The Scapegoat Generation: Millennials, Their Critics, and the Things that Matter

The Scapegoat Generation:  Millennials, Their Critics, and the Things that Matter

I had no business trying out for a spot to speak at commencement. I took the “college is about the experience” mantra a bit too literally, and I certainly did not waste my time on the classroom experience any more than I had to.

But, in March 2009, a couple months before graduation, the Student Advisory Counsel solicited volunteers to speak at the College of Media’s commencement. In language apparently targeted at a middle school kid, the email read:

Do you have something you want to say to all of your peers? Ready to conquer your stage fright? We ask that you prepare a 2-minute speech for the audition, while the actual speech will be 4 minutes long.

It’s mostly unclear to me, five years later, why I decided to respond to that email. A shadowy memory suggests that I wanted to make up for being a less-than-stellar academic while at the college. Maybe for a day, I could sound like I learned something about the world over the last four years.1

So, I replied. And, that same day I received a response: “please reply to the email given to you in the email.”

All right then, not off to a great start to be the commencement speaker. Presumably, they wanted a speaker who had learned to read and respond correctly to an email in college. Undeterred, I got the email off to the right person.

Frankly, that was the hard part, because I knew (in fact I had already written) what I wanted to talk to everyone about: the constant criticism of Millennials. Or, as a Will McAvoy from The Newsroom put it to a good intentioned Millennial:

You . . . are without a doubt a member of the worst period generation period ever period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Yosemite?

Unfortunately, Aaron Sorkin isn’t the only one who thinks that we Millennials have problems. Everyone does. The millennial generation has been called with various degrees of judgment “Generation Me,” the “Peter Pan Generation,”2 the “Entitled Generation,” and more generally “self-involved.”

The most scathing critique was a 2012 one handed out by Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal. In his commentary, he double-downed on the cynicism, asking, “Allow me to be the first one not to congratulate you,” and then went on to accuse Millennials of “puffery,” “mass conformism,” and “self-pity”—to say nothing of being dimwitted.3

This is all bullshit though. What’s worse, it’s self-ingratiating bullshit spouted by older generations who espouse their greatness while belittling or refusing to recognize any achievements made by Millennials and any obstacles we have had to overcome.4 And that’s exactly what I wanted to tell everyone: I was tired of being the Scapegoat Generation.

On the day of the audition, I walked into a familiar journalism classroom and stood awkwardly at the front of the class in front of four or five classmates who I probably had never met in my life even though the college was small. See, they were involved and I wasn’t, so this made sense. This speech then was my first impression, which I’ll spare you from mostly:

Our generation has been called the generation of apathy. Yet, in our short time, we have reshaped the uses of the Internet and redefined social constraints by becoming the most interconnected generation in history. We have logged more volunteer hours than any previous generation.5 We are the largest generation, larger even than Baby Boomers, giving us the unique possibility to manifest great change in the world. Now we are being summoned to enter this imperfect world. Either we can yield to this imperfection or we can work for something better.

I urge all of you, that no matter where the world takes you, be dynamic. Don’t resign yourselves to their definition of generation apathy. Don’t be silenced by the status quo of inadequacy and misdirection that those who came before us have suffered from. Don’t let the responsibilities and obligations that have come to define their world, stifle your own.

The world is far from perfect, and it demands our attention and our action. . . .Whether we decide to change the world, or we let them change us is our biggest test, and I have faith in all of us that we will pass.

Let’s put aside the purple prose—there’s far too much of it even for a convocation speech. Behind the lofty phrases and the too-often-used adjectives, the sentiment remains today: Get off our backs.

As Frank Bruni at The New York Times put it, the Baby Boomers must “have a hell of a lot of nerve” criticizing Millennials. The Baby Boomers, which when asked say “work ethic” is their defining trait, seem to forget that the mess we have on our hands, as Millennials, isn’t of our doing:

We [Baby Boomers] conveniently overlook how much more [Millennials] had to pay for college than we did, the loans they’ve racked up and the fact that nothing explains their employment difficulties better than a generally crummy economy, which certainly isn’t their fault.

They get our derision when they deserve our compassion and a political selflessness we’ve been unable to muster. While we’re at it, we might even want to murmur an apology.

Bruni is right. This isn’t to say that Millennials get off scot-free because we were dealt a bad hand. We deserve this economic context though. We especially deserve it when one considers that we willingly accepted unpaid, internships—largely an invention of the Baby Boomers themselves—simply to get experience so that maybe one day far off in the future we would be lucky enough to get paid. Now what does that say of our work ethic?

While the Boomers go on criticizing what kind of a generation we are, we’re busy redefining medicine through our use of computers, embracing science as opposed to shunning it, arguing that the answer to many of our problems is too few schools—not too few jails, declaring our political independence, transforming our communities through technology, and caring more about equality for all, rather than inequality for some. And, we do it all, in spite of the hurdles, while remaining optimistic.

Whatever others say, I’m proud to be a Millennial. I think Pew described us best (with my embellishments): as Millennials, we “may be a self-confident generation” that pisses people off as a result. But, happily, we “display little appetite for claims of moral superiority” and are willing to credit other generations for their strengths. With that measured disposition, we have, can, and will change the world.

So was I chosen to give the commencement speech? I wasn’t. In a canned email, the Student Advisory Council let me down easy: “Although we really enjoyed your speech, we have chosen another candidate to speak at the Commencement ceremony.” I deserved it. I couldn’t expect to just show up on what was literally the last day we were all students and, for one of the first times in college, pretend I cared about being a student.

They chose a “stellar student,” according to the professor’s introduction at commencement.6 She was an advertising student who had interned in the provost’s office, won a myriad of awards, and was involved in a bunch of school activities. In short, she was a much better student than I was and deserved to take the stage that day.

She spoke about how commencement was about reveling in achievement of the past four years and preparing for the responsibility of shaping the world over the next however many. Having just watched it again for the first time in five years, she did a good, albeit generic job. She didn’t say anything wrong. With all the cheap shots taken at our generation though, I wish she had had more of a chip on her shoulder. We need it.

Image courtesy of Trey Ratcliff. Some rights reserved.

  1. It’s not that I hadn’t. I had. Most of it just wouldn’t have been fitting for a commencement audience. 

  2. I actually like this one. 

  3. You can see a similar point made more playfully, persuasively, and tactfully by a non-Pulitzer Prize winning teacher at a high school commencement. 

  4. Namely, the economy, which was not our fault. 

  5. It depends on who you’re asking. 

  6. Or so the college’s website tells me, because frankly before writing this I do not remember who spoke or what he or she spoke about.