On the cover of Time magazine this week, a young woman, comfortable and self-satisfied, is taking a photograph of herself with a smartphone. In big letters, the cover headline describes her kind:
"THE ME ME ME GENERATION — Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents."
Then, at the last, the caption adds, "Why they'll save us all."
Apparently, this cheerful, final thought is supposed to persuade young people not to feel insulted (assuming any young people actually read Time magazine).
So it goes for a cover piece that tries to have it both ways. Sure, Millennials are self-involved and lazy, the story says, but here's why they might be OK after all. (For the purposes of this cover story, Millennials were defined as people born between 1980 and 2000, a group that includes this year's high school graduates.)
One would think Baby Boomers celebrated for their selfishness — the Me Generation — would recognize that pop-culture generalizations about tens of millions of people are neither fair nor useful. But apparently not.
The critics enlisted by Time magazine accuse the Millennials of being obsessed with celebrity, as if their generation created a media landscape awash with crap. The critics blame Millennials for living at home, as if they created the economy that rewarded the wealthy and left the rest to scramble. And the critics complain that Millennials are less interested in civic life, as if they were responsible for the manifest dysfunctions of government.
As happens, this large cohort of teens and young adults — 80million in all — includes several people I know and admire, two of whom will graduate from high school in the coming days.
My grandson, Zachary, and my niece, Lauren, don't remind me of the people described by Time magazine. Zachary will be a pre-med student next year, and Lauren will study chemical engineering. I'm guessing they won't have a lot of time to sit around taking photographs of themselves.
They'll be too busy finding their own paths in a world that is changing as never before. They belong to the first generation to grow up with smartphones and social media, the first generation to grow up in the shadow of 9/11 and the first generation to grow up in a global economy.
They are forever changed by these new circumstances, and yet they do what young people always do. They try to figure out what will make their lives rewarding.
Two other Millennials I know, both professionals who work in Silicon Valley, were talking recently about friends and their job opportunities.
One said to the other: "Who do you know who's had the same job for four years?"
Think about that. For better and worse, an economy driven by new technology is turning the world upside-down. Stories of people who perform the same job for the same company for an entire career are becoming an artifact of another era. You don't have to like it, but you're not going to change it.
The Millennials know they are entering a world in which they will be obliged to manage change — a task that will involve learning new skills throughout their work lives.
In many ways, they arrive with a better understanding of this new world because these changes have always been part of their lives. The same can't be said for their elders.