Why Time’s Millennials Cover Story Says More About Joel Stein Than It Does About Millennials


As you’ve probably read, Joel Stein’s professionally trollish Time cover story about the millennial generation is already the source of an almighty controversy, largely because it’s… well, it’s unmitigated horseshit, basically. Since you can’t actually read the article unless you shell out $5 for a copy of what used to be a pretty decent news magazine back before the millennials were born, we thought we’d save you the trouble and point out exactly why Stein’s arguments are horrible.

First, a disclaimer: I’ll be 35 next month. I’m not a millennial. I’m closer to Joel Stein’s age (he’s 41) than that of your average millennial, god help me. I only score 10% on Time’s patented Lazy Millennial Cliché scale. And still: I admire millennials. I enjoy their company. And this article has pissed me off royally because a) it’s a morass of lazy generalizations and thus bad journalism; b) it’s full of the exact same accusations that people threw at Stein’s (and my) generation; and c) it’s a prime example of blaming children for the sins of their parents.

As Stein himself points out, “in the US, millennials are the children of the baby boomers, who are also known as the Me generation.” Well, yes, let’s look at that a bit, shall we? In his excellent book Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt makes a compelling argument that there’s a direct causal link between the individualism of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the hyper-individualism of the ‘80s and ‘90s – both are the product of a philosophy that placed the one above the many, the only difference being as the starry-eyed flower-waving of the hippie years ossified into the disinterested materialism of the yuppie years, any measure of idealism was replaced by flat-out, me-first cyncism.

The result was that the baby boomers had it all, bless them – the pre-AIDS years of free love, the free education, the happy dilettantish flirtations with radicalism, the comfortable well-paid sinecures when the radicalism got tired, the big cars, the enduring sense of smugness, the tiresome Woodstock-centric mythology that still dominates popular cultural discourse.

And now these assholes have the temerity to turn around and complain about their children? The millennials are the people who’ve inherited the hangover from the baby boomers’ party: a warming planet, a dysfunctional global financial system that rewards the rich and screws the poor, a polarized political class that’s moved so far to the right that a centrist like Barack Obama can be described with a straight face as “a socialist.” Millennials may be “narcissistic, materialistic and addicted to technology,” as Stein alleges early in his article; they’re also drowning in college debt, slaves to an internship “system” that demands ever-increasing work for no pay, and entrants into a job market that’s replaced employment rights with the “flexibility” of never being able to afford health insurance.

And the worst thing? All the clichéd accusations that Stein throws at the millennials in his article (save the obligatory and woolly references to “technology” and “social media,” because, y’know, the kids love that stuff) are exactly the same accusations that got thrown at the baby boomers themselves, and at Stein’s generation, and basically every other generation since the dawn of time. And Stein knows it. He acknowledges this fact in his very first sentence: “I’m about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow.”

But then, hey, he goes and does it anyway! Why? Because “I have studies! I have statistics! I have quotes from respected academics!” Well, whoop-de-fucking-do. For the record, Stein’s “statistics” are largely confined to his first two paragraphs, are uncited, and at one point make a hilarious reference to something called a “narcissism survey,” which apparently reveals that “58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.” CONCLUSIVE PROOF, Y’ALL.

His “respected academics,” meanwhile, include people like one Mark Bauerlein, an English professor who wrote a book called The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeapordizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). (In case you’re wondering, this is not something that’s wandered out of the pages of The Onion – it’s an actual book. The irony of a college professor – whose job, after all, revolves around educating people under 30 – writing such a book is surely apparent even to those without the millennials’ highly tuned sense of irony. I’m sure his students adore him, eh?)

The first half of Stein’s article is devoted to sweeping claims like, “technology has only exacerbated [millennials’] selfishness” and “their constant search for a hit of dopamine (someone liked my status update!) reduces creativity” and “not only do millennials lack the kind of empathy that allows them to feel concerned for others, but they even have trouble even intellectually understanding others’ points of view.” If these generalizations are sourced or justified at all, it’s with fuzzy statistics about “creativity scores” and “kids receiving an average of 88 texts a day,” perhaps demonstrating that it’s not only millennials who are intellectually challenged.

Clearly, this sort of faux-intellectual idiocy is not sustainable, and sure enough, the article duly pivots into a discussion of how, hey, perhaps despite the fact that they’re all intellectually challenged shallow narcissistic borderline sociopathic terrors, millennials mightn’t be all that bad after all! In this respect it echoes the New York Times’ endless hipster trend pieces, giving the sense of someone poking a cute animal at the zoo with a stick, out of a mixture of curiosity and fear.

Still, Stein isn’t giving up – even as he acknowledges that his arguments maybe don’t hold a great deal of water, he maintains that “the first half of this article is true (I had data!)” No, Joel, you didn’t. You had a bunch of sensationalist, self-serving rhetoric that seeks to put an entire generation into a neat little box, a lot of polemic rubbish that attempts to reduce complex sociological trends into bite-sized, easily digestible chunks.

Perhaps the most revealing part of the whole article is the (oh-so-postmodern) paragraph where Stein breaks the fourth wall to start talking about himself: “I’m aware that I started this piece … with the word ‘I’… [As] I mocked reality shows, I kept thinking about the fact that I got to the final round of 1995’s Real World: London… I know my number of Twitter followers far better than my car’s odometer… When I got hired at Time, my co-workers hated me for cozying up to the editor.”

This sort of pre-emptive “oh yes I do it too” heading off of arguments makes for pretty lame journalism (see also: the Times‘ excoriation of hipsters’ sense of irony), but it also reveals another possibility that perhaps Stein perhaps has not considered: perhaps it’s not so much a matter of “doing shitty things too” as plain old “doing shitty things.” I know plenty of millennials; I don’t know any who aspire to be on reality TV shows, or who can tell you the exact number of Twitter followers they have, or who have 5,079 Facebook friends. I don’t know anyone who cozies up to magazine editors (if I did, I’d fire them, because those people are the worst), or anyone who checks their email three times while writing a (rather banal) sentence.

In other words, Joel Stein, maybe millennials (and your other readers) are not all narcissistic attention hogs prepared to make tiresome generalizations about 16 million people we’ve never met. Maybe it’s just you.