More on Millennials: expansionary individualism?

There were two great comments on yesterday's Millennial post.

Here's what Ben had to say

"…that the digital options available to this generation are so interesting and engaging that no one really had time to notice or care what others said of it."

Mostly this, only it's more complex than simply "digital options". A better, more complete description is that we have such fine control over our own identities that we don't need to resort to big, poorly-defined memes like generational labels. Most of the people my age that I spend time with are too busy pursuing their own American Dream to worry about what our parents call us. For my peer group, identity is constructed around personal taste (art+music+film/use of recreational time), professional (or non-professional) employment, kinds of education, and what each of us wants to accomplish in our short time here.

It's a pretty extreme hypothesis to put in a comment, but I think that we're interested in authoring our own stories and destinies. I put responsibility for this at the feet of our educational system: it tests and tests and teaches us to work for test scores, with the message that once in college, we'll figure out what we want to do with our lives. Well, the kids that went through that system are starting to go through college, and we're saying to each other that, "this system is broken, and we need to fix it".

We can't claim any responsibility for our new president's victory, but it rippled across my entire social life, reigniting a fever for self-determination among me and my friends. Our new president exemplifies the principle that here in America, if you set your mind to it, you can do anything and be anything. That's an insanely powerful image to send to a generation of youth (not to mention the whole school-debt forgiveness promise. We haven't forgotten that, and won't).

So in answer to your question, "who gets to define and design this generation?", let me establish a framework. Social networking tools let us define ourselves in a much more complex and nuanced language than English. Not to mention that we have a lot of "designing" to do to replace the broken ideals and morals of the Boomer generation.

Here's what Noah said:

First off, I like Ben's answer.

Second, I offer another hypothesis: Generations are dead. Thanks mainly to technology, the people I know and converse with today on a regular basis range in age from 18 – 60, but they all feel like my generation inasmuch as we share similar beliefs, interests and ideas. The idea of being associated with a group of people because we happen to be the same age seems more ridiculous than ever in the face of this truth.

It's not that I don't recognize that being born around the same time means you share a certain set of experiences that shape you, I just don't care about them that much.
At the end of the day, it's me (as a marketer) that needs a name for my generation, not me as a person/member of said generation.

Beautifully said, both.

I am especially enthusiastic about these comments because they seem to me consistent with the chief conclusion of the book I published in May.  

It is possible we are witnessing the creation of a global self and an expansionary individualism.   The global self is curious and catholic in searching out new definitional options, credulous in trying them on, mobile in its incorporation of  diverse and improbable materials, adroit in its embrace of several at once, skillful in managing the portfolio of selves that is the result, and sturdy enough to live with the ideational and emotion turbulence that must ensue.  Most of all, it is imperial.  The global self is a presumptuous self, seeing itself as a master of its own fate, as the author of its own circumstances, as the rightful inventor of the self.  It claims all experience as its province, all definitions of the self as its domain.  The global self looks like the early modern Dutch, Spanish or English courts, taking on and using up anything in its reach.


Brier, Noah.  2008  Comment on Millennials: Who Gets to Define and Design this Generation.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  December 8, 2008.  

K, Ben.  2008.  Comment on Millennials: Who Gets to Define and Design this Generation.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  December 8, 2008.  

McCracken,  Grant.  2008.  Transformations: Identity construction in contemporary culture.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.  Available at Amazon here.

See Noah's blog here.

9 thoughts on “More on Millennials: expansionary individualism?

  1. Henri Weijo

    Good stuff from all parties.

    What I have been thinking of lot lately is how the Internet is changing the dynamics of parenting. I just read a rather extensive study on young people’s attitudes towards the Internet and their parents. It turns out that young people are painfully aware of how “out of it” their parents are when it comes to the Internet and young people are actually protective of their parents, meaning that they don’t disclose pretty much anything that they do online or who they talk to, because they know their parents would not understand or know how to handle the situation.

    I can’t really think of a historical precedent for a situation like this where the gulf between generations is so wide in face of a techno-economical-cultural change (for a lack of a better word) as big as the Internet. Can you? In a way it’s almost like the printing press, only that one generation knows how to read and the other does not.

    How does it change the dynamics of families when kids don’t look up to their parents or seek their advice on a subject that consumes a lot of their daily attention? What are the cultural effects of this? Rebelling and breaking away from your parents is part of growing up, but do kids mature and become independent sooner (or rather, do they THINK they are mature sooner), and if they do are they mature enough to handle life? Does the “Internet gap” make kids ignore advice from their parents on other but meaningful aspects of life? I think there have been some alarming signs of where this kind of attitude can lead, for example in cases of sexual predators befriending teenagers on the net and the like.

    On the subject of Obama’s presidential election, it really had a global effect. I saw people who didn’t even vote in the recent municipal elections post messages supporting Obama or celebrating his victory. In many ways, I think young people are feeling more kinship with peers that transcend geographical boundaries. Your social circles are a matter of finding like-minded peers, but also a matter of geographical convenience. The net is somewhat removing this geographical convenience part. This will have some interesting effects, as you really can’t escape your geographical location, either.

    This subject is a rather sore one from I hail from, Finland. As you may know, there has been two school shootings here within a year of each other. The two shooters found inspiration and like-minded peers on the Web and their parents had basically no idea what they were up to online. The interesting thing about these shootings is the fact both these shooters were from small towns (not only in the Finnish shootings, but in the majority of shootings worldwide during the past decade) and they all seemed to have a similar formula: outcast youth shunned from its local and homogenic community finds peers online and becomes even more isolated, leading to the eventual shooting as a “expanded media suicide”, as some experts have dubbed it.

    It’s hard to forecast what would have happened to these shooters if they hadn’t had the Internet. Maybe they would have conformed to their peers, or maybe they would have taken their own lives silently, or maybe they would have gone on with the shootings anyway. But I think some people forget that the Internet is capable of driving people apart, as well as bringing them together.

  2. jkh

    as genXer the thing that strikes me most about millennials is the lightness of hosting multiple selves.
    a guy who is both a publishing mathematician, world class graphic designer and a respected musician for example in “my generation” would have been a total exception. for the millennials the simultaneity of different selves becomes the rule.

    compared to the atmosphere when i grew up, there is also nothing heroic about conquering or creating the self. – madonna is really a grandma to these kids. – what we admired her for – her self-creations – is as normal and unspectacular to them as tying a shoe.

  3. Ray

    OK, I got behind on my blogs, but am really interested in this thread of posts and comments. The increasing segmentation of generations and demographics groups has been in development for years, with Michael Weiss’s The Clustering of American (1989) and his follow up The Clustered World (2000.) Last spring, the Boston Globe had an amusing article redefining Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y in smaller groups, which indirectly alludes to Grant’s ideas of the power play on who gets to define a generation.

    However, one key thing to keep in mind, is that although we like to think of ourselves as individuals, we still cluster in groups. That clustering is still an important part of our identity. However, our affiliations are not solely based on generations or geography as they once were. Further, our affiliations evolve and change. This is well documented in Transformations and worth the read.

    It’s funny how often this issue comes up in marketing: how to address the contradiction of satisfying the believe of one’s individuality, which is instilled, confirmed, or re-enforced by a community.

  4. peter

    Henri asks: w does it change the dynamics of families when kids don’t look up to their parents or seek their advice on a subject that consumes a lot of their daily attention?”

    This has been the case in the West at least since the introduction of the “New Math” in the early 1960s (set theory, cuisenaire rods, etc). Most parents were unable to help their children with their homework from this time on.

    In terms of popular taste, teenagers have listened to music abhorred by their parents at least since the Swing Era in the 1930s, and perhaps before.

  5. Henri Weijo

    Peter: I don’t think homework and “kids and their darn music” are as big in significance as the Internet (not saying you stated as much, btw). The Internet is so much bigger and transformational in meaning. I really can’t think of a precedent of a younger generation embracing and “owning” a cultu-socio-techo-economical change as dramatic as the Internet while the older generations are somewhat baffled at what’s going on. Like I said: it’s like inventing the printing press and only the young’uns know how to read.

  6. kayt

    Hey Grant, Marc and I found ourselves email-chatting over this yesterday and we ended on a question.

    Here’s the thread:

    K: “skillful in managing the portfolio of selves”
    wow. that has my mind boggling. i don’t always feel like i master that one.
    but it would look cool on a new media cv.
    that last par of grant’s is good. especially in light of the series 3
    heroes we’ve been watching today.
    I’m also perhaps showing my gen Xness in saying I’m not sure if I
    invented myself or found myself in a corner of a bar somewhere, or just
    kind of stumbled upon myself having randomly wandered along the road of
    life not really reading the road signs very carefully.

    M:It’s not often you see “ideational” used in a sentence.
    Yah, like you, “masters of our own fate, authors of our own
    circumstances, inventor of our selves” sounds great in theory, but I
    suspect my preplanning was lackadaisical and my execution was probably
    a bit random.

    K: true but he was talking about millenials, we are X 🙂
    I’m also still puzzling over his use of the word ‘catholic’.
    does it have another meaning other than the obvious one ?

    M: You’re right. Great word, interesting usage, but what does it imply?
    Singular in focus? As in a singular God?
    Willing to embrace things unseen based on faith?
    Dichotomous? It fits or it doesn’t fit?
    Prone to guilt?
    Focused on own belief and unwilling to accept others?

  7. srp

    The automobile was a huge generational breakpoint. Taking a girl on a date in a car–the mobile bedroom–was sometning the elder folks didn’t quite grasp. Younger criminals used automobility to rob banks in different towns and outrun the limited jurisdiction of rooted community law enforcement. And so on.

    I disagree strongly that our younger folk are particularly rebellious or distant from their parents. Au contraire! The phrase “helicopter parent” was not invented for the Boomers (early or late) or the Xers. We have college students who call their parents multiple times a day.

    The Boomers created children very different from themselves. They’ve created a kind of call option on the in loco parentis role for schools and other institutions. Their kids have grown up in a stable economic environment and are NOT used to searching criticism of their work. (I think part of their fascination with reality TV shows where people get chewed out for incompetence is almost pornographic. The idea of a world like that is appealing as a fantasy, but not if you actually have to live with it.) This cohort’s use of social media and constant connectivity is interesting and important, but I don’t think it is defining.

  8. Joshua H.

    What is not being mentioned here is a population model for generational definitions. It would be interesting to see how much linkage was given between the term before the ‘greatest generation,’ to see whether or not identity has always been inextricably linked to the generation you belonged to. My suspicion is that generational identity is the exception, not the rule, throughout much of history.

  9. Joe Lamantia

    It’s time we embrace the idea that people now have a digital age / maturity, in parallel to the chronological age / maturity that drives their placement in conventional categories like Boomer, GenX, Millenials, etc. Note that digital age is a *very* different animal than chronological age. Digital age is characteristic of ‘digital natives’ (not Digital Natives, as marketers seek to label and define them) – identities born or created in the digital realm.

    Some key points:

    New generations ‘grow up’ digital
    Avatars are integral parts of identity *in all contexts*
    People are comfortable managing multiple on-line identities
    People expect to own their digital identities and personal information
    All relationships have a digital focus or aspect
    Brands are seen as people (and vice versa)

    There are many new digital generation gaps
    Rapid socio-technical changes mean multiple ‘digital generations’ co-exist
    Digital generations are not tied to real demographics
    Digital maturity is greatest for digital identities created in the present
    Demographic maturity is the opposite!

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