Who are those Millennials, anyway?

It’s a question some pollster in a swing state is trying to figure out right now. Pundits have argued about it during the past few election cycles. Adults of all occupations are puzzling over it.

And everyone seems to have an opinion about it.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has described the Millennials as “smart, hard-working, pleasant-but-cautious achievatrons who thrive in elite universities.” Victoria Buhler, a student enrolled in Brooks’ course at Yale University, recently described members of our generation as “Cynic Kids” who “have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

Brooks has also described Millennials as “risk averse,” and some Millennials have taken issue with this characterization of our generation. Cameron Joseph, staff reporter for the National Journal and a member of the Millennial generation, defended our supposed risk aversion by noting that “we have much less room for error than any previous American generation, due to both the economy and the constraints that society (e.g. older generations) have placed upon us.” He wrote that “we were brought up with zero tolerance policies for everything from drugs and alcohol to political protests in school, faced the most competitive college admittance process ever and graduated into the worst economic situation for young people in nearly 80 years.”

Millenials also been described as generally progressive, particularly on issues such as gay marriage and climate change. Yet, at the same time, we are characterized as being “skeptical and even cynical” about entitlement programs because we “don’t expect (Social Security and Medicare) to be there” for us, former Clinton speechwriter and adviser Eric Liu wrote in Time Magazine last month. We are societal rebels, “shar(ing) illegally downloaded music and movies even if the labels and studios don’t want (us) to” because we are “growing up in a social and technological milieu that is dismissive of large top-down institutions and in many ways hostile to elite power concentration.”

Others say we’re “apathetic, disinterested, tuned-out and selfish” — adjectives that Chelsea Clinton firmly dismissed in a recent op-ed. Writing about her interactions with Millennials at the latest meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative University, Clinton observed that although Millennials are “obsessed with money,” “mobile maniacs,” “social media-obsessed” and “awfully impatient,” they are using those traits as catalysts for selfless concrete actions that are improving peoples’ lives throughout the country and around the world.

So who are we, exactly? Lazy bums? Technology addicts? Ridiculous overachievers? Progressives? Conservatives? Future leaders of the world? Future innovators? Cynics? Cautious planners?

The answer: all of these things, and more.

In fact, there are whole other groups of Millennials that are completely left out of the equation, and never discussed in these conversations about our enigmatic generation. There are Millennials in third-world countries who are starving and live under the threat of violence every day. There are Millennials around the world who are suffering from debilitating illnesses. There are Millennials in America who are in a downward spiral of poverty with little to no hope of ever escaping it.

These are the forgotten Millennials — members of our age group who don’t have smart phones, who aren’t debating what classes they should take or what activities they can pursue outside of class and aren’t contemplating strategies of social activism. They are simply trying to survive each day.

At the very least, these Millennials deserve to be included in the national conversation about our generation. But we shouldn’t stop there; we should do everything in our power to help our fellow Millennials rise above mere survival. We’ve grown up in a highly globalized, interdependent world. What affects one group of people will inevitably affect us in some way. Messages and videos travel across the planet in the blink of an eye. Countries’ economies depend on one another. We’re all connected whether we like it or not.

We can’t be stuffed into a tiny box of pre-packaged attributes. We’re much more than the stereotypes suggest. We’re everything. We’re lazy and ambitious, cynical and idealistic, cautious and daring, conservative and progressive, impoverished and rich, drifters and fighters, failures and successes. We’re as diverse as humanity itself.

The only thing we have in common is that we have much more time ahead of us than the other generations. Let’s not waste it, and let’s not leave any other Millennials behind.

Michael Spaeth can be reached at micspa@umich.edu.

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