Defending Millennials: The Try-Hard Generation

By Published on June 11, 2015

Though criticized for being self-centered, careerist, and politically dispassionate, Millennials are really just adapting to the world they live in today.

Graduation season is almost done, and it has brought the usual spate of commencement speeches that urge graduates to follow their passion, be true to themselves, inspire their fellow humans, and save the world. But in recent years there has been a dissenting note to this feel-good rhetoric. In 2012, the speech that became a YouTube sensation—now viewed by 2.5 million people!—was by a then-obscure high-school English teacher to his senior class. The title was “You Are Not Special,” which also gives you a sense of the thesis. It was an elegant essay that was actually gentle in comparison to some of the other characterizations of young people in the media these days. The “Me Generation” was the name given to the Baby Boomers. Time magazine ran a cover in 2013 on the Millennials with the title “The Me Me Me Generation.”

The core charge against today’s youth is that they are achievement-orientedautomatons, single-mindedly focused on themselves and their careers. They are uninterested in delving deep into the search for inner knowledge, giving reign to their passions, or developing their character. In 2014, the essayist William Deresiewicz stepped up the criticism with his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. In it, Deresiewicz recounts his experiences teaching undergraduates at Yale, charging that, having spent their lives getting ready to attend elite colleges, students don’t actually know what to do once they get in. As a result, Deresiewicz finds them to be privileged—“entitled little shit[s]” is the phrase he uses—but incurious, uninterested in exploring the larger questions about the meaning of life, and unwilling to take intellectual risks. They are comfortably bourgeois, caring little about the inner self and the soul. In his recent bestseller, The Road to Character, David Brooks is gentler but equally convinced that the young lack an interest in and a language for a discussion of character and virtue. They are, he believes, “morally inarticulate.”

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