Cat Flag’s Guide to Understanding Millennials, Part One

Millennials image from CSU Long Beach

Did you know that Millennials, the generation born between roughly 1980 and 2000, are the biggest generation in the United States ever? We even outnumber the Baby Boomers! There are 79 million of us, and by 2020 we will make up 40% of American voters. This means that, for better or worse, my generation (also called Generation Y) is going to be reshaping the way our nation acts, thinks, votes, shops, works, and is entertained in the coming years. Thus, it is really important for non-Millennials to at least have some understanding of who we are, where we’re coming from, what we value and believe, and what we want out of life.

Some Cat Flaggers that I know in person have been asking me to make a guide, of sorts, for understanding my generation. What I have come to realize, though, is that such a guide could never be a single article; there is just too much to cover! Instead, I have decided to turn this into a miniseries on Cat Flag – in the next few months, I will be putting out a series of articles covering Millennial-related topics. Among other things, I will talk about some basic characteristics of my generation, particular individuals and events that have helped to shape us into who we are today, and companies that have tried to market to us and whether they have succeeded or failed.

As a Millennial myself, I will be talking partially from my personal experiences. However, I will also be using statistics and information gathered by outside sources to either back up what I say or present material that is not based on my experiences, and I will include links to those original sources. Also, naturally, remember that pretty much anything I say is going to be a broad generalization – obviously, not every Millennial will fit these descriptions.

For this first part of the series, it feels appropriate to begin with some basic characteristics of my generation; a sort of introductory primer, if you will. So, I guess the most obvious place to start is…

We are a generation raised on technology

Smartphone lineup image from The Verge

It is nearly impossible to overstate just how important technology is to us. We were born into a world that was being reshaped by computers and the information superhighway. We spent our spare time playing video games at least as often as playing outside… sometimes more often! We were the first generation that had a PC (or, in my case, usually a Mac) in every classroom, and could go to the Internet instead of the library to find research for our homework papers. The rate at which computers, video game consoles, and other high-tech devices became obsolete seemed “normal” and “natural” to us, as we had nothing else to compare it to. In high school, we replaced our Sony Walkmans with iPods, and e-mail and texting became far more common than sending a letter in the mail. In college, smartphones became the main means by which we communicate with each other.

According to research done by the Pew Research Center, 94% of us use the internet, 94% of us have a cell phone, 74% have broadband at home, 69% have an iPod or some other MP3 player, 63% have a video game console, and 51% have a smartphone. We are more likely to own a laptop than a desktop computer, which is a clue to an important part of how we interact with technology. We are “always on” – we don’t just use technology at home, we use it on-the-go pretty much every day. A laptop’s portability makes it a much more convenient tool to use than a big, hulking desktop machine. We can write up a college term paper while sitting at the park. Many of my classmates take notes on their laptop computers instead of by hand with pencil and paper.

Yet even the laptop isn’t as convenient as our smartphones for many everyday activities. In the mornings, my smartphone’s alarm wakes me up. I check e-mail on it first thing and at several other times throughout the day. I use it to listen to my music while driving, writing, or working on homework. I get my news from my BBC News app. I watch videos or play games on it to pass the time. When I find something I’m curious about, I can look it up online at any time. My relationship with my smartphone is pretty typical of my peers; many people I know will take pictures or videos on their smartphone and then immediately put it on Facebook or Instagram.

Here’s some more numbers that show just how big smartphones are in our lives: 43% say that texting conversations can have just as much meaning as a conversation over the phone, 41% have made a purchase with a smartphone, and the median number of brands that we have “liked” on Facebook is ten (Oh, and only 17% of us have been prompted to buy something because of a TV ad).

Resistance is futile.

Resistance is futile.

All of this shows an unprecedented level of constantly being interconnected. Which leads me to…

We are collectivists

Strength in Numbers

That same Pew Research study found that Millennials tend to favor strong government, and this study by the Center for American Progress shows that we tend to have politically liberal leanings. Of course, this might just be our youth speaking – younger voters always tend to lean left. However, there are other trends that go beyond what our politics may be.

We are very consensus-oriented in our thinking. We prefer working in teams and being part of a group. We are always sharing things on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, from our deep thoughts to what we had for breakfast. Being constantly connected online through our smartphones and other digital devices has given us a sort of collectivist mentality: we all share everything and work together.

We are aware that we are stronger as a unit than as individuals; we know this because we have been able to use the power of numbers to do things like naming a piece of equipment on the International Space Station and a bridge in Hungary after Stephen Colbert, helping President Barack Obama win election as our nation’s leader, twice, and helped defeat a bill in Congress regarding internet piracy that we felt would strangle creativity. Technology makes it so much easier for people to communicate ideas and problems and to organize people behind a common cause.

We also believe, very deeply, in social responsibility. We were the generation that watched Captain Planet and participated in Thanksgiving canned food drives in school. We were taught to think about the greater good, and by the time I was in high school, I could tell that this was the “fix-it” generation, the one that wanted to make the world better. When I was in high school, most of the students walked out of class one day and marched around the school in protest of the War in Iraq. Today, even in these tough economic times when only 47% of us are employed, we still find time and money to donate to charity. As in, 75% of us donated money and 63% of us volunteered in 2011 alone.

We all want to do what we can to make the world better, even a tiny bit. After all, we want the world we leave our children to be just as perfect as the one we grew up in. Of course, we all know the world we grew up in was far from perfect; I’m just making a joke to point out that…

We are HUGE on nostalgia

There's a metaphor in here, somewhere...

