Daily Blog Email
We write blog posts and cultural commentaries saying, “Millennials this,” and “Millennials that,” but unless we’re using statistics to support our statements, we’re probably making generalizations about the Millennials we personally observe rather than statements that are actually true.
I do it, too, I must admit, though I’m working to get better at it.
I was speaking to a group of Nazarene pastors and lay leaders in New York a couple of weeks ago and I said, “The only generalization you can make about Millennials is that they are too diverse to generalize.”
Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history, a trend driven by the large wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have been coming to the U.S. for the past half century, and whose U.S.-born children are now aging into adulthood. In this realm, Millennials are a transitional generation. Some 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. About half of newborns in America today are non-white, and the Census Bureau projects that the full U.S. population will be majority non-white sometime around 2043.
And, to be honest, the diversity of Millennials goes far beyond their racial diversity, but that’s another blog post entirely. When we talk about Millennials, though, we’re usually talking about a small subset of people.
First of all, the sociological category of “Millennials” is an American invention. So whenever you make generalizations about “Millennials,” you’re only talking about Americans.
But it gets even more specific than that.
When we make rather off-the-cuff remarks like, “Millennials are liberal,” or “Millennials love adventure,” or “Millennials are spoiled brats,” and likewise, we usually only have one subgroup of Millennials in mind:
Unless you’re breaking out statistics like the massive work from Pew Research Center, the Public Religion Research Institute, or data from other such sources, you’re just making a bunch of generalizations based on personal experience that are likely only true of the most upwardly mobile, socially-observable kind of Millennial—the upper-middle class, white ones.
You say, “Millennials love adventure,” because you see a bunch of white 20-something girls posting pictures on Instagram of their latest expedition into the woods behind their suburban home—the kind of white girls parodied by Socality Barbie on Instagram. You forget that the Latina sisters in Los Angeles caring for their little siblings while their parents work are Millennials, too, whose “adventure” is collecting laundry while feeding babies, not collecting pinecones while sipping on a Pumpkin Spice Latte.
You write something like, “Millennials are moochers who live with their parents,” because you hear stories about your college friends living at home, playing video games all day, and not getting a “real job.” But you don’t think about the 25-year-old African American brothers in Harlem working three jobs to care for their aging parents, who actually depend on them rather than the other way around.
Generalizations aren’t true simply because they reflect your experience.
You joke, “Millennials don’t know how to grow up,” because your friends live with their parents or don’t get married. As you furiously blog your cute, anecdotal Millennial rage over a cup of expensive coffee on the porch of your suburban home, dozens of Millennials on the streets of Chicago grow up every weekend when their peers are gunned down by gang violence on the stoop of their South Chicago apartment.
“Those Millennials,” you write before you decide its time for a Netflix binge, “when are they ever going to grow up?”
When we write about Millennials, or any generation for that matter, we need to be careful about how we say what we say.
In July of 2013, Mainline Protestant blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog post for CNN entitled, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” which perfectly illustrates that the bleaching and personalization of the Millennial generation can even persist when you do have statistics to back up whatever statements you wish to make. Here’s a quote:
Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates - edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.
But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.
Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions - Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. -precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.
Mrs. Evans makes statements like the ones above simply because they reflect her experience as a white, upper-middle class, Mainline, high-church-preferring Millennial. If you want to make the case that Millennials aren’t attracted by skinny jeans, coffee, and performances, you have to ignore the popularity of churches like Hillsong, Cross Point, NewSpring, Elevation, and many others.
If what Mrs. Evans says is true, I suppose we’d be seeing a lack of interest in Hillsong and a burgeoning interest in Catholicism or Mainline Protestantism, which we definitely aren’t seeing.
Generalizations aren’t true simply because they reflect your experience. You may have a bunch of narcissistic Millennial friends, but you cannot say, “Millennials are narcissistic” just because you observe it.
Mrs. Evans isn’t the only one to do this sort of thing, not in the slightest, but often, when we analyze Millennial data or make generalizations, we forget that, among large subgroups of Millennials, the statements we make are inaccurate.
Professor Bryan Calvin wrote in RELEVANT shortly after Evans wrote for CNN:
The numbers for black Millennials [in the church] are, in fact, not dropping. That is, black adults age 18-29 are not leaving the Church. The 2007 report shows that black Millennials makeup 24 percent of Historically Black Churches , the same percentage as their Boomer Generation parents. Religious affiliation for young black adults going to historically black churches remains stable. If you look at trends between the 2007 and 2012 surveys, there’s not much difference in the numbers for black Millennials.
Mrs. Evans writes Millennials are leaving the church. Mr. Calvin writes, “Not among African Americans they’re not,” showing that no matter what the statistics say, every generalization merits a qualification or caveat.
My good friend, Bob Smietana, News Editor of Christianity Today, explained this reality in OnFaith in May of 2014:
Almost everyday, it seems, there’s a new story about how “Millennials are leaving the church.” But there’s a problem with these trend pieces: They aren’t true. American Christianity still has plenty of Millennials — they’re just not necessarily in white churches.
Instead, they’re found in places like Iglesia de Dios, a 3,000-member Hispanic megachurch in Nashville. The church was started in the mid-1990s by the Rev. Jose Rodriguez, a native of Venezuala who moved to Nashville in order to get better medical care for one of his children.
Now, neither Mrs. Evans nor others who write about Millennial trends intend to slight minority communities in their analysis. However, what often happens when we write about Millennials is that we make sweeping statements we either: a) ought not be making or b) ought to qualify.
You may be reading this and protest, “Well if we can’t make generalizations, we really can’t say anything about Millennials.”
I get it. I know what you mean.
The only generalization you can make about Millennials is that they are too diverse to generalize.
This is all I’m saying: when you want to make a generalization about Millennials, or any other generation, make sure you’re clear it is a generalization.
For instance, when you see a stat like this: “53% of Millennials say they lead the kind of life they want,” which is true, according to Pew, you do not write, “Millennials lead the kind of life they want.” That is not true, because only 53% of Millennials, barely half, do.
Instead, you write, “Just over half of Millennials lead the kind of life they want,” or even, “Most Millennials lead the kind of life they want,” if you insist.
I’m not saying we need to kill generalizations all together, but if you’re going to say, “Millennials are energetic and love life,” you better have something to back it up, or you’re just making stuff up based on what you observe. And often, what we observe is a white, upper-middle class reality that is largely foreign in many contexts and in the lives of many Millennials.