Lazy. Entrepreneurial. Depressive. Optimistic. Tech-savvy. Entitled. These are just a few of the conflicting terms commonly attributed to the so-called Millennial Generation. The news media is flooded every day with stories and stats about young America's habits, values and impact on the world. The volume and depth of stories makes sense -- there are as many as 80 million millennials in America. But media coverage has moved beyond reporting and analysis into a grey area where the deconstruction of the group borders on obsessive, sensational and derogatory.
That's why it's time to retire the word "millennial" from the dialogue.
A recent Washington Post headline says it all about the media establishment's view of young America: "Why are so many millennials depressed?" It's hard to be a young American and not take offense at these types of headlines. America is more diverse than ever. Telling stories about young Americans is like telling stories about African Americans, Hispanics or gays in general. Ageism isn't as shocking or controversial as racism, but it can be just as real and damaging. Historically, minority groups were known by many names until they were empowered to define themselves. Sooner or later, young(ish) people will take back the word "millennial" for themselves. Would a news organization today publish a story that asks why are so many black people depressed?
Another troubling aspect about the rush to judgment about this generation is that there's no consensus on when the millennial generation begins and ends. The cutoff year for membership in this 80-million person group is nebulous. The oldest among them were born anywhere from 1977 to 1983 -- making them "Senior Millennials." Their counterparts -- the "Junior Millennials" -- were born from 1994 to 2000. It doesn't take a statistician to find something wrong with lumping 37-year-olds and 14-year-olds into the same category.
That doesn't bother the Pew Research Center, which created the "How Millennial Are You?" quiz, as if there's a formula to pigeonhole 80 million people. Almost as egregious is a Forbes contributor telling the public: "Why You Can't Ignore the Millennials." An argument could be made that contemporary American society is myopic to the plight of minorities, but it takes literal blindness or utter stupidity to ignore a quarter of the nation's population.
There isn't even agreement on how to refer to this segment of the population. Sometimes it's Generation Y. Sometimes it's the Millennial Generation. And then there's John Zogby -- a living legend on the topic of public research -- who has developed his own term, First Globals.
That hasn't stopped 60 Minutes from tongue-in-cheek headlines that evoke the once-deadly threat of socialism and nuclear disaster: "The Millennials Are Coming." But no one can say when millennials are coming. Young Americans will comprise half of the nation's workforce in a few short years, but they hold virtually zero of its wealth and political power. Mark Zuckerberg and Miley Cyrus may already be considered titans of commerce and culture, but there's a long way to go before millennials wrest figurative or literal control of the world from their parents.
Meanwhile, The New York Times (known as the newspaper of record to previous generations) reports that "millennials want children, but they're not planning on them." With the first child to live to 150 already alive today, the public is going to be fed these types of news stories over and over as millennials make their long, slow march to leadership.
The impulse of older generations to categorize and classify everyone and everything is natural. Making generalizations is a cognitive reflex needed to process observations, develop resolutions and translate them into action. Defining millennials' attitudes, beliefs and values seemingly makes it easier to understand them and relate to them. But young Americans, like anyone, chafe at the concept of such definition, of being neatly fit into one box like all the rest. Ironically, this insatiable thirst for absolute definition of today's youth leads to one truism about this amorphous entity known as the millennial generation: It defiantly rejects absolutism in regards to the individual.
Non-millennials should be curious and apprehensive about the future, and they are right to ask what is the best way to enable the next generation to lead. The answer is simple: Let them do it on their own, let them define themselves. Erase the word "millennial" from the vocabulary.