The Formation of the Millennials: Part II

In response to an article written for the Leadership Journal by Scott McKnight, I blogged earlier about how the millennial generation, those born in the 1980’s or later, have been spiritually and psychologically formed and how to minister to them due to their imperviousness to guilt and their immersion in self-esteem.  I finished up by noting that his real issue was with the self-esteem movement, and while I disagreed with his understanding of that movement and some of its proponents, I’ll stand with him against the movement overall.

I would contend, however, that it is not just the self-esteem movement that has contributed to this mentality and heart in the millennials.  I submit that coupled with this movement is a societal worship of youth.  40 is the new 30!  50 is the new 40!  So does that mean that 20 is the new 10?  To some extent, maybe it does.  Sadly, I can’t find the article, but there was one a few months back that discussed the fact that adolescence is extending.  The end of that period of experimentation and contentiousness where we use Mom and Dad for their stability and resources while simultaneously shoving against them has moved straight past 18 and is settling in the mid-30’s.  People are expected to be “teenage” longer, and they are because youth has become a virtue.  “Getting old sucks,” my mother used to say (and probably still does), but it’s more than that.  Being old is a terrifying evil in the minds of many in society, and so we must remain young as long as possible.  So youth becomes an idol, and those who have it absorb that.  They take in the fact that they are what everyone wants to be, and it hypes their self-esteem.  And they don’t even have to do anything to get it.  … well, except stay young longer, which society is helping them accomplish anyway.

Another issue that has led to this millennial narcissism is the exclusion of all that is negative in the world.  Mother Teresa, when asked why she thought the West didn’t suffer, commented that she didn’t think we were worthy of it.  Let’s jump back to Sesame Street.  The first two seasons of Sesame Street are now considered inappropriate or even unsafe for children (I wish I were kidding).  Part of the reasoning is that characters were teasing each other and some, like Oscar the Grouch, are too negative.  The solution is to eliminate or minimize those issues and characters and fill in the gaps with Elmo, a muppet so hyper-cheerful that he appears to have been born with a prozac factory in his glands.  Sesame Street and Elmo are not the problem, but they are indicative of it: the stripping of all that is painful, negative, or unpleasant from our culture.  However, in doing so, then everything becomes good all the time.  There is no longer an capacity to tolerate what is bad or unpleasant.  When such things arise, they are distracted away or simply not dealt with at all.  Hedonism replaces it to keep things always good and pleasant.  Guilt no longer makes sense because there is no negative any longer and thus nothing to be guilty over, and we all must be good because there is no other option.  Bad doesn’t exist as a category.

Interestingly enough, this hyper-cheerfulness and elimination of all that is bad has coincided with the rise of Halloween as the 2nd most lucrative holiday in America and an increasing interest in things dark and sinister.  It seems to me that when we don’t get images of what is bad, we become obsessed with them in other ways.  They’re still part of reality and so we must seek them out when we otherwise eschew them.

The continuing shaping of media and marketing towards getting people to buy their stuff is another piece.  As psychological data has been more and more integrated into marketing, people are becoming more affected in some ways by the advertising they see.  What affects a child more?  An hour a week with Mr. Rogers or a consistent barrage of messages saying that life would be better, more exciting, happier, etc. with the following products?  Targeted marketing only heightens this.

The introduction of more personalized products and services and the internet contributes to the narcissistic mentality of the coming generation.  If I don’t need work or community, then what do I have left but to look at myself and what I want and feel and think all the time?

More than anything, however, I think the mentality of parents has contributed to the mentality of their children.  I have repeatedly had parents assure me that their child’s failure in my class was my fault rather than the child’s, despite the fact that said kid only turned in six out of thirty-nine assignments.  Human resources departments at major corporations are getting calls from irate mothers who demand to know why their sons received poor performance reviews.  Colleges and universities are referring to many coming students as children of “helicopter parents”, those who are constantly attending to their kids and never cutting the apron strings and letting them go out to, as Henry Cloud once said, “get kicked around a while” so that they can see how big and strong they’re not.  So long as parents worship their children, insist that they can do no wrong, never give them responsibilities or discipline, never expect anything of them that they really follow through on, and continue to hover over them, we will end up with millennial-minded children who grow up to be millennial-minded adults.

Now why am I blogging about this here, on a blog about spiritual formation?
Well, first, because I’m irate and this is a place to spout about it.
Second, because this is the manner in which the coming generation has already been spiritually formed, and I see it as problematic.  For the continuing spiritual formation of this generation, these processes that have already happened must be taken into account.  In that respect, I halfway agree with McKnight.  I simply believe that those things that have already formed them are as important as the results of that formation.

What do we do about it?
Honestly?  I’m not sure.  That I’ll have to ponder further.

I would add the following:
McKnight points out that millennials, when taking a personality profile for themselves and Jesus come out with similar answers on both sides.  That is, their self-image is the same as their Jesus-image.  He argues that this is evidence for the robustness of the millennial self-image.  I would argue exactly the opposite.  What they are doing is projecting their self-image onto Christ, a habit of those with weak senses of self and one that is developmentally appropriate to those who have not grown emotionally mature.  Projection says they need a stronger sense of self, not that they already have one.

Also, I arrived on the scene at the tail end of Gen-X.  That means that I have a bit of millennial blood in me.  I too, am a bit hedonistic, narcissistic, irresponsible, lazy, and in possession of a weak self-image.  I’m also overcoming a lot of that by the work of Christ in my own heart.  The real gospel doesn’t change.  Boomers, Gen-Xers, millennials… we need God and the work that Christ did on the cross.

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