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Millennials in Our 'Time'

What the magazine mangled in its controversial cover story

Getty/Monika Graff

There is a lot of low-hanging fruit in Time’s new cover story on narcissistic millennials, currently available to subscribers only (as if millennials pay for online content!). It was written by Joel Stein, famously described by Time editor Rick Stengel as “a god to people in their twenties and thirties”—only now Stein is 41, and he has come not to praise but to bury twenty- and thirtysomethings. Stein interviewed Kim Kardashian (a god to groupies?) and refers to Tucker Max (a god to bros?) as “an example for millennials.” The massive strides millennials have made toward making mainstream culture more accepting of gays and lesbians is relegated to a subordinate clause in a single sentence. Similarly short shrift is given to the fantastically bum deal millennials were dealt in terms of the economy. On a broader level—and here some sympathy for Stein is probably appropriate—Time wanted to be able to splash something like “Millennials Are Lazy, Entitled Narcissists Who Still Live With Their Parents: Why They’ll Save Us All” on its cover, and so any resulting article was going to say exactly that and then also hedge and say that that is overgeneralizing and unfair and end up saying basically nothing at all. For the most part, this article says nothing at all.

But where it does say things, Time and Stein reveal themselves to be guilty of taking culturally and ethically specific ideas about how people should live their lives as normative facts. It is a frame that could never hope to grasp millennials’ brand of rebellion.1 It is an unrigorous application of pre-existing biases, taking those biases for gospel. It is typical not so much of Gen Xers or baby boomers but of, simply, old people. Stein’s article is dressed up as objective description, which hides the fact that most of it—to paraphrase a boomer icon—is just, like, his opinion, man.

So we are told at the outset that millennials are “lazy.” As Stein writes, “And they are lazy. In 1992, the nonprofit Families and Work Institute reported that 80% of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility; 10 years later, only 60% did.” But maybe current young people—whether because they are young people or because they are members of a distinct generation known as millennials—place a lower premium on responsibility in their jobs because they find being in charge of people uncomfortable or in conflict with their values; or because they saw what seeking out jobs with greater responsibility did to their parents’ happiness; or because they hope to find greater self-fulfillment in their family lives. An empirical observation (assuming the Families and Work Institute’s methodology is sound, although it is worth noting that Time’s most recent statistic here comes from George W. Bush’s second year in office) is turned into a normative judgment: Millennials are less ambitious; therefore they are lazy.

Or here’s another, also from Stein’s opening litany: “Their development is stunted: more people ages 18 to 29 live with their parents than with a spouse, according to the 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults.” For one thing: it’s the economy, stupid! Thousands of words on, Stein dutifully nods toward other possible valid reasons for this development, such as greater, technologically enabled control over fertility. But that is not even the point. “Stunted” is one of those words that linguist Paul Roberts would have called “colorful.” Stein is making not only a forensic observation, but also a moral judgment. Millennials are delaying maturity, leaving home, marriage, having children, and the rest—and that is wrong of them. Thank God Joel Stein is here to set us right!

And from later on: “They’re financially responsible; although student loans have hit record highs, they have less household and credit-card debt than any previous generation on record—which, admittedly, isn't that hard when you're living at home and using your parents’ credit card.” “Responsible,” too, is a moral word masquerading as an empirical one. To write an article about young people that minimizes student debt at a time when it, indeed, is at a record high, is astonishing enough. To imply that, in contrast to low household and credit-card debt, all of this student debt is not “responsible” betrays an incredibly poor understanding of how student debt has gotten as high as it has.

Stein begins with citations to the religion of our age, psychology (“I have studies! I have statistics!” Stein brags). Millennials, he tells us, are narcissists (the word and its cognates appear 15 times in the article). They have three times the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder as people 65 and older do. But narcissistic personality disorder, too, is a set of subjective criteria informed by the sensibilities of old people that may not necessarily apply to millennials and/or young people. (Diagnoses of mental disorders in fact have less credibility right now than perhaps ever before in part for this reason.)

Still, maybe millennials are narcissists. Are we are a generation of Raskolnikovs, Dostoyevsky’s famous narcissist who believes the ordinary rules of society and morality do not apply to him, and justifies murder that way? Or are we a generation of moral entrepreneurs—old people are comfortable thinking of us as entrepreneurs only when the innovations have to do with the Internet—who to an unprecedented extent were raised to question received wisdom and values and now do not think the rules apply to us because they are bad rules? I think it is more the latter. Another thing millennials are not, Stein argues, is rebellious, but moral entrepreneurship sounds pretty rebellious to me. (And if you are wondering, Occupy Wall Street is mentioned once, inappositely grouped with the Arab Spring as futile, leaderless rebellions.)

Right now, older generations are in the process of slowly bequeathing millennials a society more “in debt” than ever before: “in debt” in the sense of living on borrowed time, with only future, merely hypothetical promises as collateral—“in debt” ecologically, financially, politically, culturally. At this moment, Time has decided to focus on the millennials, and to tar them as “entitled” for not feeling totally okay about all of this. “Whether you think millennials are the new greatest generation of optimistic entrepreneurs or a group of 80 million people about to implode in a dwarf star of tears when their expectations are unmet depends largely on how you view change,” Stein concludes. I cannot speak for the old people, but here is betting that, when it comes to tears, millennials are not going to let their emotional lives be run by Time magazine.

  1. Full disclosure: Demographically, I am a classic millennial; but I took Time’s millennial quiz (yes, I have waited in line to buy cupcakes; no, I have not taken a selfie while doing so), and it found that I am exactly 50 percent a millennial, which is to say, “You appear to have some millennial tendencies, but it likely embarrasses people when you rap,” which, touché.