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Matthew Lew Headshot

I Am Millennial

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Bravo, Ms. Huffington. I am one of the Millennials you called out in your perceptive piece last month on our "coming of age" as "America's most stressed generation." And yes -- as you shrewdly noted, we "youth" who are about to inherit the future are full of surprising contrasts, starting with stressed out but optimistic.

But there are some other interesting inconsistencies about our generation to add to the list. They relate to your encouraging conclusion that we will change what your generation has "handed off" to us for the better. And thanks to our sheer numbers -- 80 million according to most estimates -- these disparities are going to have a huge impact on the future. To paraphrase a song my mother liked that was written long before I was born, "we are Millennial, hear us roar, in numbers too big to ignore."

So what are they?

  • Many of us are politically opinionated but uncommitted to voting.
  • We're more natural about beauty but fond of tattoos and cosmetic procedures.
  • We're dedicated to sustainability but represent the fastest growing segment of luxury goods-and-services purchasers.

Take voting. Less than half of us cast ballots in the 2012 election, but is our convoluted Electoral College system -- which diminishes the power of the popular vote -- the most effective way to choose our representatives, especially for the first truly digital generation? In truth, we vote everyday as we like, share, tweet and post our thoughts about virtually everything in our lives. Instantaneous self-expression and committed individualism are our standard. We have, and will continue to find, alternate and perhaps more effective ways to make ourselves heard.

The same goes for beauty, where our preferences for natural, organic and sustainable products are seemingly at odds with our tendencies to get tattoos and cosmetic procedures. But again, it's a reflection of our tendencies to be expressive and individualistic. Forty percent of us have one or more tattoos, according to the Pew Research Center's 2010 study on Millennials. And sharing pictures through social media coupled with the increasing availability of minimally invasive measures have led to a rise in cosmetic procedures in our generation, notes the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS). These trends are documented in an interesting infographic posted on Huffington Post called Tattos to Botox.

But most significantly, sustainability relates to total consumption for our generation. So even though we splurge on the high-quality luxury items we covet, as a recent American Express study noted, we use promotions, sales, coupons and Groupons to keep our cash-strapped budgets in check. And we go out of our way to buy "makers and products that are socially responsible.... fair-trade and offer lower carbon footprints," notes Ana Nennig, EVP of global consulting firm Havas PR.

So the question you raised is compelling. How can we channel our optimism, redefine success and change the future your generation is handing off to us? Many of the clues of what might happen are in the contrasts I noted. We may try to modify the political process. We will demand sustainable products but splurge on our appearances. And we will buy less and pop for the luxuries we can't live without.

But through it all, we will expect things to happen quickly. Instantaneously, in fact. It's who we are as a generation, and how we've been raised. And since this will be our time, we will influence these issues in the ways we know best -- online, through social media.

With this in mind, I developed my own little bold, brash and suggestive social media campaign to reflect these thoughts. It is centered on a mixed-media triptych I created, inspired by the Millennial engagement organization OurTime.org and Matthew Segal, it's activist director and Huffington Post blogger. It depicts three cartons that contain "magic juices," implying that our collective optimism and actions can instantly change our civic engagement, save the planet and make us beautiful. But metaphorically, it speaks to the speed with which change occurs and the immediacy of our options in the digital age.

The art was inspired by the contrasts above, and my current infatuation with coconut water -- which I like it for its taste, health benefits and packaging in a carton that is cool, portable and chuggable (a habit I may never grow out of). When I did a little research on this carton, which is used for two different coconut water brands I like equally well, I learned it is made by Tetra Pak, a global company that has won awards for its innovative packaging, which is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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More importantly, Tetra Pak has stringent environmental systems in place that tracks their cartons' CO2 footprints and strives to lower emissions and increase all carton recycling through a collaborative national Carton Council they co-founded. And now, as I see Tetra Pak cartons everywhere I shop, being used for so many different products, I can see they are a product of our time and as iconic as the Campbell's soup cans Andy Warhol immortalized with his artwork. Those cans spoke volumes about the boomer generation, just as these cartons speak volumes around mine.

So just as your Boomer generation redefined what your parents handed off to you, Ms. Huffington, we will too and already are--just much more quickly and perhaps overtly than ever before given the transparency prompted by the Internet. In a post that relates to this topic, activist Lisa Curtis noted "the transition from... unfulfilling societal expectations and consumerism to blazing a trail with a life guided by a holistic focus on well-being, community and sustainability won't be easy...but ....at least one dream worth fighting for." Given our numbers and nature, there are two things I am sure of: we will succeed at changing what your generation is handing off to us for the better, and our optimism will prevail.