To note: During the 2015-2016 school year, The Learning Network invited teenagers to be part of a project we called our student advice. During this year, 47 students from all over the world advised us and wrote their own posts for our site.
Logan Casey, then a high school student, completed this piece late last spring. Although it’s aimed at people his age, we thought it worked so well as a lesson plan that we decided to keep it until classes resume this fall.
Accounting for the Generation Gap: Investigating Media Representations of Millennials and “Generation Z”
You may have heard that you are a “millennial”. Or that you are a member of “Generation Y”. Or even that you are part of “Generation Z”. Journalists love to use these terms to make generalizations about generations. For example, a quick search of the Times archives for the single word “millennials” yields over 1,500 results:
Writers and demographers don’t even have a consistent definition of when one generation ends and the next begins. But here are some approximations:
Baby boomers: [1945-64[1945-64
Generation X: 1965-80
Generation Y (sometimes referred to as Generation Y): 1981-1995
Generation Z: 1996–present
Keep in mind that while some high school students are Gen Z, they’re often also described as millennials — a contemporary synonym for young adults.
In many ways, it’s hard to tell our generation from Millennials, and it’s unclear whether it’s useful or even valid to stratify people by age. While people our age share traits, we certainly have differences too. But journalists and marketers are often happy to challenge the timeline for the sake of storytelling. For example, Barack Obama has been called the first Gen X president, even though, born in 1961, isn’t he a Boomer?
One thing we do know is that people of different ages behave differently, and the Times has reported on, among other things, how different age groups vote, spend money and time, and express themselves.
Below is a selection of Times articles on Millennials and Gen Z, along with suggested questions to keep in mind as you read them. At the end, some ideas to go even further in this subject. I hope all of these pieces put together give you a more complete and nuanced view of what a person’s age can tell you about their values.
Questions to consider as you read
• How does the moment of your birth shape who you are?
• To what extent are the overall descriptions of the different generations meaningful and useful?
• How do you think our generation is characterized by the media? Are we represented fairly?
• In your opinion, which statements or generalizations made in these articles are true? Which are false? Why?
• Which articles are supported by data and what is the author’s opinion?
• How does the way we have been portrayed compare to the portrayals of past generations?
• In your opinion, what are the three most important characteristics of our generation? And the generation of your parents? Why?
Articles on Millennials and Gen Z
“The truth about millennials (in the eyes of baby boomers)”
It is easier to assign characteristics to a large segment of the population if that group is referred to by a single name. Generalizations snowball and millions of people come to share the same identity. These stereotypes can reinforce prejudices and make groups easy scapegoats. Although perhaps necessary to describe trends, generalizations can obscure the truth with sweeping and unsubstantiated claims. Kate Dries, a millennial herself, explains some of the most ridiculous and inaccurate claims made about millennials.
“Millennials at work: young and inexperienced, like their parents” and “A generation of lazy people? Not really”
One of the most pervasive detractions directed at millennials is that they’re lazy. Are young people lazier than their elders? If so, does everyone develop a work ethic as they grow up, or is there something unique about millennials?
“The Rise of Young Americans Who Don’t Believe in God”
Perhaps there is a deep, underlying quality that makes today’s young adults unique – a core value that sets them apart from older people. According to the Pew Research Center, people born after 1980 are much more likely to be atheists or agnostics than their parents. How important do you think this fact is?
“Young Americans are less patriotic. At least in some ways.”
Lynn Vareck covers another way that millennial values differ from those of older adults. What is true in this article for you or people you know?
“Menswear Designers Take Pity on Naked Millennials”
Generational differences even extend to dressing rooms, according to this article.
When you look at the generations, it may seem like there are millions of people aged 20, 35 and 65.
Of course, we know that there are as many people whose age is close to the generation line as there are people who are right in the middle of Generation X, Y or Z. Age is a continuous spectrum; perhaps our beliefs can also be described by a sliding scale. Our societal values are continually changing, so maybe we should say, “A 36-year-old man is more likely to be agnostic than a 37-year-old man, and a 37-year-old man is more likely to be agnostic than a 38-year-old man. -Age.”
Above is a visualization of the result of the idea that the spectrum of ages can be related to a spectrum of views. Visit the article itself to learn more.
“Millennials less likely to leave the nest, Pew study finds”
Some traits may really only apply to people of a certain age range. For example, people who graduated from college during the recession have a profoundly different experience than their peers who are only a year or two older. If not, in addition to being “less likely to leave the nest”, do you think this experience affects them?
Some of the articles I’ve included make the life of a millennial look pretty bleak. Here is Sam Tanenhaus with a more optimistic version:
But first, what, other than youth, sets millennials apart from their elders — the wizened silent generation, the grizzled baby boomers, the 40-something Gen-Xers?
The usual response seems to be “narcissism” – self-absorption indulging in comedic extremes. We can all recite the proof: the breathlessly updated Facebook profile, the cascade of selfies, the Kardashians.
… But a very different picture of millennials emerges from what may be the most illuminating literary project of our time, the Pew Research Center’s report series on millennials. The 2010 edition, captioned ” Confidant. Linked. Open to Change,” offered an X-ray of its first wave, the “approximately 50 million millennials who are currently between the ages of 18 and 29.”
Read what this research reveals and decide if you think it’s true.
“The autonomous generation”
In this Op-Ed column, David Brooks chimes in with another positive take on our age group.
When you read more positive opinions about young people, do you find it easier to accept the idea that there are certain qualities that most people of a certain age share?
“Dear Millennials, we are sorry”
Although Frank Bruni presents a brief, simplified overview of American political life, in this article he addresses some of the most salient intergenerational questions: How will we pay for our parents’ health insurance and social security? And on a globally significant geological scale, how are we going to deal with the environmental problems created by our parents?
“Get moving, Millennials, here comes Generation Z” and “Meet Alpha: The Next Generation‘”
These articles portray Millennials as the next generation, but some demographers are beginning to characterize a younger group—current high school and college students—as we reach adulthood.
“The generation we”
“From fashion to workspaces, there is a common sense of us in front of me,” writes Ian Daly. Do you think that’s true? How do you see it among the people you know?
Ideas and questions to go further:
• If you were born in the year your parents were born, how would your life be different? Do you think your personality would be different? How? ‘Or’ What?
• Imagine you were born in 1945 (Baby Boom), 1965 (Gen X) or 1981 (millennials). Research what was happening in the world at important times in your life: your birth; your first year of school (6 years); the year you became a teenager (13 years old); the year you graduated from high school (age 18). (If you have access, you can use Times Machine to do this.) Discuss how these events may have shaped your development.
• Ask an experienced teacher how their students have changed over time, in general. How different does he think today’s young people are from previous generations of students? Why?
• Write a letter to the editor if you see an article that unfairly portrays your generation. Here is an example.
• Make a video illustrating the characteristics of your generation or another generation mentioned in the articles.
• How have other generations been portrayed by the media, both when they were younger and now? Start by searching the Times for terms such as “Gen X” (to find articles like this) or “baby boomers” (to find articles like this). How do they compare and contrast with how Millennials and Gen Z are characterized?
• These Times articles are just a starting point. Find more representations of our generation in other media and apply the same questions posed above. Now that you have read several articles, how meaningful and useful do you think the general descriptions of the different generations are? Why?