How the media stereotypes millennials

November 26, 2014 | By Chandra Johnson

Narcissistic. Lazy. Entitled.

These are some of the words recently equated to millennials in the media, but Columbia University and Fresno State journalism professors Duy Linh Tu and Tamyra Pierce remember the same terms being applied to their respective generations — generation X and the baby boomers.

"Mostly I think this is a demographic thing," Tu said. "They said the same thing about Gen-Xers. But in reality, when you're in your 20s, you're figuring things out and it's really easy for others to look and say, 'You don't have your act together.’ ”

These stereotypes might not have originated with the media, but they've certainly been strengthened by movies, TV and news coverage. Salon writer Sara Scribner argued last year that generational stereotyping reached a new level with generation X.

"Around the time Richard Linklater’s film 'Slacker' came out in 1991, journalists and critics put a finger on what they thought was different about the young generation of emerging adults — they were reluctant to grow up, disdainful of earnest action," Scribner said. "The stereotype stuck — and it stuck hard."

To 27-year-old Corie Whalen, spokeswoman for millennial advocacy group Generation Opportunity, the stereotypes about millennials aren't just insulting, they're inaccurate. And she may be right. Despite the pervasive "lazy" generalizations, millennials are largely seen as responsible and hard-working, according to a Reason-Rope poll conducted this year.

That perceived laziness may be more of a reflection of the post-recession job market, as a 2013 Pew study found. The study stated that "although job holding among young adults increased from 2012 (64 percent) to 2013 (65 percent), it remains below 2009 levels (66 percent) and far below pre-recession levels. In 2007, before the recession began, 71 percent of 18- to 32-year-olds were employed." Given the data, millennials could be "lazy" — or, like many Americans, they might be struggling with slim job prospects.

"I would call it a lack of understanding rather than a media bias," Whalen said. "I think we're a very entreprenuerial generation and mostly it's just underreported."

Identifying where this negative perception comes from isn't a simple question to answer.

"I hear all the time, even from people who are sympathetic to our worldview, ‘Well, millennials are just lazy,’ or, ‘It’s their own fault since they voted for Obama,’ ” Whalen said. "But it's much more complicated than that. There's a lot they're not taking into consideration."

Socio-economic factors

A lagging job market isn't the only economic factor affecting millennials — in fact, the economic and social ebb and flow might be more connected to generational patterns than most people know.

Economist and historian Neil Howe literally wrote the book on millennials, coining the term in the early 1990s. Millennials, like most generations, have gotten a bad rap in the media, Howe says.

"The media had horrible things to say about generation X and people were outraged by boomers and most of what is said about millennials is wildly inaccurate. It's par for the course," Howe said. "If you look at the data about millennials fairly, you have to wonder what case is being made."

Howe and research partner William Strauss developed a theory: First, that most generations fall into archetypes and second, that the archetypes are determined by a cycle.

They called these changes over time "turnings" that cycle through boom times (called the "post-crisis high" stage), a period of mild unrest ("awakening"), followed by institutional weakness and distrust ("unraveling") and finally "crisis," when an upheaval creates a sense of community.

One example, Howe said, is the G.I. generation (also known as the "greatest generation), which came of age during the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression. The generation fell into Howe's "hero" archetype — over-confident, optimistic, energetic team players.

If that characterization sounds familiar, Howe says it's no coincidence that millennials parallel G.I.s in many ways.

"There are striking similarities — emergence from the Great Recession, decline in fertility rates," Howe said. "But what were people saying about the G.I. generation in early 30s? Not much — a lot of them thought they were pampered and spoiled given how protected they’d been."

Slow, inevitable change

As someone who teaches journalism to millennials, Pierce says the news industry is partly to blame for the negative stereotyping of the generation. Part of it, she said, is that generalizing facts can be an occupational hazard.

"The media stereotypes everyone," Pierce said. "It makes it easier for the general public to understand. I think the media tend to stereotype to make it easier for the public to take in the message without giving it too much thought."

Change, Pierce said, can be difficult for anyone, but it's been especially hard for journalists to change.

"Change is very hard to accept. Remember, newspapers were never going to go online. They were not going to blog, because that just wasn't the way it was done," Pierce said. "Anything that is different or a change takes awhile to be accepted."

Howe says that much of the journalism industry is comprised of people from older generations, which exacerbates the cycle of unfair stereotyping in the news.

"The media is mainly constructed by older generations that are never fair to younger generations," Howe said. "Older people are aware that younger people are shaped differently, have different values and they're aware that they’ll be growing weaker and there's an inevitable component of anxiety about that."

The cycle of anxiety about upcoming generations is unlikely to change, Tu said.

"Check back in another 10-15 years, and we’ll hate on the next ones as well," Tu said. "Generations affect each other. It's a classic tale often told: Grandpa had it harder than your dad, who had it harder than you."

Despite the negative representation her generation sometimes gets, Whalen remains — perhaps stereotypically — optimistic about millennials' future.

"Even though things are tough for millennials, we're forging our own path," Whalen said. "In the end, I really think people are going to be surprised and millennials are going to go down well in the history books."

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com 

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