THE BLOG

What the New York Times Missed About "20-Somethings"

08/25/2010 08:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David D. Burstein Author, 'Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaping Our World'

The millennial generation might just be the most talked about generation around. Everywhere I look there's another article, about millennials, written by a member of an older generation, pointing out our deficiencies, challenges, and problems. In fact it seems we millennials are one of the most popular targets for criticism, concern, and curiosity at the moment. The most recent piece of this kind is a major New York Times article from last weekend, "What Is It About 20-Somethings," by Robin Marantz Henig. This article generated a lot of buzz online and heated discussion among commentators and my millennial peers alike. While not a full frontal assault on the millennial generation, it painted a picture of an entire generation stuck at home, having moved back in with their parents, unable and unmotivated to strike out on their own, caught up in relationship, commitment, identity, "meaning of life," and economic issues, and lost in the new identity crisis of so-called "emerging adulthood." While some of these concerns are undeniable factors in the lives and struggles of many millennials, the picture painted in the article is one-sided, un-inclusive, and exaggerated.

What this article (and much other media discussion of millennials) has missed is the amazing success stories of so many in this generation, and the unprecedented levels of accomplishment and achievement of so many of its members. I would argue that despite all the problems -- from the recession to college loans to housing to all the vast complexities of our times -- the mindset and the agenda we millennials have embraced to participate in and enact change has rarely been so widespread, practical, and possible. As a millennial, I'd like to take this moment to speak for my generation and tell about a rarely articulated but exciting trend in this generation. It's a special and quite pervasive mindset afoot in this generation, a mindset I've been discussing and writing about for several years, including in my past pieces for HuffPo. I call it pragmatic idealism.

People have often viewed pragmatism and idealism as lying at opposite ends of the spectrum, but this generation seems to have used common sense to blend the two. It's the notion that we can, should, and very much want to make major changes in our world, but we also know that major change can only be achieved with direct and practical step-by-step plans. From the environment to employment, from issues of racism and diversity to war and peace on a global scale, we want to get involved and we want to renovate and change the status quo. But unlike our Boomer forebears, we understand that the world can't be revolutionized overnight, and that we need to temper our vision of a new way to live with small, practical, consensus-building steps. We work with big businesses and traditional politicians wherever we can, getting resources and strength in numbers, without compromising our values. This kind of spirit, this blend of idealism and pragmatism, has rarely been as alive as it is now in the millennial generation. Young people have tended to be either excessively pragmatic (1950s) or excessively idealistic (1960s) -- or excessively cynical (Generation X), but the combination and balance of pragmatism and idealism in my generation is producing some exciting results.

It's evidenced by people like Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert who I wrote about here in July. They have embraced pragmatic idealism to take on the massive project of re-energizing their hometown in Wilmington, Ohio -- a town particularly hard hit by job losses and the economic downturn. Or people like Matthew Segal who, was appalled at witnessing students forced to wait in long lines at Ohio polling places in the 2004 presidential election and decided not to riot and howl at the injustice of it all, but to start an organization, the Student Association for Voter Empowerment, to address the problem. It's seen in the web entrepreneurs and company founders from the nonprofit Firefox to the very profitable Facebook, who are determined to create new kinds of innovative businesses that have an impact and can connect people, and do some good along the way. And it was Barack Obama's seeming embrace of a blend of pragmatism and idealism that endeared him to this generation, who voted overwhelmingly for him, and contributed mightily to putting him in office.

Pragmatic idealism has given this generation a lot of achievements so far, but perhaps the most exciting thing about this spirit is its sustainability. Pragmatic idealism means we will be working on big problems for a long time. We know at the outset that the road is long and we are prepared for that. This generation will be working on major challenges from climate change to poverty for a lifetime, not just in their youth. And with all due respect to some of the important psychological and scientific studies of the 20-Something brain cited by Ms. Henig, quite a lot of us understand that our passions for social and economic change, and our own search for meaning, identity, and fulfillment as individuals, are interconnected. This generation understands big problems are hard to solve and they take a long time, but we're excited to take on the task.

Are there millennials who are unaccomplished? Yes. Are there millennials who are moving back home and living with their parents after getting degrees from the best colleges in the world? Of course. This is not the downfall of a generation, nor is it for lack of motivation and effort. Some of these new issues and lifestyle questions are directly related to the triple threat of economic issues -- a lack of good quality jobs, a lack of affordable housing, and the high burdens of college loans and family debt. And yes, some of us are troubled by a lack of clarity and a need to experiment with how best to mesh the values we were raised with ("find your passion," "do something important with your life," "find love and happiness"), with the difficult realities of our world. But the success stories of millennials far outweigh the challenges. This is a generation of pragmatic idealists who are changing and will change the world.