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This Millennial Story Is Different

• February 04, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: igor kisselev/Shutterstock)

Millennials are the most diverse generation in U.S. history. So why has the criticism about them been so one-note?

Millennials are entitled, narcissistic, and lazy—you’ve heard this all before. The bit about the narcissism seems true (even though it might not be) thanks to the pervasiveness of social media and reality television, but the other knocks against my generation come with dubious proof.

In his May 2013 cover story about Millennials for Time, for example, Joel Stein’s claim that Millennials are lazy relied on a Families and Work Institute report, which showed that in 1992, “80% of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility; 10 years later, only 60% did.” The 2008 report, which can be found here, actually notes that there was a steep decline from 1992 and 1997 for reasons “we can only speculate” about and that “since 1997, the desire to move to jobs with more responsibility among young workers has increased.” More interestingly, the desire to move to jobs with more responsibility has increased especially among young women, who are now “just as likely as men to want jobs with greater responsibility.” Stein conveniently omitted this from his story. Also omitted from Stein’s story, and from countless stories written about Millennials, is any mention of race.

Discussions about race and ethnicity have also been largely left out of the discourse about Millennials, despite the fact that we’re living in a country that is rapidly becoming more diverse. The Census Bureau has projected that, by 2060, no single racial group will constitute a majority of the country, while a 2009 report by the Pew Research Center shows that the millennial generation is “the most ethnically and racially diverse cohort of youth in the nation’s history” with 40.2 percent of those between the ages of 13 and 29 identifying as Hispanic, black, Asian, and mixed race or other.

This is significant for the same reasons why the HBO series Girls received so much criticism for its lack of racial diversity in its first season: Though young people have much in common due to the proximity of age, our race and cultural backgrounds play a crucial role in defining who we are. When Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath declares that she may be the voice of the millennial generation, and then clarifies that she is “a voice of a generation,” one voice of many, she’s right to self-correct. Because while Girls provided a snapshot of what it’s like to be a twenty-something in the 2010s, it had done so mostly through the lens of “whiteness.” Leaving race out of the discussion about Millennials cuts out the story of what it really means to be part of the most diverse generation in U.S. history.

How do you reconcile the idea of the lazy, entitled Millennial with the Asian-American Millennial who was raised with culturally-specific expectations to work hard and financially support her parents?

THE SO-CALLED MILLENNIAL sense of entitlement supposedly stems, in part, from being coddled by parents who told their children, as Mister Rogers did, that we were “special” and could grow up to be anything we wanted to be. Yet, until Yale Law School professor Amy Chua came along in 2011 with her polarizing essay about tiger moms in The Wall Street Journal, it appeared as if everyone forgot that different cultures in America have different ideas of how to raise children and that some of those parenting ideas include being severely strict and punishing children for failing to meet high standards of success.

As someone who grew up in an Asian-American household of first-generation immigrants, my tiger parents were not as extreme as Chua in their parenting tactics, but much of what she wrote rang true. My mother rationed praise, made B grades sound like they were F grades, and consistently drove home the idea that only continuous hard work could result in a successful career and the remunerative rewards that could build an earnest, comfortable life. She also ingrained in me traditional values of filial piety, which in Asian cultures means respecting your parents and supporting them in their old age—both emotionally and financially. I regularly send my parents money to help them pay their mortgage.

There are countless other Asian-American Millennials in my position as well. Katherine Nguyen, writing for The Orange County Register—a county known both for being the setting for the popular TV series The O.C. as well as being home to the world’s largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam—explained how common it is for Asian-American children to send money to their parents after acquiring their first jobs. In her article, Nguyen talks to Cal State Fullerton professor Son Kim Vo, who tells her that this kind of financial support “is the ultimate symbol of gratitude that a child can show to his parents. In the Vietnamese culture, it shows the complete cycle of a family. Parents raise their children, and now the children give back.” Joanna Goddard, a popular women’s lifestyle blogger based in New York, once interviewed a Thai friend about how typical it is for Asian children to pay for their parents and was told, “My husband is Korean; and in his culture, you’re expected to give your first paycheck to your parents.”

So, how do you reconcile the idea of the lazy, entitled Millennial with the Asian-American Millennial who was raised with culturally-specific expectations to work hard and financially support her parents? Without any discussion about race, this kind of reconciliation is impossible and has the effect of turning a large segment of a generation invisible. And invisible is precisely what we often feel. Wesley Yang, writing about the Asian-American experience in New York magazine in 2011, summed it up: “Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality.”

YET, LIKE HANNAH HORVATH, I must make it clear that the Asian-American Millennial experience is just one experience in a generation of many culturally diverse experiences. Though I’d suspect that the “80% of Latino youths and 86% of Latinos ages 26 and older” who “say that most people can get ahead in life if they work hard,” according to a Pew Research report, are also irritated about being pigeonholed as lazy and entitled. Sydette Harry certainly is. Writing from the perspective of a black Millennial for Salon, she points out that she is part of a generation “fighting redistricting, police violence and voting rights challenges that hinder the very moment we’re supposed to seize.”

This nuanced view of the Millennial generation, informed by racial and ethnically diverse perspectives, says so much more about who we are than what our relationships to our smartphones do. And really, much of the hand-wringing over Millennials—how we’re delaying adulthood because the Great Recession and the subsequent credit crunch made it harder for us to find financial independence and take out loans to buy cars and houses and start families—is really hand-wringing over the state of our country as a whole. Because the financial crisis and a decade of stagnating wages didn’t just have an effect on a generation of young workers—it had an affect on an entire country of workers. Federal Reserve data shows that 59 percent of households headed by people 65 and older currently have no retirement account assets. Perhaps it’s not young people we should be worried about right now.

Mike Dang
Mike Dang is co-editor of The Billfold, and the managing editor at Longreads.

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