So there we were all in a room a few weeks ago – editors, photographers, and designers. Our task was to choose the cover art and headline for this week’s magazine, and on the wall in front of us were several options. One was of a millennial – of course – taking a selfie in front of a picture-perfect tree.
In some ways, it might have seemed the ideal portrait of a generation. But as you might have noticed, we did not choose that photo, and I want to talk about why.
Right now, we are living in the time of “OK, boomer.” Many of you will have heard of that catchphrase, but for those of you not up on your memes, here’s the Reader’s Digest version: Millennials are tired of being cast as smartphone-obsessed snowflakes who refuse to cope with the real world. “OK, boomer” is a dismissive eye roll in eight letters. It speaks to another facet of the 1960s that is ironically replaying itself: Alongside racial strife, gender rights, economic inequality, and political upheaval, we have a rising generational war, too.
But here’s a curious quote about youth that I came across recently. It’s from 1904.
“Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day,” wrote psychologist Granville Stanley Hall. “Increasing urban life,” he said, brought “temptations, prematurities, sedentary occupations, and passive stimuli just when an active life is most needed,” as well as “a lessening sense for both duty and discipline.”
When I read that, I like to go back and put myself in 1904 mentally. The country was undergoing a seismic change, from a rural nation to an urban one, from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. It would be hard to overstate how profoundly this reshaped the character of the country. And as this was happening, a young generation of Americans was having to navigate it with no firsthand understanding of how the world had been before. There was no playbook. They had to make it up as they went along, and – as we see – many of their elders clearly thought they were getting it all wrong.
Yet in that example are broader patterns of youth and change and how they repeat and intertwine. Think about millennials. The internet and smartphones and social media have essentially rebooted society, much as urbanization did in the early 1900s. There is no playbook for how best to adapt. And millennials are the generation having to figure it out on the fly.
When you look at it that way, a different picture emerges, and that’s what this week’s cover story is about. Amid all the changes on their watch – new views of diversity and identity, maturing economies that offer less job security, rising prices for education and housing, political uncertainty – millennials are searching more deeply for something authentic to hold on to. The search for a real Christmas tree is just one small example.
And that’s about so much more than a selfie.