For a variety of reasons, the millennial generation (a.k.a. Generation Y) has been written about more than any other in American history. Whether characterized as the most selfish or the most open-minded generation of Americans, there is no shortage of descriptions of what the millennials are. What is less discussed however is why they are selfish or open-minded, and most importantly how they will impact the evolution of American culture moving forward. The key factor for understanding the answers to all these questions is ‘virtual liberation’, or the increased separation of action and consequence as a result of the dominance of virtual relationships over personal contact. By combining increased anonymity and immediacy in communications through social media with a cultural shift towards self-interest, millennials have become known for consequence free self-promotion. But the characteristics of one generation are not self-contained and out of reach to other generations. An essential conclusion to be offered is that the context developed by one generation creates opportunities for members of other generations. And there is no baby boomer who has taken more advantage of millennial culture than president Trump.
From Baby Boomers to Millennials
Just about every major research center from Pew and Harvard to the US government and the United Nations has developed surveys and analyses of the millennial generation. Initially, the most important motivation for these studies was the need to understand how they were going to impact economies and markets. As the millennials have come of age over the last decade there has been a shift to studying how they are impacting social and political issues. This is because first, according to most analysis millennials will become America’s largest generation sometime in the next two years with all the accompanying political and economic ramifications. Second, regardless of whether you characterize it as positive or negative the millennials focus on self-interest is altering American culture faster than any other generation before it. Whether on the right or the left, millennials have proven their willingness to fight for their own identities and principles regardless of existing systems or norms.
One of the most overlooked aspects of studying generations in the American context is understanding how they were impacted by the previous generation (e.g. parents, role models, key events, dominant ideologies, etc.). The most negative description of millennials is that they are narcissistic and entitled, with a tendency to elevate personal needs over those of the community or society around them. This however is a direct reaction to the strong norms of conformity intermixed with racial and gender bias that characterized the decades of the baby boomer generation. Other characteristics such as lower levels of marriage, fewer children, higher levels of education attainment, and greater overall diversity should also be viewed in direct relation to the characteristics displayed by the previous generation. The millennials as individuals and members of society did not grow up in a vacuum. They are the direct result of the influences around them and thus it is the first mistake of baby boomers trying to understand millenials to underestimate just how much of their own behaviors and experiences explain the newest generation.
The single most important impact of the baby boomers on millennials was the invention of virtual reality. For the former development of the internet was no different than the invention of any other tool of the time; it was one more way to increase productivity. But it is rarely the generation that invents which experiences the full impact of that invention. It is millennials who have discovered that virtual reality can be used to both define and project one’s self. The baby boomers developed it as a place for patriotic hard-working Americans to use new forms of communication and exchange as part of their pursuit of the American dream. Millennials have instead used virtual reality as a place to redefine patriotism, work, communication, and the very foundations of the American dream itself. Rather than a tool that strengthens existing economic, political and social systems, it is a weapon through which one can challenge the status-quo in ways that would have been unimaginable to the previous generation. It is not the challenge itself that is unimaginable as baby boomers who lived through the 60’s and 70’s redefined the concept of challenging the status quo. Instead it is the tool that amazes them. I can only imagine the number of activists who were involved in the civil rights movement, the gay pride movement and the Watergate scandal that daydream about what they could’ve accomplished with today’s social media and electronic resources.
The Millennial Effect
There are unavoidable connections between each generation so that the current one cannot be fully understood without knowledge of the previous. Just as the baby boomers were influenced by their parents who experienced the Great Depression and the World Wars, millennial culture is founded on the experiences of baby boomers with the Cold War and digital revolution. It is also true however that the current generation shapes and influences the previous generation as their children, grandchildren, employees, and electorate. The primary effect of millennials on baby boomers has been the introduction of opportunities for self-expression that never existed before. It would be folly to assume that millennials are somehow more prone to self-interested reckless behavior than previous generations. Rather, as a generation their development is more directly intertwined with social media and the broader concept of virtual reality. There are clearly some self-interested baby boomers who are learning just how valuable the Internet and social media can be with regards to reckless self-promotion.
President Trump is just such a baby boomer. His embrace of social media has become the quintessential illustration of the separation of action and consequence. The nation has become numb to the consistent contradictions, lies, and inappropriate behavior connected with his twitter feed for instance. For some there is little difference between how president Trump and a college freshman newly liberated from mom and dad use social media. But there is in fact a key difference. For the average college freshman (i.e. millennial) each mistake made is a learning experience, and the large majority learn restraint as ‘who they want to be when they grow up’ is increasingly impacted by the misuse of social media. For baby boomers and Trump in particular, they are not finding out who they will become as they use social media. Instead they are focused on telling you who they already are. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but memes, blogs, and twitter can certainly give the old tricks a new twist. Donald Trump is not the only baby boomer taking advantage of the millennial culture and virtual liberation. Whether it is the retiring hippie environmentalist or aging peddlers of white supremacy, baby boomers have been as adept as millennials at using the consequence free environment of virtual reality to promote themselves. But Donald Trump amongst them has elevated it to an art form, and in turn has become the most powerful man in the world.