I’ve heard it countless times. The endless criticism of the millennial generation for being “entitled”, “ self-absorbed”, “spoiled”, the list goes on. My generation almost exclusively hears negative things about us from the generations above us. I was recently listening to public radio and heard yet another negative report on the podcast Hidden Brain about the rise of narcissism among young people. The host discussed social research findings and the impact of having to feel like we are “special” all the time. I listened to this and I felt deeply hurt. I felt so hurt because I felt terribly alone. It is easy to talk about the symptoms of self-absorption in millennials, I have yet to hear anyone ask “why is this happening?” I believe the majority of millennials feel alone, and if we are self-absorbed it might be because all we have is ourselves.
We have no heroes
Give me a list of 20 public figures who do not have some kind of scandal attached to them. I’ll wait. So many of the people we looked up to as children have become mired in allegations of destructive behavior. From coaches convicted of systematic abuse of children, athletes who sexually exploited others, political figures who were not the people they claimed to be, actors and comedians and TV show hosts who turned out to be abusive and selfish. There are very few people left that model integrity and selflessness. Part of the reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor struck such a cord is because it is borderline shocking when someone we grew up with is actually a kind person. Was actually trustworthy and cared about us. We have become distressingly accustomed to our role models being hypocrites and secretly toxic. Why would we look outward when all we see is disappointment and abused trust? Is it not much safer to trust only ourselves?
We have no heroes…including our parents
I was recently sitting around a table with five 18-23 year-olds and I was the only one in the group who grew up in a loving, stable home. In my eleven years of working with college students, it is the exception when a young person comes from a family where the parents are together and have a healthy relationship and lifestyle. Most of the time today’s young people are carrying a great deal of pain and alienation that started in their homes. Hurts not only from divorce but from emotional neglect, parental unreliability, patterns of sin and addiction in the home, death and tragedy, and a lack of feeling known and loved by their parents. The people who were created to offer us unconditional love and support have very often let us down in deeply wounding ways. Is it any wonder that we turn to our devices and social networks for validation and connection?
Pornography is everywhere
I have yet to hear anyone include the prevalence of pornography in discussions about narcissism and mental health among millennials. We are constantly told that we are bad at relating to others and lack resilience, and none of those same critics ask how the availability of pornography in the digital age has shaped an entire generation to be emotionally and physically isolated. Pornography is the ultimate example of self-absorption. It is designed in such a way that it allows a person to be alone while receiving the illusion of connection. It removes the need for others while creating a false sense of shared reality. And it is a very bitter master. It keeps its users trapped in isolation by appearing to meet needs and then paralyzing them from being able to experience true connection and intimacy. It distorts one’s ability to empathize with others and accurately interpret social situations. The Atlantic began a conversation about pornography’s impact in an article on the sexual recession that is occurring among young people. An entire generation does not have the tools to form meaningful and lasting intimate relationships. So we are alone. We stay home, falling deeper into unhealthy patterns, lacking the tools or support to find a better way. Lonely and scared of one another.
We don’t have the church
Countless reports will tell you that millennials and younger are the least churched generation. The reasons for this are many. Church sexual scandals are an obvious and legitimate one. From the Catholic church to multiple other denominations and congregations hiding abusive leaders and systemic sin. This has caused a generation of “little ones” to stumble (Luke 17:2). Add to this generations of racism (The Color of Compromise) and sexism, and young people who care very much about issues of justice and inequality are going to view the church with profound cynicism. The church in America has also struggled to adapt to social changes. Leaving many young people walking out the doors on a Sunday morning feeling that it was not for them and their presence is of little consequence to the other worshippers. This is indeed a great social tragedy. The Family of God has the potential to add so much meaning and support and can be a major protective factor in the lives of young people. Without it, we have neither an extended support system nor a transforming relationship with Christ to sustain and pull us outwards and into the broader community. Whenever I see research data revealing that young people are more lonely, depressed and anxious than ever, I know it is connected to not having faith and truth in their lives. If we do not have faith communities to care for us and invite us into a bigger story, with what are we left?
So what do we do? I can start by saying that we would benefit from less criticism and more compassion. No one becomes who they are in a vacuum, please take time to empathize with us and why we have resorted to the coping patterns we have. This is not to let millennials off the hook for the unhealthy trends in our midst. We need to own our lives and develop better coping methods. But yelling and demeaning has never helped anyone grow and change and has certainly never helped someone feel less alone. We are your children and grandchildren, we are not aliens from another planet. Please get to know us and give us a little credit. Questions I have rarely heard from a baby-boomer are, “Why do you think that is? What do you think about that?” Spend more time building bridges and inviting us into a shared way forward and less time writing us off. The majority of millennials I know are passionate, intelligent, curious, and hopeful. We all need one another. Please join with us and allow us to speak into your lives as well. We cannot do this alone.