May 16, 2013 at 4:24 PM ET
Millennials have been called a lot of things recently — narcissistic, lazy, entitled, and obsessed with our smartphones, for a start — at least, according to a recent TIME magazine story.
The piece, which didn't quote many actual millennials, appeared designed to poke a hornet's nest (and the Internet delivered in clever responses) but it begged the question: What does it mean to be a millennial? And is there any way to pin down a generation that boasts 80 million members?
There are a few basic things that unite those of us born between 1980 and 2000, as the term "millennial" has come to be defined. We’re digital natives, we came of age in the Great Recession, and we witnessed, and in some cases propelled, Barack Obama’s startling ascent.
These three things aren’t unrelated. It means we watched the economy fall apart just as our country’s demographic shift came into stark relief, and we experienced both through the accelerated lens of the Internet, with endless access to information at our fingertips.
I, for one, was acutely aware of all these things coming to a head. When the economy crashed, I was a 23-year-old waitress and babysitter in Chicago with no health insurance and no savings account. My checking balance hovered in the low three digits on any given day. Yet, for some reason, I felt optimistic enough to give $25 to Obama’s campaign (through an online donation, of course). It was strange being broke and influential at the same time.
Nowadays, I’m a 28-year-old journalist (still waiting on good health insurance), but I still have the distinct sense that the rules are being rewritten at a rapid pace, and our generation has risen to the occasion.
Millennials “don’t wait their turn and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” says Meredith Perry, the 23-year-old founder and CEO of uBeam, a technology startup developing the capability to charge electronic devices wirelessly that has grabbed the attention of Marissa Mayer and other investors. “Especially because of the jobs crisis, you kind of make your own future by necessity.”
The Internet isn’t just a distraction from the analog world; it’s our lifeblood. And in many cases, it’s how we support ourselves. It’s how we get those precious jobs we’re accused of not caring about. “The easiest thing for a potential employer to do is just Google you,” notes Perry.
But let’s back up: The word “millennial” itself has a specific connotation. When critics obsess over millennials — either calling us optimistic entrepreneurs or entitled whiners — they’re often worrying about a middle class, educated young person whose childhood was characterized by Baby Boomer coddling.
Yet, for millions of low-income millennials, the idea of being “entitled” seems laughable.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Who are they talking about?’" says Gaby Pacheco, 28, a Miami-based political activist. “The people I know are not narcissistic or lazy. They are fighting for their own rights…in a country that’s changing.”
There are millennial entrepreneurs everywhere, from Perry in Silicon Valley to StirList creator Amber Pankonin in Omaha, Neb. and coffee shop owner Byron Knight in Jackson, Miss. But that’s not the only way we wield our influence.
There are also community organizers like Nelini Stamp, 25, who advocates for working families in New York. There are fast food workers like 20-year-old Jevon Walker, who walked out of his job to demand $15 an hour just yesterday in Milwaukee, Wisc. There are countless twentysomethings who are working two jobs and pursuing their passion projects on the side. There are hordes of young people who work for Senators, and who organized and canvassed for the 2008 and 2012 elections and continue to be involved politically.
None of these millennials seem to be filling their days taking selfies in their parents’ basement.
That’s not to say we don’t often feel paralyzed by a bleak economy, a sped-up workplace, and increasing pressure to “brand” ourselves.
Still, we remain optimistic. Among those ages 18 to 34, only 9 percent fear they won't ever have enough to live the life they want, according to a recent survey. Some may call this delusional; I call this survival mode.
Whether we were promised infinity or had it hard from the start, we’re holding the world to a higher standard.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is a freelance journalist and a Pipeline fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She is currently working on a book called “The Crash Generation,” about how the recession has affected millennials’ class consciousness.