SOCIETY: The Weight Of Possibility–Defining Millennials

photo from a past PPR at one of Posse’s partner schools. [courtesy C. Moore Photography]

From Disney dreams to recession stained realities, this generation grew up on happy endings and heroes, and grew into a less rosy reality.
Conforming, civility and the Great Depression defined The Silent Generation, while war and activism defined The Baby Boomers. While, the civil rights movement and the growth of new opportunities defined Generation X. But the defining issues of the Millennials didn’t seem quite crystal clear as a few Millennials debated back and forth about whether their generation has struggled enough.
“Yes we’re struggling, but what are we doing about it? We’re sitting here.” Light applause and a lot of mumbling met that statement as 18-year-old freshman Sandy Tran, stood up amongst 170 DePauw students in a small meeting room in the middle of Bradford Woods in Martinsville Indiana.
The Millennials, defined as those born after 1980 [81-2000], fall within the age range of 11 to 30. The first crop of Millennials turned 30 this year and as a flurry of articles and studies begin to take form about this generation, this Spring a slice of the DePauw University community came together at the annual Posse Plus Retreat (PPR) to map out their own definition of their generation.

DePauw’s Posse scholars, student leaders attending the school on full-tuition scholarships, are invited to bring a plus (another DePauw student who is not a Posse scholar) to gather for intimate discussion, workshops and exercises. Posse conducts these retreats with each of their partner schools once ever year, each time with a new topic, this year the topic was Millennials presented with the prompt: “We’ve heard from the experts. Now it’s your turn. Use it.”
“The danger with our struggle, its kind of silent, so its not like this real big in your face–’I’m not going to let you vote because you’re a woman,’ but it is this real subtle you know– you gotta pay for your own tuition,” responded sophomore Shankuma Smith. “Its there but its not in your face, so the danger is that people don’t think its valid because they don’t see it and they can ignore it because its not actually something they have to deal with on a regular basis.”
Monica Moore, a junior DePauw student and Posse Plus guest contributed to the resounding opinion of the subtlety of the Millennial generation’s struggle.
“No, our generation doesn’t have to fight for racial matters, and we don’t have people planting flowers in guns. But we do have people making a conscious effort to slow the destruction we’ve caused to our planet. We do have outlets that have made the travel of information instantaneous. We do have economic problems to correct,” said Moore.
Her response reflects the optimistic lens this generation takes on when it comes to their views on life. Going further Moore adds, “I’m happy to be a part of a generation who will be credited for solving equally as many problems, if not more problems than we’ve created and I wonder how many other generations can say the same.”
According to a PEW Research study titled “Millennials: Generation Next- Confident, Connected, Open To Change” young people are optimistic about their future earning potentials, and life outlook despite the hardships of the economy. The PEW Research center found that 31 percent say “they are very happy these days and an additional 56 percent are somewhat happy.”
Happiness and what it means and be happy bubbled to the surface throughout the retreat. Voices echoed the idea that happiness is a result of success, or some kind of accumulation of wealth in order to live life on their terms and to be able to follow their passion. Following passions and being able to love what they did for a living was a major concern amongst the attendees.
In an interview, Moore put a voice to the deep issues of happiness and redefining the American Dream. “For me, [happiness] affected all of the other main themes. For instance – I think the American dream includes a house, a car, a husband/wife, kids, and a substantial bank account to say the least. I don’t want to live in a house – I want a loft.”
Based on the PEW study, in addition to the resounding conversations throughout the PPR, one of the most dominant themes when it comes to Millennials is the unconventional way they move through life stages.
Some call it an extension of adulthood, or adultlescence but David Newman, a sociologist specializing in developmental issues and family says “its not so much an extension of youth as it is a postponement of adulthood. What used to mark you as an adult was when you left home, and you started your own family, entered your career and bought a house.”
“Those are the sort of traditional things that mark you from being an adolescent to you being an adult,” Newman continued. “Well people are postponing their careers because there aren’t openings. People are continuing their level of dependence on their parents. Among well educated people, among people who are going to college there is a postponement of marriage. When there is a postponement of marriage there is also a postponement of childbearing.”
That postponement of adulthood may also be a postponement of the pressures young people feel they must face when stepping into their official adult roles.
“I think in many ways the expectations put on middle class youth regarding their resumes and all this stuff has increased,” says sociologist Alicia Suarez.
“I do think in your generation there is very much a belief that ‘if I work hard enough I should be rewarded for that.’ That’s questionable from a sociological standpoint–about whether we live in a culture that’s really a meritocracy or not. A lot of people work really hard and don’t “succeed” in the sort of sense of financial success or fulfilling the American dream.”
Back in the small room in Martinsville Indiana, these concerns, illuminated through a workshop where participants played the “game of life.” The game hit home particularly for senior Naiquan Greene who graduates this May.
The game consisted of students pairing off and working across a board deciding whether or not to go into the workforce or go to grad school, which industry to go into, what kind of home to live in, how many children to have etc. Once making a decision students selected a card from a random deck that determined their fate in terms of salary, raises, taxes and essential details determining money and status.
“I think that was the issue that stood out the most…what to do after college. What road to take, how I plan to be an asset to my generation,” Greene explains. He feels the deadline to become established and successful is 25.
“There is so much to focus on and so much to do. I don’t know where to start. I feel like we’re expected to save the world and make money. I personally don’t know where to start because I feel like there is so much out there in regards to media. I don’t know where to start and be able to stand out.”
Newman says the overwhelming amount of choices impacts young people. “The more choices you have, the more anxiety you have because you’re responsible now, you can’t just say I’m doing what I’m doing because its what’s expected of me. You have to say I’m doing what I’m doing because I chose to do this, so you have to take the blame and you have to take the responsibility for it.”
On track to becoming the most educated generation in U.S. history about four-in-10 Millennials are still in school and 30 percent of those not in school say they plan to go back. However, with that luxury comes the uncertainty of what life can be outside of education.
And back in a secluded room in the middle of Indiana a group of students, a slice of the Millennial generation, defined and dissected their values, their issues and their future. By the end of the three day retreat, the focus went from the macrocosm to the microcosm. A focus on the personal brought even deeper issues to the forefront.
“Yes my future is all I worry about. So far this semester I have been lost or at least I feel lost because I am thinking about my future,” explains Greene reflecting on the past few months.
“As much as I worry I am a bit unconcerned, if that makes sense. While most of my friends have been going online applying to jobs, I haven’t. I know I want to work in media. Not sure which sector. I never want to feel career claustrophobic.”
And, with 66 percent of Millennials citing that they plan to switch careers during their life, Greene isn’t alone.
Moore, like others in her generation, also questions the path she’s supposed to embark on. “It comes a point where I have to ask my self am I blazing new trails or am I just setting paved ones on fire and destroying them. And what path will I leave for my children to follow?”
When asked bout the plight and personality trends of Millennials sociologist Suarez notes “there’s still the expectation that your parents and grandparents have that you go to college, and you’re going to get a job and eventually start a family and that these things all progress in this nice neat linear fashion.”
“There aren’t jobs just waiting for y’all when you get out of college, and so its like some sort of identity crisis: ‘what am i supposed to be doing? ‘what are my expectations?’”


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