Beware of Generational Ethnocentricism

Is this your image of high school?

When I speak about Millennials being different from teens and young adults of generations past, I invariably get push back from older people in the audience. There is a desire to believe that, while the styles may have changed, young people today are fundamentally the same as they were in high school or college. We want life to remain if not static, at least familiar to us and recognizable as the world we grew up in.

This skepticism is difficult to address. It’s human to want to see the commonalities, not the differences. Coming of age is not something new and there are developmental patterns that are no doubt universal.

Yet, interaction with nearly 1000 students in my classes at Notre Dame, parenting two teens of my own and years of intensive primary and secondary research have convinced me the teen and young adult experience of today is qualitatively different from what it was even 20 years ago.

Consider how these three shifts alone may have made a difference in what it means to come of age in the new Millennium:

  1. The period of adolescence is extending. Students no longer expect to finish college in 4 years. The age of first marriage has jumped 2 full years in the past two decades.  Many college grads are still living at home. The twenty-something is now an extension of adolescence, not the beginning of adulthood.
  2. The defnition of success is changing. Despite intense competition throughout their young lives, young adults don’t expect to achieve a standard of living that exceeds that of their parents. They are redefining success in terms of intentions, making a difference and life balance, not material goods or status.
  3. The way knowledge is generated, transmitted and shared is changing. It’s no longer what you know, but how adept you are finding what you need to know when you need it. Network proficiency matters as much as content mastery.

Inside the Life of a Teen

Chap Clark wrote about the life of American teens (today’s college students and twenty-somethings) based on first-hand experience substitute teaching at an LA County high school. The school was known for its diversity and academics. The book, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, is a convincing argument for how much things have changed. He readily admits he was unprepared for what he heard about the way that the social context in which teens move has changed, despite his son’s warnings to the contrary (“I know you think you know a lot about kids, Dad, but you had better be ready for a shock. I don’t think you really get it! I don’t think any adult gets it!”) He concluded:

In this study I found at a far wider relational and social chasm exists between adults and adolescents than I had previously considered…The way midadolescents have been forced to design their own world and separate social system has created perhaps the most serious and yet understudied social crisis of our time. We hear such statements so often that it is easy to turn a skeptical or even deaf ear, but my hope is that the evidence emerging from the study is far too strong for even the most entrenched to ignore.” (p.43)

Pulling on academic literature (The Hurried Child, A Tribe Apart) as well as his own observations, Clark describes the ways that the social context of being a teen today is more ‘difficult, complex, and treacherous than in previous generations’. Here are just two examples:

Outer Shell, Inner Reality: Far from feeling ‘entitled’, Clark says teens feel victimized by the oppressive expectations and agendas of the adults in their lives. They feel alone and even ‘abandoned’. To cope they develop a ‘layered’ approach to moving within the adult and teen world, with different personas for each. On the surface, they project everything is fine, while at the same time creating and moving in a ‘world beneath the surface’.

People think I have the ‘perfect ‘ life. I wear the right clothes, I hng eiwht th cool crowd, my family has money. But the funny thing is, they don’t know that I cry myself to sleep every night because my dad’s expectations are impossible. I struggle with keeping up with school work. The never see te real me. I have to put on a mask.” – High School Student

Social peer ‘clusters’ provide emotional safety and intimacy. Friendship clusters are powerful, gender-specific groups of 5-10 individuals that provide structure to the social world of the high school. These groups are cohesive and durable and have recognized values, expectations and loyalties. According to both Clark and other researchers, clusters are the heart and soul of being young today, and operate quite differently from the ‘cliques’ of years past. They form toward the end of the sophomore year and are based on similar ‘self-concepts’. Clusters share interests, experiences, thoughts and styles. Adolescents think of them as family.

“Sure a lot of friends come and go, but I’ve been fortunate enough to develop amzing relationships with a select few – a few who aren’t afraid to risk huring my feelings so as not to let me get into things I shouldn’t be getting into, a few with whom I can be completely real without fear ridicule, friends who could sit there and listen to my problems for hours,just because they care and know that I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, I love my blood-related family, but my friends are really more my family than my family.” – High School Student

Clark provides many more examples, but these two insights alone help explain two of the defining values of the Millennial generation – the desire for authenticity and the emphasis on social connectedness and teamwork.

To the extent that teens feel they have been forced to adopt multiple persona’s to reconcile the different layers of their lives, the ideal of authenticity takes on additional significance. I have heard my kids use the word ‘fake’ as the ultimate put down. As a generation, Millennials prefer to work in teams. They ‘have each other’s backs’, and they thrive in peer-relationships.

Speaking in Code

A recent speech by Dana Boyd on the Future of Privacy contained many insights about how young adults think about information they share online. Contrary to common myth, Boyd says teens do care about privacy online, but have developed different ways of achieving it. They know that their Facebook interactions are available to parents and college admissions officers, not just their friends. Rather than try to ‘lock down’ this information, they have adapted new strategies to ensure their intimate conversations remain if not private, at least inscrutable. The most intimate conversations occur via text messaging. There is also an emerging trend toward private Twitter conversations among more affluent teens.

Most intriguingly, teens use  ‘coded’ messages to communicate via Facebook in order to “hide in plain sight”. Boyd calls these coded communications, which often take the form of in-jokes or song lyrics,  ‘social stenography’. She offers this example:

“Carmen is a 17-year-old Latina living in Boston.  She is close with her parents but doesn’t believe that they need to know everything about everything that happens in her life.  Still, she’s close enough with them to be friends with them on Facebook.  One day, she and her boyfriend broke up.  The relationship wasn’t working but she’s still sad about it.  Not suicidal sad, just normal sad.  Whenever she feels moody, she posts song lyrics to Facebook.  She uses lyrics to help her friends understand how she feels.  But what’s interesting is that she does it in a way where she know her mother can’t read what she posts.  On the day that she and her boyfriend broke up, she thought about posting sappy song lyrics but she decided against it because she didn’t want to worry her mother.  Instead, she chose to post song lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”  Her mother didn’t even realize the words were a song lyric, but her friends immediately knew the reference.  This song is sung in Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” when the character is about to be executed.  Carmen’s mom posted a comment to Carmen’s Facebook, believing that she was being supportive and loving by saying that she seemed to be doing really good. Her friends, knowing that was the wrong interpretation, immediately texted her.”

Social stenography such as that used by Carmen, explains why the word ‘airplanes’ was among the top Facebook memes. Teens were using a catchy lyric from the international hit song, “Airplanes”, to share a personal wish when traveling: “can we pretend that airplanes traveling in the night are shooting stars?”

Boyd says the use of indecipherable coded references is a ‘radical shift in social norms’. I agree. We didn’t need code to communicate in high school, unless we were passing notes in class.

These insights are a caution to those of us who purport to try to translate youth culture for marketers:  No one really knows what it’s like to be a teen or young adult today than those who are living it. It is presumptuous to think otherwise.