The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation
At a graduate student conference, I first heard the term “millennial.” As in, practices for faculty and staff to best handle this generation of students. I went in having never heard the term and came out feeling defensive against the notion that an entire generation of young adults had to be handled, with prevailing knowledge like “Millennials need participation trophies,” “Millennials are sheltered,” and “Millennials are hard to work with.”
Society loves to hate the millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2000), calling us “special snowflakes” and sarcastically referring to us as “social justice warriors,” calling us out for being offended by everything and, everybody’s favorite, pointing out how very entitled we are.
Here’s the secret: We’re not.
The negative opinions directed at millennials are a perfect example of gaslighting, on a societal scale.
A Primer on Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation, making someone question their own sanity or the validity of their experiences through a combination of outright lies, denial of things that have happened, and generally questioning the subject’s thought processes. This boils down to the end result of the victim thinking they’re wrong or crazy for feeling the way they do. At its core, it’s an emotional abuse tactic.
Have you ever gotten into an argument with a parent, boss, or romantic partner about something that upset you, but by the end of the argument, you’ve become the one apologizing for some wrongdoing? This is often a result of gaslighting. Gaslighters flip it around and become the victim, and your original feelings never get resolved because the conversation always descends into the other person’s victimization. Eventually you stop challenging them at all.
Imagine a similar scenario where you are applying for a job, but the job requires a college degree, and you can’t pay for a college degree without a job, so you end up taking out massive loans. When you graduate, you can’t get a job without experience. So you take a minimum wage job (or three) to make ends meet, often while working for free in a field related to your major to get a foot in the door. You dare to utter something like, “The minimum wage needs to be raised, people can’t live like this,” only to receive a barrage of crochety elders yelling at you about how they got a college education working part time and how it’s your fault for taking out the loans in the first place.
I call bullshit.
Busting the Millennial Myth
If millennials aren’t a bunch of spoiled brats with an entitlement mentality who need a trophy just for putting on pants in the morning, what are they?
I’ve seen millennials come together to form supportive communities, in ways that some from older generations may have only dreamed of. I know that the young people of years past used to party at Woodstock and believe in love and flower power and bellbottoms. Where did they go when we needed them? What happened to the dreams and the love and the bellbottoms?
I see millennials arranging charity auctions on social media sites, sending a few dollars via PayPal or Venmo to friends in need, donating and sharing fundraising accounts for funeral expenses, medical bills, emergency surgeries for beloved pets, and more.
I see us trading services and goods to help each other out. I see us buying things from work-at-home-moms and small businesses rather than supporting large corporate stores. That’s not to say that we’re the first to do so — indeed, many Gen X and Boomer individuals also shop small and local as a rule. But Millennials have taken the idea and run to the Internet with it, making work from home accessible and lucrative across the globe. Millennials are driven by a need to empower each other and become independent from the status quo. And it’s pissing off the establishment something fierce.
Anecdotal evidence is great, but there’s also science to back up the whimsical empowerment driving the millennial generation. There are some 80 million millennials, making us the largest cohort in history — and an easy generation to study. The following statistics are pulled from a 2012 report from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Not only are millennials the largest demographic, we’re also the most diverse. We are 60% non-Hispanic white (compared to 70% for older generations), 19% Hispanic, 14% black, 4% Asian, and 3% mixed race. Eleven percent of us are born to an immigrant parent. Additionally, “young people are more tolerant of races and groups than older generations (47% vs. 19%) with 45% agreeing with preferential treatment to improve the position of minorities.” So the generation that hears “Why are you kids so offended by everything these days?” is offended because we’re sick and tired of seeing minorities vilified and punished by systemic racism.
We stand up for what we believe in, and we’re not afraid to call it out. So what are we doing with our time and energy?
Millennials are multi-taskers, despite the fact that multi-tasking is actually harmful to the brain and leads to a huge decrease in productivity. But, you know, we have to work all these jobs and get everything done, lest we die penniless in the gutter, eulogized as people who just didn’t want it bad enough.
Millennials are engaged and expressive: 75% have a social networking profile, 20% have posted a video of themselves online, 38% have 1–6 tattoos, and 23% have non-earlobe piercings. The research indicates a trend toward “self-promoting,” which some skew to mean that millennials are self-confident (yay) and self-absorbed (sigh). Others take this data to conclude that millennials are identifying their passions and making their own path instead of following others’ paths for them.
Interestingly (or morbidly), millennials are the first generation in over 100 years to have a decrease of their average lifespan. [Insert joke here: Something something working themselves to death].
Millennials have a high graduation rate from high school (72% in 2012) and high college enrollment rate (68% in 2012). Over half (58%) of millennials that enroll in a four-year college graduate within six years.
Data from the New Strategist Press, a consumer trends resource, shares that in 2013, 34.9% of millennials had a bachelor’s degree or higher (compared to 34.6% of Gen Xers and 31.1% of Baby Boomers). Even without graduating, millennials and Gen X received more college education than the Boomers (63% of millennials, 62% of Gen Xers, and 58% of Baby Boomers).
Speaking of college, millennials have an average of $25,000 in student loans. There is more student loan debt than credit card debt in the United States, and tuition rates are rising faster than inflation. However, enrollment continues to increase.
Millennials Struggle with Mental Health
Many millennials struggle with mental illness to some degree: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and more. You have to wonder how much of that anxiety comes from being told that wanting a living wage, affordable college, or adequate healthcare means that you’re a dependent leech guzzling from the government teat.
The generations before us had a more accessible living wage, tuition cost, and adequate healthcare. But now, inflation has far surpassed the minimum wage, college tuition and loan interest rates are through the proverbial roof, and medical bills are the top cause of bankruptcy in America.
These things were not caused by millennials, but after a steady diet of “You’re entitled” as we developed our adult identities, we don’t even need to hear it from other people. We believe it about ourselves. As a society, we now romanticize struggle, busy-ness, and “the hustle.” If you’re not losing sleep and working two or three jobs, you must not want it enough.
Conclusions (For Now)
Millennials have begun waking up to the fact that the ways we were treated as children and as young adults in the work force is not normal. We’re understanding that our generation is bigger than the last. We’re coming to terms with the fact that we will inherit the Earth and want to make it very, very clear that while we absolutely intend to clean up this mess, we are not the ones that made it.
Originally published October 17, 2016. Revised and updated for Medium in advance of The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation: How to Succeed in a Society That Blames You for Everything Gone Wrong to be published May 2019 by Mango Publishing.
- “The Millennial Generation Research Review.” U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. November 12, 2012. Accessed 2016. https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/reports/millennial-generation-research-review.
- Russell, Cheryl. The Baby Boom. 8th ed. The American Generations. East Patchogue, NY: New Strategist Press LLC, 2015. Online excerpt accessed 2018. http://www.newstrategist.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/BB8.SamplePgs.pdf