Millennials, individuals born between 1981-1996, have been called many things, including, but not limited to; sensitive, entitled, coddled, lazy, snowflakes, antisocial, easily offended, and more.
What these pejorative terms have in common are their lazy attempt to label an entire generation as ‘too sensitive’ and, therefore, weak in comparison to previous generations.
Are millennials just more politically correct, holding individuals accountable for their words and actions?
Prior generations, growing up under different political and social conditions, have been some of the main perpetrators of the negative adjectives listed above to describe millennials. Statistically, though, millennials are a force to be reckoned with, numbering 71 million in July of 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Millennials, being the children of baby boomers (people born from 1946-1964) or Generation Xers (1965-1981), grew up in vastly different worlds than their parents. Baby boomers grew up in the era of the 50s, trying to find a sense of normalcy after World War II. Racial tensions were high as African Americans were being segregated and their voting rights being infringed, while the image of women as housewives, having somewhat improved after WWII, was still a predominant thought of the time.
To argue that older people are racist is easy; almost as easy as labeling millennials as snowflakes. Both are ignorant statements propelled by stereotypes. To verbally attack baby boomers and generations before can be tempting, especially when an old man reminisces about the times when nobody expressed their sexualities and when teachers could slap you. But an educated and wise person is able to take a step back and recognize that individuals born under certain social conditions are victims, rather than perpetrators, of their society.
If you were always told that a certain type of person is bad, why wouldn’t you grow up believing that? As children we learn through others behaviors and beliefs. The real problem is society, and that the old man ranting about ‘inconveniences’ that seem morally obvious was once a young boy who grew up in a society that promoted and socially rewarded racist thoughts.
To fail to acknowledge technology’s role in today’s society and the millennial generation’s experience would be vastly imprudent. We cannot ignore social media’s presence in the new millennium. Today, it’s hard to be controversial without repercussion from social media. Before the notorious online police, aka Twitter, most people would say something offensive, and the people around them would be upset, but that would be the extent of it; That conversation did not reach many other people. Nowadays Twitter acts as a public record for celebrities and lay people’s thoughts. Just last year Kevin Hart was publicly shunned for his homophobic tweet in 2009 and didn’t host the Oscars as a result. Many individuals in the past who were able to ‘get away’ unscathed, are now being held to today’s standards of correctness. The #MeToo movement is a perfect example of this.
It is entirely possible that we might rather be politically correct or even silent for fear of controversy and the anxiety that controversial topics and potential arguments can bring. The documentary “Can We Take a Joke” (2015) directed by Ted Balaker describes this phenomenon; “While people have always found something to be offended by, their ability to organize a groundswell of opposition to — and public censure of — their offender has never been more powerful. Today we’re all one clumsy joke away from public ruin.”
With this in mind, we have to consider the issue of censorship every time we correct someone because we personally believe that they are not ‘with the times’ or are offending our set moral standards. The film prompts discussion by asking us, “who gets to be the one who draws the line?” Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Research Institute, commented on this phenomena, insightfully saying, “the most sensitive [person] gets to determine what can be said.”
When did addressing someone by their preferred gender, basic human rights, and respecting each other be too ‘sensitive?’ However, if individuals were not taught this, but taught the opposite, why wouldn’t their reactions to these seemingly wildly ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ ideas be negative? So when millennials advocate for trigger warnings, LGBTQ+ rights, equality, and more, the problem lies not in specific generations, but the advancement and development of society itself. Society has rapidly evolved with the world wide web right at our fingertips, honing in on the ability to rapidly exchange ideas to many people at once. While convenient, this in itself is more powerful than most realize.
Nothing is as simple as, “Kids nowadays are sensitive and can’t take a joke. Back in my day we didn’t need trigger warnings or have transgender people.” The answer to this is, no you did, you just didn’t hear about it because those individuals suppressed their true selves and struggles in order to survive in a society that did not accept, or wasn’t socially able to accept, them yet.
Claire Fox’s book “I Find that Offensive!” discusses this very topic with regards to the underlying social issues that prompt these generational dialogues. She argues that the real problem lies in society’s attempt to define “what it means to be human.” There is no correct answer, and perhaps is why we experience tension between individuals older or younger than us.
With this in mind, it’s important to note that millennials are not perfect either; while society in 2019 is starting to recognize oppressions against certain groups, there is an almost overextension or overcompensation of political correctness in our dialogue. Everyone is stepping on eggshells trying not to offend each other, because of the fear of social alienation. But, this begs the question: is this anxiety of being controversial or potentially offensive, preventing good conversations and discussions from happening?