Why We Are The Way We Are

by Phillip Jo

Millennials get a lot of flack with negative stereotypes: privileged, demanding, lack focus, and spoiled. Of course, I call BS on all of these labels. We are the first generation to grow up in the Digital Age. Generations from now when people are studying how the first real digital evolution evolved, they are going to study us. For those of you who like to jump to judgments, no this fact does not mean our lives are more turbulent than others before us. I know that mass communication, telephones, internet, and the television all popped up in a short amount of time. I am sure it was hard then too. However, the difference is in the scale of connectivity and the availability of knowledge.


One of the most criticisms I hear are: “why can’t you just pick something.” More so than any other generational group I know, millennials switch and “passions” the most. We value exploration and freedom over financial stability and commitment. We demand fulfillment and we don’t settle. This attitude is rare and beautiful. The same group that demanded LGBT rights, better access to educational standards, and helped fuel the eco movement. Do we mess up? Of course but not any worse than the generation that bought us a century of wars, massive global warming, and bursted the housing market. In many ways, millennials are products of past values, an ever changing present, and an exciting but uncertain future. In light of this, I will explore some of the more recent stereotypes in light of these influences.


On Privilege:

Privilege is a loaded word. It is contextually different across a broad spectrum of race, sexuality, and economic class. Dozens of factors entangled into what we call society and its explicitly and implicitly implied rules and behaviors. For example, a white, millennial in the United States born to upper middle class families is drastically different from a millennial in the projects of D.C. In this case, the privilege of environment dramatically outweighs any “privilege” we have solely being born within a period of time.


I am also confused about what a “privileged attitude” is. I have seen it used to describe millennials when they are protesting for LGBT rights to expecting an allowance from their parents. Is it expecting nothing or accepting things they way they are? Is it when we disagree? If so, your attitude is not any difference from the millions who came before you.


Attitude and perception of the world are encultured at an early age. What we are taught to believe as children is something we cannot control until many years later. Before you go on a hark about your sons, daughters, or other millennials who just don’t get it, remember you raised us. Often times on traditional values that could not stand the test of modernity and technology. For instance, many of my white were raised with the idea of “don’t hang with the colored kids.” Here are some things that they were told by their parents growing up, some from judges, top lawyers, doctors, and so forth (perhaps a vestige of living in VA):


“Be careful of the ghettos, don’t go there, the people there are different and dangerous

“Aren’t you worried about marrying an African American, what if he leaves you and your child?”

Of course, these type of values cannot stand. As they grew up and technology broadened their information exposure on a global level, inclusion and diversity became a calling card for millennials. In some ways empathy expanded. Should we feel “privileged” because prior generations built the foundations of racial equity (a completely made up conceptual and social structure of imperialism mind you).


Should we also feel privileged for the housing market crash and the following recessions that eliminated millions of jobs college and high school graduates were expected to fill? Should we feel privileged for a super aged society that incumbent employees never leave? The irony is absurd.


However, the point is not to play a gutter ball game or point fingers. All I am merely trying to say is that every generation has a set of expectations, opportunities, and challenges to come. To play a game of you had more or less than me is petty and does nothing. The question to ask is really why do you care? Why do you care if someone acts “privileged”? Why do I care enough of this perception to make a response?


You should if you mean critically reflecting on what makes up the implicit and explicit benefits given upon a group of people by their mean identity. You shouldn’t for your own ego. To sum it up: it takes a type of privilege to talk about another’s.



On the Need to Find Oneself

Once again shared across every generation that walked the Earth. Unless you have a quantum computer of every record point of human existence in your head, let us walk away from generalizations. This principle also applies to me. I do not assume when I talk of “past generations” as a category to define everyone in one brush of the stroke.


From my experience there is a strong desire to search, to find, to seek, and to live in the millennial group. One reason can simply be the rise of social media. For really the first time, we can see the huge expansiveness of the world in mere seconds. We can Google Earth the himalayas, join a pro surfer through VR, flip through an instagram picture of a famous DJ, and so on and forth. The amount of exposure to what the world is and the possibility out there is enormous.


It is what I call information paralysis. They are so many choices, so many possibilities, many of us just have no idea what to do. We want to be graphic designers, musicians, doctors, and lawyers. When we see what they create and read about their success we want to emulate them. We want to help and move the world. All we hear are stories of epic success or failure. The football player who beat all odds or the billionaire CEO who lost it all in scandal.


We are fed narratives of success or failure: no in between. They are two modal outcomes but infinite ways to achieve them. We are simultaneously stuck with grand visions but also apprehension and fear.


Instant Gratification

We want things immediately but this trend is not something limited to just millennials. It is really a by product of instant feedback. As a UX designer, many interfaces you interact with, from light switches to liking an instagram post, is designed to give quicker feedback. Simply because we tend to like products that do.


As an anecdotal example, when an older Product Manager I know found himself cursing for having to wait more than 2 mins to upload an image file due to a formatting error. I remember the moment of realization and his comment” that felt like two hours and it’s only been a few minutes.” In terms of technology, our perception of time is dramatically warped.


Another aspect is one of narrative. Almost all kinds of media report the results not the journey. With some rare exceptions, it’s Lebron James holding the trophy, a company hitting a 1 billion dollar valuation, or a massive recall by Volkswagen. From a very early age, millennials were constantly exposed to this narrative. The trap is when you believe it. One of the many reasons why some start and don’t fail. The resounding answer I get to the question why did you stop, it got too hard or there was something I couldn’t learn!


Many of us know we are rewarded in private for what we do for years in public. Hardwork is a by product of deliberate practice and dedication honing a craft. Often times more pain than anything else.



Absolutely not. We can go on and list these values forever. The point is to spread awareness and understanding that we need to look in a mirror before we give sweeping generalizations about any generation. There are complex social, technological, racial, economical, and environmental factors at play in the collective or individual responses.


Understanding why millennials are they way we are, as the goal with awareness, is to spread empathy and from that empathy calls to action.


Maybe a manager realizes he is applying a double standard or a millennial in the workforce gets an idea of why commitment is important. Maybe that’s why there is such a disconnect between this generation and the last. For example, in Brexit millennials vastly voted to stay in. Many reported feeling betrayed by their parents who “sold their futures” in education, accessibility, and welfare for “bigoted” fears of immigration. Simply, the better we understand each, the better off we will be.

About Phillip Jo 1 Article
Phillip Jo is a co-founder and Director of Analytics and Design at Macro Conscious. He focuses on providing data-driven marketing, branding, and web design solutions that connect a company’s vision and values with their global audience through master storytelling. He has worked previously in Data Analytics, Software Product Management, and Consulting.