Millennials are just misunderstood, and divisive coverage is not helping
Kelvin Lee says media and social stereotypes of Gen Y only deepen the generation gap, when it can be easily bridged with dialogue and empathy
It is possible to make fun of millennials over almost anything these days. Take Tim Gurner, an Australian millionaire property mogul who recently took millennials to task. His preferred “angle”? Avocado toast. “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for 19 dollars and four coffees at four dollars each,” He told Australia’s 60 Minutes. If only that “avocado money” could buy you a flat.
In case you have not been keeping close tabs on the “millennial beat”, our generation is portrayed as one that just can’t seem to get it right. Time suggested in its “Me Me Me Generation” edition that millennials are more narcissistic because of modern technology, while the Post’s own Peter Kammerer suggested that millennials are lazy because Hong Kong employs too many maids. We are, in no particular order: insecure but, as aforementioned, narcissistic; vacation-killing but work-averse; “more generous than you think” but still selfish. If there is one consensus, it would be that our generation is simply the worst.
But just what is a millennial? While “young people” might seem like an intuitive answer, it might not be precise enough. According to researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss, millennials are people born between 1982 and 2004, aged anywhere between 12 and 35. This roughly 20-year difference in age means that while the oldest among us might very well have married and had children, the youngest are just getting started in secondary school.
Not many will disagree that today’s 13-year-old and 35-year-old have had vastly different upbringings. When the 35-year-old was born in 1982, Hong Kong was still under British rule, personal computing was still in its infancy, and Madonna was still a thing.
The cultural, economic and political shifts in this 20-year window mean that characterisations based on the age group of millennials are just broad-stroke stereotypes that hold little truth, and that social commentaries blaming millennials for killing anything, from cinemas to department stores, are, in reality, intellectually lazy arguments that oversimplify social phenomena.
Indeed, “Gen Y” is not the first generation to be at the receiving end of these unfair, ageist comments – New York magazine dubbed the ’70s the “Me Decade”, while Time later likened the 20-something Gen X’ers to Madonna’s hit song Vogue, noting they know how to “strike a pose”, so implying their superficiality. But with online journalism and the media’s incessant need for clicks, coverage these days has only grown more whimsical in tone and outlandish in content.
These divisive articles have created a schism between millennials and practically everyone else. In Hong Kong, for example, articles on “post-90s” and “post-80s”, the preferred description of millennials here, have proliferated in recent years. Millennials are condescendingly labelled “rubbish teens”, a term that describes young people as slackers that demand much from society but don’t contribute, and are judged for not having the same value set as our parents.
Even the most innocuous stories can fire up generational warfare – stories and videos documenting how some young people refuse to give up priority seats on the MTR, and how a civil discussion on domestic workers can turn into a full-on attack on our values and our supposedly morally decadent lifestyle. This knee-jerk response of blaming it on the young has been anything but constructive in bridging differences in our communities, and will only continue to perpetuate intergenerational misunderstanding.
Perhaps it is time for this trend to end. While millennials should be more communicative with other generations, we should not be treated with condescension, or simply dismissed for our youth and inexperience. We don’t need special treatment – we just need to be treated like everybody else.
Each generation faces challenges that are unique and might not be understood by those with a different upbringing, even people within this “millennial” umbrella might have had different experiences growing up. Only dialogue and an appreciation of differences could bridge the generational gap.
Kelvin Lee is a business student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology