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Emily Atkinson Headshot

Millennials and Entitlement to a Better World

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Last night, my dad called me over to watch what he called "the greatest minute and a half in television." It was the beginning of the first episode of The Newsroom, and it was a lot more than a minute and a half. Midway through a rant about why America isn't the greatest country in the world, the character Will McAvoy turns to the young woman who asked the question that set him off and tells her that she is a part of "the worst period generation period ever period," and then proceeds to verbalize a hagiography of America's noble past. At which point I got off the couch, said I was done, and walked away.

I was furious, and I couldn't quite articulate exactly what had set me off. The patently false notion that everything used to be great all the time? The persistence of American exceptionalism? The accusation that I, at 22, am part of the worst generation ever? Boomers in particular like to call my generation entitled, narcissistic, and basically useless Internet addicts who are too distracted by Tumblr to get a real job (or at least, they would say that if they knew what Tumblr is). It's true that we are attached to the Internet, although so are many boomers. But the omnipresence of the Internet in many millennials' lives is shaping how we react to the world around us. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

It's been noted that millennials love irony, and that, like basically everything else about us, has become a target of vitriol at times. While our attachment to irony can, at its worst, make cynics of us and cause us to mock anything done too earnestly, it can also be used as a tool to deflate tyranny. We collectively disdain hypocrisy and the abuse of power (and, being young, still have the sensitivity of the powerless to both), and we like to use ironic humor to expose and criticize what we fear and what enrages us. This doesn't mean we don't take such things seriously; it means we don't take ourselves too seriously, and we don't consider anything immune to criticism, which I think is a good thing. Keen mockery can reveal rot in systems of power that ought to be excised. And humor as a defense also keeps us from being susceptible to extremism in any form. Our collective allergy to blind faith in institutions or movements comes in part from growing up in the shadow of 9/11, and in part from watching the quixotic effort to destroy the windmills of Iraqi WMD, from watching the U.S. high ground dissolve into a legal netherland of torture and war that contrasted with what we learned about American values in school. The cost of extremism was laid open for us very early; our ironic detachment is a response to the horror and fear that resulted.

The Internet gives us the perfect forum to manifest this irony: memes and Tumblr GIFs are a cultural shorthand to express our simultaneous exasperation, fear, and amusement about the way we find the world. Terror attacks, the apocalypse, the intrusion of the government into private life, joblessness, failure -- all these could paralyze us from trying to change anything, from trying even to live our lives. Taking an ironic view, laughing at our nightmares, affords us the hope to go on.

Another consequence of the earth-shattering events of our childhood, and of our Internet addiction, is a generational fetishization of facts. We love proof, and we demand it. We know we can't always trust the government. We also know we can't trust corporations. We grew up playing with Photoshop, and know almost anything can be faked. We require evidence. A big part of this comes from the availability of such evidence, which comes from the capability to hold Google in the palm of one's hand. Ready access to information has made us savvy consumers of purported facts, good researchers, and, often, skeptics. That may explain why millennials support Anonymous, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden in far greater numbers than our parents do. It may also help explain the actions of the latter two, so incomprehensible to many older Americans and yet clear to millennials. What do you do when you find facts -- whether through Googling or working for the NSA -- that change the status quo, that you think others need to know? You share them.

The Internet is ultimately a community. The Internet is our center, our movement, and the one thing in which we have almost total solidarity. Anyone with any access to the Internet, whether from the MacBook their parents bought them, the smartphone for which they saved up, or a library computer, has access to the same cultural arena, which has memes and funny cat videos and references that cut across many of our divides.

Of course, there is meanness and cruelty on the Internet. Cyberbullying is our generation's particular monster, and there are those of us who have taken up trolling, whether accidentally, shamefacedly, or enthusiastically. Most online communities, however, tend to take arms together against trolls, often in spite of their own differences of opinion. Among those invested in the health of an online community, the solidarity is palpable. The Internet is our collective grandmother and cool uncle rolled into one, helping us navigate the confusing mire of 21st century adulthood by letting us crowdsource our doubts. "How do I buy a car?" "Does this lease sound legit?" And then there are the deeper questions, the cries for help into the wilderness -- which are often answered with sensitivity and sound advice. Despite its trolls, the Internet can remind the desperate that they are not alone. By providing a space to give voice to feelings and fears that we might never be brave enough to tell our friends face to face, the Internet gives us a second, safer, social circle, as well as a broader and more open second culture where we can encounter people whose only ostensible link to us is a shared interest in, say, Hannibal fanfiction -- people who can become very real friends.

What this ultimately does is to expand our circle of empathy, showing us people from around the world as individuals rather than part of a faceless "them." Millennials' life experiences--more of us travel, go to college, and consider ourselves 'global citizens' than previous generations also broaden our concept of who 'us' is, making us dramatically more tolerant, espousers of a 'live and let live' ethos quite distinct from the partisan conflict of recent years.

So, yes, perhaps we do feel entitled. Entitled to have facts backing up our media, politics, and legal system; entitled to the truth insofar as such a thing exists; entitled to a world in which bullies are punished and people have the freedom to express themselves as long as they don't hurt anyone else. We feel entitled to mock hypocrisy, deflate extremism, laugh at attempts to tyrannize, and to value what we share as well as what distinguishes us. If we can create such a world that the next generation feels entitled to all that because it's what they've grown up with, well -- that doesn't sound so bad to me.