The internal contradictions in these various caricatures never seem to bother the evening news pundits and magazine columnists, who know that they ingratiate themselves a little more to their almost exclusively older consumers each time they take another scapegoating shot at the selfie-taking, navel-gazing little rascals, who, coincidentally, happen to stand on the other side of the culture war.
But like most things going on in our world right now, if you want some genuinely intelligent commentary on this, don't look to “Time,” or “Forbes,” or (Lord, Jesus, give me strength) “Fox News.” If “the lady doth protest too much,” and the fair and balanced-ness of a source is inversely proportional to how often it claims to be fair and balanced, then to hear something true you’ll have to go find a comedian—Millennial cult hero Bo Burnham, for instance.
In a recent podcast interview, Burnham complained about the superficial narrative that Millennials are always taking selfies because they’re too in love with themselves (noting the irony that the proponents of said narrative are generally doing the exact same thing, just on Facebook rather than Snapchat). He described a reflection he had while watching a pretty, 18-ish looking girl shoot a string of selfies, while waiting for her friends outside a store in the mall. To say that she was simply too in love with herself would miss the profound gap between the happiness projected into the camera and the expression on her face immediately afterward.
In Burnham’s assessment, this was not some self-obsessed Dorian Gray, who couldn’t stop staring into her own portrait. This was someone trying to figure out how to live in the modern paradox of being constantly surrounded by relationships yet isolated from meaningful ones; someone who’s interactions with other people’s lives were always carefully curated through an Instagram filter, the very same filter through which she was trying make her own highlight reel compete with theirs; someone who is constantly gawked at and rarely ever seen; who simply wants to provide evidence to the universe that she existed and feels that this app is her only means of doing it.
In another breath, I’m sure Burnham himself would probably confess that his own narrative about this one particular girl might be overreaching in a lot of ways. Maybe she actually was just concentrating on her duck face and sharing none of his deep existential thoughts. But his basic insight sticks with me: what we’re really talking about here is not your garden-variety vanity. We’re really talking about the first generation in history that has ever had to adjust to a situation where it’s not enough just to live, but one needs also to put together an enticing trailer for one’s life. We’re talking about the first generation in history that can, at some level (no matter how much we roll our eyes and laugh it off), measure how loved they are, objectively, in friends and followers. We’re talking about a subtle arms race to make my highlight reel compare favorably to yours. Or to paraphrase Burnham, it used to be that there were a few famous people in the world and everyone else was just normal. Now we somehow all exist on a “continuum of fame.” To not have a million followers is no longer just to be a part of the normal majority but to have failed to make a mark on the cosmos, to see one’s own thoughts and experiences go by unobserved in some sense.
Now, whatever else you might’ve heard, Millennials aren’t complete and total idiots. We’re able to put things into perspective, like any other thinking adult. Those cheap plastic trophies we got in Tee-ball didn’t actually have a profoundly formative impact on our psyches. And we’re not constantly gauging our “influencer rating” as an accurate measure of our level of acceptance from the universe (an actual thing, if you download “Klout,” an app which gives a score to the impact of your social media posts). But putting things into perspective requires conscious effort. What we struggle with more is the subconscious effect of always knowing the bigness or smallness of our digital ripple in the universe. And for most of us, it’s pretty small.
A while back, I spoke with a friend of mine who had recently deleted her Instagram account. She is an attractive, professional woman in her late 20s, who, by all measures, should be able to put together a pretty competitive highlight reel. She described to me how, after going through a prolonged grieving period following a death in her family, she popped out of bed one Saturday morning and decided that this was the day she was going to turn the corner, starting with a hair appointment.
Before she had even made it back to her car, she had snapped a selfie, eager to showoff her new look to her friends. Then she snapped another, because, of course, the first one never turns out right. Then another. And another. “By the time I got back home,” as she puts it, “I had taken about 15 selfies and posted none of them. No matter how hard I tried to soften my expression, come at it from a different angle, show my teeth, not show my teeth, it still seemed like there was this profound sadness behind my eyes that I just couldn’t conceal. So I deleted my Instagram account instead.”
What struck me was that her main issue was not the superficial sort of doubts about her physical attractiveness, which we all struggle with, but the fact that the social media universe is implicitly a place for happy people—people who don’t have real life struggles with grief, insecurity, or lack of motivation. I was moved that she felt so weighed down in her soul, she felt that no amount of editing could make for a compelling life trailer.
This is where the misinformation and stigma surrounding Millennials comes full circle. How strange and alien is it, really, to the common human experience that Millennials basically want to be loved? We want to be accepted. We want to be respected. We want to be noticed.
So, do us a huge solid and trash that magazine article you read back in 2013. No intelligent conversation starts with a broad-brush assessment of all the internal motivations and shortcomings of an entire generation of people. Intelligent dialogue begins with a serious attempt to understand, a hesitancy to generalize, and a generous benefit of the doubt wherever understanding lacks.
Millennials aren’t so bad. You just gotta get to know us.
Peace and Cheers,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.