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What makes up a Millennial or Gen-Zer?

By T.J. Ray

His questions were lucid and his passion about them was quite apparent.

The young fellow I refer to stood by the microphone in a Town Hall meeting to ask about a problem with no reasonable answer. In short, he wanted to know what the State might do by way of convincing Millennials to stay in Mississippi instead of moving elsewhere.

The brief and gloomy discussion his questions triggered prompted me to come home and look up “millennials.”

Nowadays it is common, particularly on television, to hear a number of labels thrown around, naming different generations. As best I can make out  – though my chronology may be amiss — the last century offered the world the Lost Generation, then the GI Generation, followed by the Baby Boomers and Gen X, next the Millenial crowd, trailed by the Gen Z (or iGeneration) kids.

A library of entries on the internet offer definitions and characteristics of all these segments of our history, sometimes contradicting each other as pinning down a moving, evolving target is difficult. And as each of these segments of people age, they may assume traits of an entirely different culture group. Some hippies of Woodstock ended up in Brooks Brothers suits selling stock or in the military where they hated wearing uniforms.

Older folks, who well may not recall their own identity from their young days, share the reaction of shaking their heads as each culture evolution comes along, wondering “what’s happening to kids these days?” It is not uncommon to be told that the world’s “going to hell in a handbasket,” and while that may be fairly accurate with some generations, who stuck flowers in the barrels of M-1 rifles at Kent State or chained themselves to trees on college campuses to protest the war in Vietnam, this Millennial crowd just might be the exception to that concern.

Let me give you a picture of what they represent. First, these are the kids born between 1981 and 2000, also known as The 9/11 Generation of “Echo Boomers.” They are for the most part nurtured by optimistic and focused parents, who imbue them with a respect for authority. Academic pressure is enormous, one aspect of it being their penchant for scheduling things.

They have grown up in a digital world, missing the world without computers. Their information and much of their socialization accrue from the internet. They prefer to work in teams. The mass of information on the internet seems to produce strong views in them. They read far fewer books than previous generations and show little knowledge of history. Over and over again they have been told they are special and they expect the world to treat them that way. Finally, they prefer a relaxed work environment: they do not live to work. Among this generation, society finds falling crime rates and falling teen pregnancy numbers.

Close on the Millennials comes the Gen Z group. Sixty-one percent of them between the ages of  8 to 17 have televisions in their rooms. Thirty-five percent have video games. Four million have their own cell phones. These kids have never known a world without the cell phone. On a sociological note, they are have something termed Eco-fatigue: they are tired of hearing about the environment and how to save it. Let me insert here a stunning paragraph about Gen Z kids: “With the advent of computers and web-based learning, children leave behind toys at younger and younger age. It’s called KGOY-kids growing older younger, and many companies have suffered because of it, most recognizable is Mattel, the maker of Barbie dolls. In the 1990’s the average age of a child in their target market was 10 years old, and in 2000 it dropped to 3 years old. As children reach the age of four and five, old enough to play on the computer, they become less interested in toys and begin to desire electronics such as cell phones and video games.”

Boys no longer build things with their dad’s tools. I have a box of 50 or so scale plastic models that I can’t seem to give way. I don’t see airplanes hanging in boys’ rooms. Girls rarely spend much time sewing. I’m not sure the millennials or the Gen Z kids have a sense of what a hobby is.

Like it or not, the times they are a-changing. Wouldn’t it be interesting to assemble a small group from each of the generations and question them about how they foresee the next generation, the ones yet to come, yet to be labeled.

I hope the young man who asked that question finds his answer. And I hope he stays here. We badly need individuals who ask the hard questions because looking for answers often leads to better ways to do things.

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.