Monday, April 9, 2012

Everything We Need to Know about Millennials, or, "My unscientific rant on an entire generation"

Millennials tend to be

1. Not alert
2. Bite-sized, with everything at arm’s length
3. Addicted to context switching (do NOT say multitasking)
4. Largely lacking in curiosity
5. Deficient in written and oral communication skills

1. It’s not that Millennials have an attention deficit disorder or are incapable of paying attention. They pay close attention to live sporting events, for example. The problem is that the “Tivo culture” has trained them that almost nothing is worth paying attention to. Anything significant will be stored, archived, and endlessly replayed for them, so why bother paying attention the first time?

2. Millennials have little or no interest in anything “long-form.” YouTube videos are popular only if they are short. Movies are watched in snippets. Audio files are heard in snippets. Scripted TV shows (with plot, a narrative arc, a beginning, a middle, and an end) are of waning interest. Articles are usually read in snippets--rarely finished before being interrupted by a hyperlink jump or a distraction. “In-depth research” refers to anything beyond the first page of a Google hit list, and there is no point in trying to think of different search criteria; whatever one comes up with initially is probably good enough. Books are largely irrelevant, not because they are lacking in content, but mainly because it is not possible to copy-and-paste from a book. Most Millennials, if forced to attend a one-hour performance of a symphony (or even a rock opera) would feel compelled to tweet or text about the experience while it was happening--they couldn’t simply experience it. By the way, the arm’s-length approach to everything explains why texting is vastly more popular than chatting on the phone. Live, real-time interaction with a real human being takes one’s full attention if done properly, and who wants to be that involved? This leads to #3.

3. Ample experimental evidence exists to say that cognitive multitasking by humans is impossible. We have only one cognitive center. We can do multiple activities simultaneously (e.g., walking, breathing, and chewing gum) only when there are different regions of the brain responsible for those activities. Since there is only one cognitive center, we cannot engage in higher-order thinking about more than one thing at a time. Teenagers are better and faster at cycling their attention rapidly among activities (i.e., context switching) than adults are, but they are not actually multitasking. Context switching is less efficient than single-tasking and leads to less deep thought. Context switching while doing homework (e.g., IMing friends or Facebooking) ensures that homework is a superficial, chore-type activity, not something that has one’s full attention and engagement.

4. How does a CD player work? Answer: Nobody cares, we’ll buy a new one if it breaks.
How does a microwave oven work? Answer: You punch some buttons, and the food gets warmer.
How does a cell phone work? Answer: You talk into it, and people on the other end can hear you. But why talk? Texting is easier.
How does a PC work? Answer: You click on stuff. If that doesn’t work, double-click. Sometimes things go bad. When that happens, buy a new PC (or better yet, a Mac).
How did the Romans manage to engineer and build tunnels, bridges, roads, and aqueducts without modern earth-moving machinery or computers? Answer: It doesn’t matter, since we have all that stuff now. Besides, the Romans like went extinct like, what, a hundred years ago?

5. Written communication with Millennials is an acquired taste. Millennials, having been raised on texting, tend to avoid subject lines, capitalization, punctuation, honorifics, salutations, proper grammar, or closings and signatures. A minority of them can spell the word “tomorrow” correctly. Since IMs, texts, and e-mails are as numerous as the grains of sand on the beach, there is no need to obsess or worry about the wording of any message considered in isolation, or even to respond if one doesn’t feel like it. As for oral communication, many Millennials say “like” almost constantly. (Like, every third or fourth word.)

Good things about Millennials
There are also many good things about Millennials! Here is my list. Millennials tend to be . . .

- very trusting
- trustworthy
- opposed to smoking
- opposed to (or, more correctly, bewildered by) bigotry against gay people
- entrepreneurial
- much less car-oriented than previous generations
- somewhat more international and interethnic in their choice of friends
- open, not hypocritical (though sometimes they share too much!)
- less cynical, perhaps, than the Xers and the Boomers
- not bogged down by rules of etiquette or convention, since new conventions are being created all the time


  1. Mr. Hansen you should check out a recent article in the Time magazine about millennials by Joel Stein. It is an interesting read and echoes many of your thoughts.

  2. Heh heh. Thanks, but I'm sure I'd write a better blog post today. My article (my unscientific rant) is more than 2 years old and is utterly lacking in data, unlike Stein's cover story, which employed some dubious statistics. I'd like to think that I managed to sound less like a moron than Joel Stein, who implies that the Millennials are narcissistic, lazy, and coddled. I have some close friends who are Millennials, and they definitely are neither lazy nor coddled. They are surviving in a lousy economy that the amoral Boomer and Gen X "geniuses" on Wall Street handed them, and as for narcissism, Millennials are certainly no more narcissistic than my generation was.

    Joel Stein and I do agree on some of the positive attributes of the Millennial generation: entrepreneurial spirit, political involvement, pragmatism, and rejection of bigotry.

    But mainly, what Joel Stein and I have in common is probably simple envy. We both wish we were in our late 20s or early 30s again!