You don’t hate millennials. You hate 21st-century technology.

The Real Reason Everyone Thinks Millennials Suck

The Real Reason Everyone Thinks Millennials Suck

The citizen’s guide to the future.
Dec. 26 2014 1:15 PM

People Don’t Hate Millennials

They hate 21st-century technology.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photo by AntonioGuillem/Thinkstock.
Millennials embody what people tend to blame for the perceived 21st-centuryAmerican decay: tech addiction and a growing culture of mistrust and individualism.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photo by AntonioGuillem/Thinkstock.

I know, I know. Millennials have been written to death. But I’m going to make like the millennial I am and say it’s my duty, as the voice of my generation (a voice of a generation?), to proclaim: You don’t hate millennials; you hate the 21st century.

Millennials, those born roughly between 1980 and 2000, are infamously narcissistic, entitled, lazy, arrogant, wild, politically disengaged suckers who will fall for any weird fad. But except for that last one, which is totally true, these clichés are silly and easily debunked. Yet people keep spitting out condescending explainers and bitter grumbles about “millennial” propensities like slacktivism, iPhone addiction, and irony culture.

Basically, if it involves sitting around and making no apparent contribution to the world, millennials are considered the worst offenders. But, for better or worse, these trends actually have more to do with the age we’re in and the tech we use than they do with kids today.


You know millennials when you see them: “They are tapping on their smartphones, strolling into work late and amassing Instagram followers faster than a twerking cat,” Sheila Marikar wrote in the New York Times last year. “They complain. They ‘disrupt’ stuff. They simultaneously (and somewhat improbably) like both Kanye West and Kenny Chesney.”

Most of these qualifiers aren’t distinct to millennials. Think young people are narcissists? Baby boomers were the original “me” generation. The word CrackBerry, which predates iPhones and Instagram, emerged because older generations—many parents to millennials—were happily tapping away first. The difference is that now the phones’ capabilities have extended to include social media, so everyone spends more time on them—and a lot of their activity isn’t work-related. The thing is, it’s not just millennials who do it. Everyone does. Though Instagram might be distinctly millennial, social media is certainly not limited to young adults—just look at how many boomers use Facebook. Millennials were definitely early adopters, but the Pew Research Internet Project found that the generation above them is catching up: The portion of online adults between ages 30 and 49 using social media reached 82 percent in 2014—coming quite close to the 89 percent usage rate among those between ages 18 and 29. Liking both Kanye and Kenny, well, you’ve got me there, I guess.

In many ways, millennials embody what people tend to blame for the perceived American decay in the 21st century: tech addiction and a growing culture of mistrust and individualism. It’s easy to ignore the positives they also embody, including diversity and higher interest in social justice. No trend encapsulates people’s grumpy misgivings with—and their basic misunderstanding of—millennials better than slacktivism. As far as older generations are concerned, young adults and their Ice Bucket Challenges are befuddling at best, and downright annoying at worst.

I admit it: Seeing countless videos of endless droves of people pouring buckets of cold water over their heads in the name of Lou Gehrig’s disease research got really old. Not everyone was convinced the effort was even really doing anything, because people were given the choice to do the video (the fun, public thing) or donate (the less fun, more obviously productive thing). There was a performance aspect that felt off-putting: Watch me support a good cause. But for all the controversy and griping the Ice Bucket Challenge caused, it also raised $115 million—and in November the ALS Association announced it would triple the amount it annually spends on research. Somehow, the viral challenge escaped the all-too-common pitfall of similar awareness campaigns: They don’t always yield tangible results.


A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2014 might shed light on why the Ice Bucket Challenge was such a success. Kirk Kristofferson, a co-author of the study and Ph.D. candidate in marketing at the University of British Columbia, said the study found that people whose initial support of an organization is public—such as a Facebook “like” or wearing a pin—were less likely to donate or volunteer later than those who contributed privately. But the data also suggest that awareness campaigns can get donations and volunteers if they clearly emphasize what liking the page or wearing the button actually means. Ice Bucket participants, for example, briefly described the cause, along with the challenge rules, before dousing themselves. By the end, instead of dumping ice or donating, people began doing both. But that didn’t stop the haters.

It’s easy to dismiss slacktivism for the same reason it’s easy to dismiss millennials—their exponential growth is relatively new, they spend an awful lot of time on social media snacking on viral trends and preening, and their strengths and pitfalls are still hazily understood. But both have the potential to do marvelous things (after they get a towel and dry off, of course).

Although it runs on viral fuel, the Internet is also more than just a tool people use to spread cat videos. It changes how we interact with the world and the people around us. It’s hard to separate millennials from the technology of the day—and its virtues and faults—because they grew up with it. They came of age with it. Their ability to fix your computer goes hand-in-hand with their impatience for what they consider bureaucratic inefficiencies. They tend to consider traditional workplace hierarchies to be inefficiencies, which could explain that stereotype about being bad employees.

A favorite observation about millennials, both in the workplace and in their daily lives, is how wired in they are with their preferred technologies. Why can’t they just pick up the phone and talk? Surely, their obsessive use of technology is driving this generation to be more isolated and cynical (and more eye contact–averse) than those that preceded it. But new research published in Psychological Science shows that over the years, people across generations have become more individualistic and less trustful of institutions and political leaders. That makes a lot more sense than imagining one group changing with the times while the rest somehow remain unaltered, as though they exist in a cultural vacuum. If you’re a boomer or Gen Xer, you’re probably doing and feeling the same things, at least to some extent: It’s definitely not just millennials I see ignoring the world, enraptured by their screens on the train. And maybe you hate it when you look up and realize you’ve spent an hour doing nothing on the Internet. And maybe that same day, you’ll criticize millennials for doing it because you wish we’d all just stop.

The next time you see a twentysomething, earbuds firmly in place, haunting the corner of your local Chipotle, sporting a kitschy T-shirt and gazing fervently into her smartphone, don’t hate. Shake your head, smile, and fondly remember what it was like to be edgy, self-absorbed, and controversial. Maybe even walk over and say hello—she might be me, and I’d love to hear how this narcissistic, ill-conceived think piece disrupted your day.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.