This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. This month, each fellow has been charged by fellowship director Reid Cramer to explain why anyone, but especially millennials, should care about the specific policy interests they’re passionate about.
The first time I knowingly wore the label “millennial,” my friends and I sat in front of 7-11 after school, killing time before the Next Big Thing. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” had just come out on the radio, and the crew was split between playing it on repeat or kicking the speaker off the curb. Between sips of slush and skateboard tricks, we’d chat about everything from cliques to chemistry.
Since her parents got her the new iPhone 4, my friend Sarah rarely looked up from her game of Angry Birds. Except this afternoon, when her need to escape the suburb must have driven her to ponder existing anywhere else. She tilted her head at the yellow-flowered bushes across the parking lot and asked, “What decade would you guys want to live in? I think I’d like the 70s- their music was real and people seemed so carefree and sweet.”
To which Kevin, ever the arguer of our little group, responded curtly, “We’re real free and don’t care about much now. I like being a millennial.”
A “millennial,” what? Is that really a thing?
Fact is, at that point in time I barely would have been able to tell you the difference between a millennial and the Millenium Falcon. One being a massive technologically driven product of scientific fantasy, and the other being that one ship from Star Wars. And though I didn’t have a fancy smartphone, I had public wifi and a slide-out keyboard on my Nokia. So within a couple minutes I learned that I, born 1994, was and would always be a millennial. I stayed up that night reading about the industries we were killing and all the different ways we’d ruin or fix the workplace.
So that’s cool, I’m a millennial. It’s fun to belong to something bigger. Well, except for when I asked myself if I really belonged. Did the data include me and my low-income Black and Brown friends? Would each of our individual struggles, opinions, and voices come through neatly on a social scientist’s article on who we are and how we would be remembered? Chances were capital-T-They were just looking for a general starting point from which to understand people. As long as reports acknowledged the limitations of variances in personality then the overall findings must be valuable. But, in order to find value, research conclusions focus on the majority opinion. When the majority opinion mostly includes middle-class, often college educated, often English speaking, often white characters, then you run the risk of those lived experiences overshadowing those without wifi routers, homes, or access and privilege. What good is a study meant to help people if the people who needed the most help were erased from the data collection process?
I kept searching, but in study after study I kept seeing the same limitations announcing the only population surveyed were college-educated. Coming from a non-traditional family, I wondered how I could ever relate to sentences that confidently declared sweet nothings like, “They [millennials] have always felt loved and wanted by their doting parents.” Hundreds of thousands of foster kids and unaccompanied minors and countless more low-income high school educated workers are explicitly excluded from these types of surveys. The worst part is no one seems to care.
Generational studies wrap facts in bows and deliver them to corporations looking for workplace advantages and academics looking for direction. To a certain extent, they provide some insight into the population of millennials that, across generations, society already values and listens to (read: richer, more educated). However, the life experiences of low-income millennials differ dramatically from those of middle or high-income millennials. And, regrettably, those differences do not come across in the multitude of articles discussing millennials. When overgeneralized studies proliferate mainstream media, the rhetoric used to direct the future of social, economic, and labor policy does not and will not include the people at the margins. So long as low-income non-college educated people of color continue to be excluded from the generational research we claim applies to everyone disparity and widening wealth and social gaps will continue.Hard-to-reach populations aren’t that hard to reach at all; they simply require different skill sets and a bit more thoughtful planning. Until new innovations create inclusive data collection processes and intersectional thought leaders determine best practices around generational studies, I’ll keep treating millennial studies the same way I treat my horoscope: largely for entertainment and fantastically escapist predictions of the future.