There’s a metaphor in here, somewhere…

It must seem to older generations like we Millennials can’t seem to give up our childhood. Once, an adult that collected comic books and toys would have been seen as a creepy, sad weirdo. Today, it’s pretty much normal, as this link from Men’s Health magazine can attest. Indeed, Hollywood has a recent obsession with making movies ostensibly for adults based on names once mainly associated with children’s entertainment, from Batman to The Avengers to Superman to Spider-Man to G.I. Joe to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Why? Because tickets to those movies sell!

It’s not like we don’t accept adulthood – we do – it’s just that we still have a fondness for the things we used to like as kids. Being adults who can make decisions for ourselves, we have decided not to give some of these things up.

Video games are a perfect example. When I was a child, video games were still very much considered a “toy”, something meant to entertain the children so they stayed out of their parents’ hair. Yet just this week I was one of millions of full-grown adults who bought Bioshock:Infinite, a video game whose website children can’t even visit, because the game is a violent action-shooter. Video games have been transformed into a mainstream entertainment medium equal to film or theater, that has even come to be seen as a legitimate art form.

Of course, as adults looking back on the kids shows we used to like, there are many times where we realize just how dumb that cartoon really was. It doesn’t stop us from loving it, though…

We make fun of EVERYTHING. Especially the things we love.

Avengers Meme from We Know Memes

To us, making fun of something isn’t necessarily an insult. In fact, it can even be a compliment. We are the generation that watched The Simpsons as children, South Park as teenagers, and Family Guy as adults. The first sign that something has become popular is just how many parodies spring up around it.

For example, when Downton Abbey became a runaway hit, somebody made this video:

Then there are videos like this:

Or memes like this:

Bane Meme from Tumblr

To us, these sorts of jokes are a tribute to the things we like. It’s not being mean, it’s just one of the ways we share a laugh. You could even say we are the parody generation – poking fun is our way of expressing ourselves.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it means to be a Millennial, but I hope this mini-primer will help as we continue our look at the newest generation to come of age in America. Stay tuned for more!

Do you think my descriptions are accurate, or do you think I missed the mark by a mile? What are your impressions of the Millennial generation? Let me know in comments!

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11 Responses to Cat Flag’s Guide to Understanding Millennials, Part One

  1. Definitely one of your best articles!

  2. AuntLeesie says:

    Cute clips (Downton Arby’s and How The Last Crusade Should Have Ended). Just a few comments… a lot of parents didn’t let their kids watch Simpsons or South Park, and it’s appeared to me that many millenials don’t generally watch network–or even cable–television in the way older generations have/do. For example, I hear a lot about and read it’s popular for millenials to watch old sci-fy reruns, movies, etc. on their laptops, i Pads and iPhones. Is that true?

    • rgriffit says:

      As far as The Simpsons or South Park goes, I know some parents didn’t let their kids watch those shows, but many parents did, and they were such HUGE cultural phenomena that no American youth could avoid absorbing at least some knowledge/awareness of them through sheer osmosis as their friends and classmates repeated jokes they saw on the show. Plus, almost all of the older seasons of those shows are now available on DVD or digital download, so those of us whose parents didn’t let us watch as kids can now see what we missed.

      In answer to your question, it is definitely true that we are (slllloooooowwwwlyyyy) migrating away from TV. Some people I know just plain don’t watch TV at all anymore, though I think most of us still tune in every week for a handful of shows we really like. Yes, we will often watch old movies or TV shows on DVD or Netflix, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Technology has made it much easier now for people to generate content of their own and build a career off of producing content for the Internet. Sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Newgrounds, and Blip.tv are full of people who make films, shorts, web series, comedy sketches, and more, and a handful of these people have become extremely successful – as in millions of subscribers successful! I personally spend more time watching online content like this than television these days.

  3. AuntLeesie says:

    (continued) Excellent article, by the way! You mention that millenials feel texting can be as meaningful of a conversation as talking on the phone, and indeed one sees a LOT of folks texting away at grocery stores, in Target, and pretty much everywhere. Older generations are under the impression that social media and technological communications are eroding the way people interact with each other in 3D… for example, basic courtesy/etiquette seem to be vanishing. Do you agree? Disagree? As a millenial yourself, do you feel you/your peers have learned or practice 3D social skills necessary in the workplace, during religious practices, interacting with both authority figures and, say, people in service fields like restaurant staff, sales associates or mechanics?

    • rgriffit says:

      This is a tough one to answer, as I am not aware of any data on the subject. How would one scientifically define “politeness” or “rudeness” anyway? I can only speak from personal experience here, and my experience is that it is a mixed bag. I’d say about half of my peers (again, my personal experience) practice good social etiquette as you describe, and know how and when to show respect to the people around them. The other half, though, see nothing wrong with texting or checking Facebook while sitting in a movie theater, tweeting “so bored #worksux” to their friends instead of helping the customer trying to get their attention, or ignoring the flight attendant telling them to turn their devices off during takeoff and landing. Believe me when I say that those people are just as annoying and aggravating to “more polite” Millennials as they are to older generations.

      What I do see, though is less “the Internet and texting are destroying our social skills” and more “the Internet and texting are transforming social norms and rules”. For example, it seems to me that a consensus is emerging over whether texting or calling a person is appropriate in a given situation. If it’s just a quick something, like “Meet me at 5 by Starbucks”, send a text. If it’s something big, deep, and important, like “Your grandmother just died”, call the person. I expect we’ll see more of these sorts of changes in the years to come.

  4. AuntLeesie says:

    (continued) Finally, I’m surprised that only 47% of millenials are employed! Wow!! As a millenial yourself, did that stat shock you? I’m really looking forward to reading more in this series! Two thumbs up!

    • rgriffit says:

      It did shock me (and made me feel lucky to have a job). I had a sense that unemployment among my peers was high, but I didn’t realize it was quite that high!

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