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Millennials Revisited (Again): A happy life or a meaningful life?

Monday, December 9, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

meaningfullifeWe believe the negative press on the Millennials (our 20-somethings and early 30-somethings) is simply what happens to all of our young people as they are judged (and found wanting) by older generations. And mostly we eventually grow up, mature, and become something different than we started out as–at least when viewed through the eyes of our elders.

We’ve written a lot about generations, both on our blog in brief posts, and in longer, complete articles over at The Jury Expert. We were glad to see an article over at the New York Times this week on the new sense of the Millennial’s as in search of meaning. The authors say the old descriptors of Millennials as “narcissistic and flaky and selfish” in both their professional and personal lives is giving way to a very different picture as the generation matures. Well! Imagine that. They are changing as they mature. Go figure. We are especially glad to see that Jean Twenge, historically a research purveyor of negative stereotypes of the Millennials is also changing her writing as these young people mature and new and different realities encroach on their lives.  We found fault in her earlier conclusions, and are happy to see that the gap in our perspectives is narrowing. 

At the risk of beating a dead horse, we would comment that external societal factors shape us all and we become more aware of those factors as we enter our young adulthoods. In a recent mock trial related to subprime mortgage failures, there were several younger 20-somethings who listened intently to (what for them was barely recalled) information, and then all said variations on “I was very young so I am sure this hit my parents hard, but I didn’t really understand the implications”. As adults, looking back on these events without emotional memories, these young people were just as appalled as those who had lived through the beginnings of the economic recession as adults with mortgages that were under-water.

Coming back to the point, the NYT article focuses on the impact of the Great Recession on the attitudes of the younger Millennials who came of age during that time (after 2008). While young people have always shown more concern for others during times of economic hardship, this “new normal” is virtually all that younger Millennials have known in their fledgling adult lives. Thus, say these writers, they are more focused on making a positive difference in the lives of others than they are on making lots of money and being financially successful. This focus, say the authors, will lead them to a more meaningful life. (One of the authors of this NYT article has written on the differences between a happy life (more internally driven–”takers”) and a meaningful life (more externally driven–”givers”) that you can find here.) Of course, the drive to find meaning is a primary life-stage objective for someone in their late teens and twenties, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet it is bound to strike some critical elders as indulgent and self-centered, and some prickly Millennials as offensively obvious.

It’s a nice article and one filled with positivity and hope. The comments section is quite different. There are comments by Millennials asking for understanding as they age up and addressing economic realities–like this one from Kalidan.

Kalidan: So the article says Millennials are searching for meaning. Sure. This is about as meaningful a finding as one that would say the homeless are in the search for wide open spaces and freedom, and therefore different and unique in their outlook. Millennials’ outlook is not one of choice; it is default. If they cannot have, even after college graduation, financial security – of course they choose the next best thing.

There are many more negative comments from older commenters than there are positive ones. It’s a sad and cynical and (as Maureen says in her comment below) bitter picture.

Ross: Millennials and their loved ones are trying hard not to notice the giant “L” tattooed on their foreheads. The poor unfortunates are the most oversold generation in history. First they were oversold on their own special talents and uniqueness in grade school with the relentless campaign of self-esteem building. Then they were oversold as achievers by a middle school system dependent on standardized test scores for funding. They were taught to how to take the test and little else. Then they were sold on a six-figure college education as the necessary gateway to their rightful and fore-ordained place in society. Graduation is cold shower time. The shock is seeing themselves for what they are: economically superfluous generation of men and women with a future of little but endless college-loan payments.

Victor: Nah, you got it right the first time. They are the most self-absorbed, narcissistic generation ever produced and stand as an omen to the end of an age.

Maureen: We all love our children, we all do our best. So many righteous opinions. The bitterness is breathtaking.

Our belief is that as the Millennials age up, they will begin to write about themselves, their experiences, their economic realities, and they will eventually drown out the naysayers and show us who they become. Like Gen X. We all know how they turned out 

For the fourth year in a row we have been honored with recognition from the ABA via inclusion in their 2013 list of the Top 100 legal blogs in the country. We work hard to blog consistently even when inundated with work and would appreciate your vote for us at the Blawg 100 site under the LITIGATION category. You will have to register your email just so you can’t vote 47 times. There are many worthwhile law blogs on this list so take some time to peruse. Thanks! Doug and Rita

Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Voh, Jennifer L. Aaker, & Emily N. Garbinsky (2013). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8 (6), 505-516 DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2168436

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