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Millennials Phone Home

Ah, Millennials. I’m constantly reading about how you are so different from my  own Generation X. We hated our parents. You are best friends with yours! We hate working in groups. You love teamwork! At your age, we were ironic and disillusioned about our futures. You are overly optimistic! You think you can change the world! Even though the chances of getting a job are slim to none!

I am skeptical of such generalizations. I teach at a Wilbur Wright Community College in Chicago, and my students don’t strike me as so different from myself or my friends at that age. I’ve assigned some readings in my composition classes that discuss Generation Y in various ways: how technology has impacted this generation (Alice Mathias, “The Fakebook Generation,”); or how the “helicopter parenting” of Baby Boomers has apparently created a generation of depressed, helpless and self-absorbed young adults (see, for example: Hara Estroff Marano “A Nation of Wimps”; John Tierney, “When Every Child Is Good Enough”; or the recent article in the Atlantic by Lori Gottlieb, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy”). Discussions about these readings with my students have led me to the following conclusion:

Millennials appear to be close to their parents because they communicate so frequently (calling, texting, emailing), but these technologies only create a sense of security and closeness. In fact, Millennials are simply much more adept at deceiving their parents than Generation X ever could ever hope to be.

It is true that Millennials are in regular contact with their parents, many on a daily basis (via cell phone and email). As a person who strongly identifies with Generation X (I was born in 1971), I can say with confidence that most of my peers communicated with our parents as little as possible when we were in high-school, college, or just out of college. But does the fact that my students are in touch with their parents so frequently mean that they are close to their parents?

I have had discussions with my students about the ways technology has changed our day-to-day lives. They cannot imagine life without cell phones. This past semester, a student raised her hand and asked tentatively: “How would you … um …  meet up with people?” She went on: “Would you have to make plans, like, the night before?” Yes, I explained, more advance planning was required. Imagine how difficult it was to pick up someone at the airport. And in high-school, if you called someone, their parents might answer the phone! (*gasps*)

My students acted as if I were describing a strange, alternate universe. I realized that, to them, this was ancient history (also: I realized that I am old). But what really interested me was hearing about the ways cell phones enable Millennials to check in with their parents.

Let’s say you were in high school in 1986 and wanted to go to a party (something like the one in Sixteen Candles). You tell your parents that you are going to a movie; at about 11:00, you call home and check in, and ask if you can go back to your friend’s house to watch Saturday Night Live (so that you can actually stay at the party a little longer). First, you need to find a quiet room to make the call. Since caller ID doesn’t exist, your parents won’t know where you are; if the music isn’t too loud and your speech isn’t too slurred, you’ll probably get away with it. Your parents may suspect that something seems fishy, and you may get the feeling that they don’t really trust you, but what can you do? Not go to parties?

There is no need for Millennials to find quiet rooms or to make their voices sound calm or sober: they can just send a text. They might be at a dance club, half-naked in the back of a car, at Mardi Gras, or (just as they claim) at Starbucks. Their parents might respond right away with a few questions; these can be immediately answered. If you’re in college, you can sleep at your boyfriend’s as often as you like, and still be reachable at all times. Not only is the parent’s anxiety about being about to find the child diminished, the irritation that the child feels when it seems like parents are meddling in their affairs is minimized. Everyone feels happy.

It is so easy to get around their parents, Millennials don’t feel antagonistic towards them. Figuring out ways to get around parents was a major preoccupation and a recurring hassle for my generation. These young adults hardly think about it, and when asked if they feel close to their parents, my students shrug and say, “Yeah, I guess.” I think they mean: “They don’t annoy the crap out of me.” It may be amazing to my generation that an 18 year old might be in contact with a parent on a daily basis, but these students hardly think about it. It’s like brushing away a fly.

The quintessential Gen X conversation in The Breakfast Club between John and Andrew was one we all could relate to:

John: You get along with your parents?

Andrew: Well, if I say yes I’m an idiot, right?

John: You’re an idiot anyway. But if you say you get along with your parents, well, you’re a liar too.



I’d say this exchange is probably one we wouldn’t expect to hear any more. So, I am willing to concede that Gen Y can be distinguished from Gen X, but I believe these young adults have the same desires and suffer from similar anxieties … but these concerns manifest themselves in new ways. This is not because Millennials are best friends with their parents, or because Baby Boomers are over-protective “helicopter” parents – but instead because technology has allowed communication, deception, socialization, and alienation to develop in new ways.

Articles about the helplessness of certain college students who have been coddled by their parents from birth describe, of course, a very small segment of the population. When I’ve talked to my students about parents who have signed up their kids for numerous classes and camps, enrolled them in SAT classes, helped them with college applications, and taken over their lives, they are perplexed. They have never met these kinds of parents. Most of my students are first generation college students, and probably about half were not born in the U.S. Many have jobs; some have been in the military; many have kids. What makes them identify with Gen Y? It’s not the parents. It’s the technology, stupid.


Karen Leick: dares to eat a peach.

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  1. I like this piece. I also still feel as though my students (very middle-class folks at a mid-range-reputation private college) were/are over-helped by their parents. I don’t mean it with any ire or judgment even–in fact, I think parents who are my age (as their parents are, gack!) do a lot of problem-solving for their kids as a form of optimistic parenting (and unlike “our” parents–I was born in 1967–who didn’t organize their lives around helping us because a good day was when they remembered our names). I am persuaded by the argument about cell phones here–and slipping out of your parents’ surveillance range by faking them out with contact. But many of my students spend some part of those 3 calls a day to their folks getting advice about whether or not they should, say, drop a class or which film to watch on netflix. GACK!


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