What Are We to Do With You Millennials?

By Ooi Kee Beng

February 2023 EDITORIAL
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I HAVE TO admit something.

Before returning to Penang to work in 2017, I had hardly ever used the word “millennial”. Looking back, I think that was because I was in academia and was then, for a long time, attached to an established think tank in Singapore, and therefore, only dealt with people not far off my own age.

But now, running Penang Institute, where almost all the staff members are in their 20s and 30s, I have begun to feel the temptation to employ that term. But what is it that I now feel that needs the use of “millennial”?

Are millennials narcissistic? Which is often the first characteristic ascribed to them. If you were born between 1980 and 2000, are the sociological conditions such that you will be much more “full of yourself” than your parents were?

But who does the ascribing? Being born in 1955 in Penang, I arrived smack in the middle of the baby boomer period, but have, throughout my life, always felt that I actually belonged at the tail end of it. This makes me think that the issue is not only about when one is born, but where one is born as well. The cultural episodes that define a group almost always occur first in the West and influence the rest of the world only later, and not to the same extent societally.

My own children were born in the West, in 1980, 2000 and 2004. Thus, the first and the second bookmark the beginning and the end of the usual period for defining a millennial – 1980 to 2000. The third is a definite Gen Z, and is therefore supposed not to differ too much from her siblings. Grouping the three of them against my generation also makes me cognizant of how my generation was perceived more through its cultural impact on the world, while the millennials and Gen Zs are defined more psychologically, through individual traits; this leads me to wonder: “Did the baby boomers, being many by definition, get to define themselves more than others did, and to an extent, even define later groups as well, more than their own parents did them?”

But let’s now see how the millennials are defined. Googling, I am made aware that a millennial is a multitasker, is connected (social media-wise), is tech-savvy and curious, and what he or she wants from employment are instant gratification and acknowledgement, work balance and flexibility, collaboration, authenticity, transparency, career advancement and diversity – hmmm… sounds a lot like me.

There seems to be a strong agreement on these points among Internet authors. If this is due to common experience or simply an uncritical online lifting of ideas, I don’t know.

I can allow for the idea that different generations can be said to belong to a recognisable personality type – but then, I must also wonder, isn’t describing a whole generation in such broad and ethical terms an exercise that is worryingly similar to the age-old generalisations we make about gender categories, classes, old people, religions and ethnicities?

And even if one ascribes positive traits to a generation, isn’t that nevertheless a diminishing of their individual agency and accomplishments, just like how treating a person in terms of his ethnicity or sex is a demeaning practice?

But be that as it may, is it really possible to know a person without consideration of his or her ethnicity, class, sex or age? People may be different, but they do exhibit common traits in line with certain categories they belong in – and we cannot really ignore these in daily life and in our manoeuvrings in society. There are age groups, and there are ethnicities; there are genders and there are classes.

We also have to consider who the describer is, and why he is doing it. That is not an irrelevant factor.

Age groups also never stop moving up in age. Their sense of agency and their interests evolve over time. So, would descriptions of millennials from the 2000s differ greatly from those in the 2010s, or 2020s? Probably not. People often act their age in the sense that a teenage millennial would not have had the same longings and behaviours as when they are in their 40s. Would they?

What seems to be the challenge is to not describe these “collective others” in loaded terms.

Now, back to my own millennial staff. Why do I feel the need to collectivise them in my head?

Simply put, I think the problem revolves around communication. The way the young communicate tends to be less patient and more short-term in purpose, less concerned with socialising for its own sake and less prone to team building. I can continue to generalise about them, but the fact remains that the points I just noted are, in the end, just reflections on my part of the relationship between me, an old person, and them, a group of much younger people – and not objective discoveries about them.

So, I leave you with no answer other than the realisation that communication between people has never been easy. It is an accomplishment every time two people manage to understand each other – across gender lines and class divides, and over language walls and age barriers. Guesswork and over-generalisations are par for the course in human communication.

Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com