Have you heard about the “Millennials”? If not, you’re in for a scare. According to Time magazine, they are narcissistic, fame-obsessed, egotistical, lazy, and irresponsible (Time, “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” May 20, 2013). In addition, they are less religious and less likely to read or trust the Bible than other generations (Christianity Today, “Gleanings,” May 16, 2016). Social critics claim that parents and teachers have pandered to them to build their feeling of self-esteem, showering Millennials with meaningless participation awards. From all appearances, they are doomed to failure, dealt a bad hand, a generation without hope. And the frightening thing is that you or someone you know may be a Millennial!
“Millennial” is the popular label given to today’s young adults. They are also called “Generation Y,” since they followed “Generation X,” the segment of our population born from the late 60’s to the early 80’s. Before Generation X, came the “Baby Boomer Generation” (born right after World War II) and, before them, the “G.I. Generation” (who grew up during World War II and the Great Depression). This trend of labeling generations began in the early twentieth century with novelist Gertrude Stein, who coined the term “Lost Generation” for those who lived through World War I. But among all these, are young Millennials somehow uniquely evil? Is there any hope for them? Let’s look at the bigger picture.
Today’s Gen-Xers often take a critical view of Millennials. But there was a time when the Gen-Xers were mocked by their own predecessors, the Baby Boomers. In 1990, a Time magazine article described Gen-Xers this way: “They have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb the corporate ladder. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial” (Time, “Twentysomething,” July 16, 1990). A 1985 Newsweek article ridiculed Generation X as the “Video Generation,” preoccupied with documenting every moment of their lives with video cameras—the cutting-edge technology of the 80’s. The Baby Boomers disparaged the Gen-Xers as the “Now Generation,” demanding instant gratification.
But in their youth, the Baby Boomers alarmed their parents, as well. They were labeled the “Me Generation,” as anti-establishment rebels. In the 1950s, wildly popular movies like “The Wild One” and “Rebel Without a Cause” led a whole genre of movies depicting destructive, violent and even brutal young men. Even Broadway reflected the growth of youth violence, with “West Side Story” opening in 1957, portraying death, attempted rape, and murder. Juvenile delinquency was considered a real and growing danger, with a subcommittee of the United States Senate conducting a highly publicized investigation into the connection between movies and juvenile crime. In 1969, a gathering of more than 400,000 young people at Woodstock, Vermont became the symbol of a young generation of Boomers, high on sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Every modern generation, upon closer inspection, has a thread of youthful rebellion, selfishness and immaturity.
But the problem isn’t just a modern issue. In a play from around 400bc titled, “The Clouds” by Greek playwright Aristophanes, the main character, Strepsiades, bemoans the fact that his son reclines at ease, “wrapped in five blankets,” and struggles to come up with a solution to pay for his son’s life of entertainment and horses. From an even earlier time, fragments of a 4,000-year old tablet from the Sumerian city of Nippur have been found that describe the repeated punishment required for the lack of student discipline.
The simple truth is that, as we age, we recognize the youthful faults in younger people. Whether we are a Gen-Xer, sagely dissecting the problems of Millennials, or a teacher at an ancient Sumerian school for scribes, we see the careless errors of youth. But the solution doesn’t lie in hypocritical name-calling or just accepting the status quo. There is hope for every generation! As in so many cases, if we look at the Word of God, we can understand the problem and learn the solutions.
According to the Bible, we are combinations of our heredity and environment. We are born with a human nature, that spirit unique to man, differentiating us from animals. And, although we are not born as sinners, we are born with a natural capacity for human selfishness. If our parents do not work with us to curb our selfish, immature demands, that selfishness can become increasingly dangerous to others. In Genesis 8:21, God told Noah after the Flood that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Without the help of parents, mentors, and God, our hearts and minds would be supremely selfish, no matter what our generation.
Another characteristic we all share in our youth is a desire to experience life on our own. King Solomon recognized this fact of youth, writing in Ecclesiastes 11:9, “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes.” In other words, we want to see and to try things out for ourselves. That is natural. But we also learn from the Bible that we lack wisdom and judgment in our youth. Proverbs 22:15 informs us, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child….” So, consistent guidance from older, more experienced adults will help us navigate the challenges we face. Our parents can help us avoid pitfalls that can scar us and hurt others, if we will be receptive to them. “My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother…” (Proverbs 1:8).
And we read that there will be a temptation to follow our peers to violence and vice: “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, ‘Come with us, let us lie in wait to shed blood… we shall find all kinds of precious possessions, we shall fill our houses with spoil. Cast in your lot among us, let us all have one purse’” (Proverbs 1:10–14). These verses are just a sampling of the guidance that God gives to young people in His Word. And the older generation is commanded to take responsibility to teach, instruct and guide the following generation (Deuteronomy 11:19; Proverbs 22:6).
Every generation in history has had challenges unique to them. And every human being has had challenges that are unique to him or her. As each generation ages, much of the youthful selfishness and misdirected energy ebbs into a more-seasoned maturity. That is the natural progression of the generations. But God wants us not just to “grow up” physically, but to mature spiritually. And that can actually begin as a young person. In Psalm 119:9, David wrote, “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word.” Yes, even in our younger days—as a child, teen, or young adult—we can break out of the label assigned to us and be a positive example to those around us.
As Paul told Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).