Going beyond millennial stereotypes of avocado toast and #adulting

Singapore residents aged between 20 and 39 years old numbered more than 1.13 million last year; this group made up 39 per cent of the resident workforce. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - The first time I ever saw a smartphone, I was 17.

A wealthy friend had brought his new iPhone to school. Even then, the sight filled me with a strange mix of wonderment and dread. It was a whole new world, separated from me by a pane of glass and the touch of a fingertip, a universe that could fit in a pocket.

My friends were cooing over something called an "app". I said dismissively, "That screen will get dirty quickly if you touch it so often," to mask the fact that I was actually mildly terrified by this thing. Even then, I knew somehow it would change my life forever.

Fast forward a decade or so and the smartphone is the first thing I look at when I wake up in the morning. In the brief span of my life, it went from inconceivable to indispensable. Such are the immense, disruptive shifts that my generation, the millennials, grew up with.

The term "millennial" is widely credited to demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe, who wrote the book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000).

They are the generation roughly defined by the Pew Research Centre in the United States as those born between 1981 and 1996 - between 23 and 38 years old in 2019. Marketing research corporation Nielsen defines them as being between 22 and 38 this year. In any case, millennials straddle the gap between Gen X, those born in the 1960s to the early 1980s before the Internet took off, and Gen Z, digital natives from the get-go.

Millennials were children when the world was shaken by the Sept 11, 2001 attacks and the ensuing war on terror. They began entering the workforce in the wake of the Great Recession during the late 2000s.

They were the first generation to come of age in the digital shift, who had their identities forged in the crucible of social media, instant and perpetual connectivity and a relentlessly visual culture.

Most people still think of "millennials" as a rather pejorative catch-all term for the "kids these days", but my generation is in fact getting on in years. The most senior millennials are turning 38 this year, which is old enough to turn around and start blaming another generation for their problems.

It is difficult to pigeonhole an entire generation, especially one that has had more labels slapped on them than they can conclusively identify with, but that has not stopped others from trying.

We were entitled, narcissistic and mollycoddled. A 2013 Times magazine article famously dubbed us the "Me, me, me generation". We found everything we needed through apps, from takeaway to true love. If we hadn't posted about a thing online, it was like it hadn't happened.

We were eating ourselves out of home ownership through artisanal coffees and avocado toast. We were #fomo-ing and #yolo-ing our way to retirement inadequacy. (For the uninitiated, YOLO stands for "you only live once"; FOMO is the "fear of missing out").

We were so helpless at being self-sufficient that we had to turn things into hashtags, like #adulting and #selfcare, to show off every time we got something done (e.g. "cooked dinner today! it was not instant noodles #adulting") .

We craved recognition and needed to be given awards for everything. Especially #adulting, which countless generations before us had somehow achieved without making a song and dance of it. Also without, it would seem, a sense of irony.

We were ruining the workplace through our flakiness and our fixation on work-life balance. At the same time, we were the "burnout generation", working ourselves to death in the misguided pursuit of "hustle culture". We chose jobs because of fluffy concepts such as "passion" and "ideals". But also we kept "ghosting" our employers and asking to take holidays.

We were special snowflakes. We were political correctness gone mad. We reduced everything to memes because we had no respect. We put "woke-ness" (aware of social justice issues) on a pedestal. We couldn't take a joke.

We could just as easily be embodied by reality television royalty, the Kardashians, as firebrand US Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or the millions of fans who have made K-Pop the cultural juggernaut it is today.

We were a bag of contradictions, but many could agree on one thing: millennials were (in our parlance) Actually The Worst.

I would like to be able to smash these stereotypes like avocado on my Sunday toast, but it is more complicated than that. Some have a grain of truth; some are a blatant disservice to the cohort who, according to a Bloomberg analysis of United Nations data, will make up 31.5 per cent of the global population this year.

Singapore residents aged between 20 and 39 years old numbered more than 1.13 million last year; this group made up 39 per cent of the resident workforce.

Millennials "didn't emerge fully formed from the crack in an iPhone screen," writes American author Malcolm Harris in his 2017 book Kids These Days: Human Capital And The Making Of Millennials, in which he posits that a hyper-competitive environment, downward pressure on labour costs and helicopter parenting are among the reasons why American millennials are so messed up.

"Tracking the changes in the institutions that have the most influence on children's development gives us more clarity into kids' lives than trying to generalise from cherry-picked behaviours that adults find unnerving," he argues.

For many, the millennial experience is one fraught with anxiety and concern that they are the first generation to earn less than their parents, thanks to wage stagnation coupled with rising property prices.

Four in five young professionals in Singapore have experienced a "quarter-life crisis", according to a study last year by professional social network LinkedIn.

Not to mention climate change, which young people perceive as much more of a threat than previous generations, especially since it could conceivably ruin the environment in their children's lifetimes.

It often comes as a surprise to older folks that millennials - for all their bubble-tea-swigging and Insta-storying - can actually be depressingly serious.

We want to talk about social justice, mental health and caring for our ageing parents. We fret about the end of the world as we know it. We are not exactly the height of levity, although at least we have memes.

A survey of 866 Singapore youths aged 16 to 29 years old by banking programme Frank by OCBC, released this month (April), showed three in four were concerned about their parents' finances for retirement. Less than half prioritised gaining material possessions once they had money.

As to their motivations in life, 86 per cent said they wanted to understand their inner selves, compared to 32 per cent who wanted to be famous. More than 80 per cent chose human rights and poverty as the causes they cared most about.

Those who characterise millennials as soft and entitled need only look at the Generation Grit column, which The Straits Times has been running since 2017, to be proven wrong. The series has featured more than 25 individuals in their 20s to mid-30s who have shown remarkable courage, resilience and service to the community.

In this two-part Straits Times special, we want to look at the ways that millennials are changing the world around them. We want to look at the influencers who are disrupting the way we consume and the activists who are pushing for change. The things millennials have thrown out of their homes and the ways they have shaken up the workplace. How they parent, invest and look for love.

And not a moment too soon, for another generation is breathing down our necks: Generation Z, who could use iPads before they could walk, think Facebook is for dinosaurs and for whom "Yeet!" is already a passe phrase. (What is "yeet", you ask? In the time it would take me to explain this complex concept, it's already gone out of date. Good luck trying to keep up with these kids.)

Their time is coming. They too will have to grapple with what "the olds" (us, basically) make of their generation - and then make something of their own.

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