I recently read a New York Times piece titled Millennials: Generation Nice. Although the generation born between 1980 and 2000 has been much maligned for being lazy, self-absorbed and maturing at the rate of a sloth, I think they are a pretty decent bunch. My husband and I have three of our own and I work in a company largely dominated by Millennials. Many Gen Y-ers (as they are also known) learned from their parents' successes and failures and are charting their own course through the wilderness of maturation. They watched as their harried parents, like gerbils on a wheel, relentlessly ran from work to carpools to caring for aging parents, convinced that a half hour of family interaction between dinner and homework was somehow "quality time." And they have rolled their collective eyes and said, "Not for me."
Y-ers (at least the privileged ones) were raised by helicopter Moms and Dads, who shuttled their children from piano lessons, to Kumon math, to Mandarin lessons -- all before the kids started kindergarten. But this generation of emerging adults wants to give back. They are seeking opportunities way out of their comfort zone -- within organizations like Teach for America and the Peace Corps. My own son lives in Uganda in an apartment that would be considered pretty rustic by U.S. standards. His electricity is erratic, his water filled with parasites and his shower has an exposed electrical wire that gives you quite a shock -- but as he reassuringly points out -- doesn't kill you. That's OK with him because he is part of a large and growing cohort of young idealistic adults who truly want to change the world. Didn't we want to do that too?
Like many boomers, I came of age during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. I was influenced by Hippies, Yippies, student protesters and everybody who believed you shouldn't trust people over 30. After college, I eschewed materialism and lived happily in a cheap, occasionally rat infested apartment in Allston, Massachusetts with a bedroom overlooking the Citgo station. I had no cell phone, internet or cable bills. In fact, I didn't even own a TV. It was easy to be idealistic when I didn't have to worry about mortgages, car payments, child care expenses, health care costs, or dramatically escalating college tuitions. But that Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da approach to life changed when I got married, bought a house and had my first kid. Not that I didn't relish my life as a grown up. I did -- most of the time. But I also lost some of my innocent idealism and focused more on what preschool my child could get into than saving the whales. And I don't think I was alone. How many Woodstock-goers (who survived the drugs) grew up to be corporate lawyers, doctors, bankers, accountants and actuaries? I know of at least a few. The free love generation entered the rat race in droves, with our manicured lawns, 50 percent divorce rate and 2.4 children.
Those children are now bursting onto the scene -- 80 million strong. Overall, we boomers did a pretty good job raising them. OK -- we occasionally showered them with meaningless praise and were afraid to let them fail -- even a little. But we saw in our children that passion for justice and desire to change the world we had back in the day. So we embraced their worldliness by sending them to remote destinations like rural India and Botswana to build solar lanterns and dig fresh water wells. And they came back home and admonished us for buying plastic water bottles, eating food with GMOs and wearing clothes made by child laborers. While all their save the world-itis may seem a bit preachy at times, I admire this generation's generous spirit and gutsiness. Yes, they have their interpersonal challenges and think a conversation consists of a text that says "Whassup?" But they really do care about people other than themselves and are trying to do something about it.
But what will happen when they hit middle age? Will their vegan and paleo diets protect them from Type 2 diabetes and hypertension? Will their life expectancy continue to soar upward, along with their debt, so they can only contemplate retiring at 102? Will the 24/7 ceaseless barrage of bad news lead to compassion fatigue? And will their pressing day-to-day responsibilities diminish their capacity to reach beyond themselves? Who knows?
But if you ask me -- the Millennial bashers are wrong. For the most part, Millennials are really nice. And as they begin to have their own kids, they seem more like TV's true-to-life "Modern Family" than my generation's teflon image of familial normalcy: Ward, June, Wally and the Beave. And a little credit should go to us boomers. Yes, as parents we did a lot of stuff wrong. Our kids remind us of that on a regular basis. But we also did a lot of stuff right. And as we age, we will need this generation more than ever. They will be our caregivers as we once were theirs.