X becomes millennial, is 1981. (I miss out by less than six weeks; I’m gutted.) The oldest millennials are now 37 years old; some of them are grandparents; many of them will be taking their own children to university this September. Even the youngest (born 1996) are now approaching their mid-20s and have probably been in the workforce for a while now. Professors and medical consultants are millennials; quite a lot of those millennials who are too mollycoddled to be police officers will be detective chief superintendents by now, which must have come as a shock.

For another: all this dividing people up into generations (boomers, Gen X, millennials, iGen/Gen Z) is at best arbitrary and at worst meaningless. I’m apparently Gen X, but I obviously have more in common with a millennial born two months after me than I do with someone born in 1965.

The sociologist Philip Cohen argues that the categories are essentially valueless and do not line up with any useful distinctions; they’re just “irregular categories without justification”, “marketing names that promote stereotyping and confirmation bias”. Most people, when asked to give their own “generation”, get it wrong.

That’s not to say that people haven’t changed: obviously they have. Younger people are more liberal on most issues, for instance, and they are less likely to smoke, drink and take drugs. But they don’t line up neatly with the generations: actual changes in social attitudes, such as attitudes towards divorce, are unconnected to these arbitrary categories.

Here are some of the differences. Younger people are more liberal on LGBT issues – about 80% of under-34s have “no objection” to same-sex marriage, compared to 62% of 55- to 75-year-olds – and race; young people are much more likely to think that it’s racist to dislike hearing UK residents speak other languages than English or to make jokes involving racial stereotypes. They’re less likely to be religious, although slightly more likely to be of a non-Christian faith, a change presumably driven by immigration. They’re more likely to identify as LGBT themselves.

And they’re more likely to be worried about climate change – although it’s not as dramatic a difference, at least in the UK, as I’d have expected, given the constant moaning by baby-boomer columnists about Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, 94% of 18- to 34-year-olds think climate change is definitely/probably happening, 46% think it’s definitely/probably caused by human activity, and 32% are extremely/very worried about it. For over-65s, those numbers are 90, 35 and 20 respectively. It’s not huge. In fact, since Britain saw its hottest ever recorded temperature last week, I would have been entirely happy if it were greater. If the younger generation is willing to make those sacrifices that we older ones are not, then perhaps the consequences might not be quite so severe.

What I find strange is the older generation complaining about this. Young people have always been more liberal than their parents; it’s as though the boomers have forgotten the Sixties. And being more open on sex and gender issues is hardly new either; about half of British teenagers in the Sixties and Nineties decided they were gay because David Bowie and him out of Suede were for a while. (I have this theory that most of the young men doing it are doing it to be more interesting to girls, just as lots of my contemporaries did back then, and that a large percentage of the male-bodied people who describe themselves as genderfluid now will be married to a woman and living in St Albans with two kids and a miniature schnauzer by the time they’re 40. But I have nothing to back that hypothesis up.)

And, of course, “young people are lazy and entitled” is a tale as old as — well, perhaps not the hills, but certainly as old as the United States of America. The younger generation was marvellously described as “a race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles”, lacking the “manly vigor and athletic appearance of our forefathers” in a letter to Town and Country magazine back in 1771. Their morals are “corrupted” by plays and romances (1790); their elocution is “wretched” (1780).

Incidentally, I put “millennials workplace meta-analysis” into Google Scholar, to see if there was any actual support for the idea that millennials are any more lazy and/or entitled than previous generations were when they were in their 20s. The short answer is: no.

The first relevant result I found, which is a meta-analysis from 2012 and claims to be the first systematic review of generational differences in the workplace, looked at job satisfaction, how committed to their employers they were, and how likely they were to stick around. It found that “the relationships between generational membership and work-related outcomes are moderate to small, essentially zero in many cases”.

Another review article, from 2018, found that there is “little solid empirical evidence supporting the existence of generationally based differences, almost no theory supporting any reason behind such differences, and plenty of viable alternate explanations for any differences that are observed”.

As far as I can tell, all this “millennial snowflakes” stuff is just the same “kids today are being damaged by social media and Fortnite, and this is different from how my parents thought I was being damaged by heavy metal and teen magazines for reasons I cannot fully articulate” wine in different bottles.

But, of course, there are some real differences between the younger generation and the older one. One is that very few of them can afford to buy their own homes; just 35% of 25- to 34-year-olds did in 2013/14, compared to more than 60% in 1981. Millennials and Gen-Zers look like they will be the first generation to have less disposable income than their parents (partly because of the increase in house prices, but partly because of stagnating incomes).

Those middle-era and younger millennials who graduated after the financial crisis will probably earn less for much of their careers than those of us who graduate before. None of this is their fault; this is the fault of governments voted in by Boomers and Gen-Xers who refused to build housing stock, who stripped back government spending and stalled the economy, and who failed to keep a grip on financial markets.

I’m pretty sceptical of stories about how the younger generations are crippled by mental health problems or how we have a suicidal generation. Generally the evidence doesn’t stack up and it’s just an excuse for someone to whine about social media or smartphones. But, actually, younger generations really do face problems that the older ones didn’t; on some really crucial issues, it is harder to be 25 now than it was 25 years ago. And yet as far as I can tell, they aren’t any lazier, any more entitled or whiny, or significantly more depressed than their parents were at the same age. To be honest, since we’re the ones who’ve screwed it all up for them, we should be more grateful that they’re not rising up to overthrow us.