Millennials get dumped on all the time — on TV, on the internet and at family gatherings. We’re called lazy, unambitious, self-righteous, image-obsessed, egocentric cybernauts who would rather stare at our phone screens than have a conversation. Maybe some of this is true, maybe some of this is not. If our generation really is all of these things — which would be terrifying for the future of the United States — I don’t think any column could even remotely describe how much trouble we’re in.
However, there is one clear issue our generation faces, and it’s not really our fault. In fact, this problem was dropped on us by baby boomers and Generation X. The issue is millennials have become so accustomed to an on-demand world that we expect success to be on-demand as well. The reason for this is that baby boomers and Generation X-ers ushered in a technological revolution that led to us getting whatever we want, when we want it.
Think about it: We grew up — or, at least, have spent the formative years of life — with Netflix, smartphones and Amazon next-day delivery. We hardly had to wait until Thursday night to watch our favorite TV show. If we wanted to know the size of Central Park, we didn’t have to walk to the library to check out a book — we have computers in our pockets. And for the last eight years, we’ve been able to use our pocket PCs to order a ride through Uber, meaning we rarely have to wait more than five minutes for a car to take us where we want to go.
This “on-demandness” is not a problem. In fact, it’s great; it has revolutionized our economy and led to hyper-growth in several industries, from ground transportation to grocery to restaurant. The economics is simple: It’s easier for people to buy goods and services, people buy more goods and services, businesses make more money, businesses use this money to innovate and expand, businesses can pay higher wages, people make more money, people spend more money. It’s a virtuous cycle. I have no problem with this, and neither should you.
But we’ve made the mistake of transferring our attitude toward Netflix — “I want to watch it now, so I’ll watch it now” — to more difficult, important things that generations before us had to work hard for. These things are not on-demand.
Take, for example, a millennial trying to learn calculus. If they apply their Amazon same-day delivery attitude to mastering the Taylor series — a representation of a function as an infinite sum of terms — they might be disappointed. Calculus is not your coming-soon Amazon purchase: You won’t get it that day or the next day and maybe not even that week or the next week. You have to work at it, sometimes for long periods of time. I think we look at this as a foreign concept now.
We need to understand the situation: Our generation has lots of advantages, and, as a result, we expect things to come easy. We get frustrated when they don’t. Inevitably, we quit, and we never make the progress we’re capable of.
This isn’t good, but it doesn’t mean we’re lazy, pretentious or unaspiring. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about people or hate talking to others. We just need to collectively realize a simple fact: things get better if you work at them. Most of the time, success won’t come right away. It’s not your Uber ride — it isn’t one minute away. This requires understanding that we are not going to score a touchdown on every play. But if we can move the ball down the field every time, if we can get a little better every day, eventually we’ll get somewhere.
An imperfect but somewhat illuminating illustration of this on-demand attitude came in 2008, when Barack Obama ascended to the presidency, partly because optimistic millennials supported him. Obama, armed with his hope-and-change rhetoric, won 66 percent of the vote in the below-30 demographic. Come Inauguration Day, the American people (especially hopeful millennials) anticipated near-immediate change amid a financial crisis, two wars in the Middle East and the impending collapse of the U.S. auto industry.
It didn’t come, at least not right away. And though there are many variables that could have affected the following statistic, it’s worth noting that 60 percent of millennials supported Obama in 2012 — a high number, sure, but a noticeable drop-off from four years earlier, when we thought success would be immediate.
Again, this example is inexact. The precise reasons for Obama losing millennial support are hard to pin down. But my overarching point — that we too often hold the false belief that achievement is a one-step process — has been echoed by the former president himself. On “The Daily Show” in 2010, Obama modified his famous slogan: “Yes, we can,” he said, before adding, “but it is not going to happen overnight.”
Millennials should heed this modification. We can keep watching Netflix and using Uber, but we can’t transfer that same on-demand attitude to real life, where hard things don’t come easy. We just need to keep moving the ball down the field. Eventually, we’ll score a touchdown.
Billy Stampfl can be reached at email@example.com.