If you want to understand a fundamental difference between Baby Boomers and millennials, consider Jill Abramson’s tattoos. Reading that the former executive editor of The New York Times has ink logos of both the Times “T” and a crimson “H” for her alma mater, Harvard, I thought: That’s the most Boomer thing I’ve ever heard. I’m only 30 years Abramson’s junior, which is really not so great a gap in terms of modern history. Yet I couldn’t imagine trusting institutions like that. I couldn’t imagine having the chance to.
It’s well-documented by now that millennials are suspicious of traditional institutions. Polls suggest a majority of young people lack faith in everything from banks and big business to the media, the medical system, organized religion, and the US Supreme Court.
This might seem like a depressing bit of commentary about youthful disillusionment and alienation. But I’d argue that it’s actually a change worth celebrating. Institutions are clearly more likely to be concerned with their own interests than they will ever be with ours. Taking a DIY approach to life isn’t sad. It’s just smart.
The way that Boomers like Abramson identify themselves (literally, in her case) with their alma maters is certainly tough for me to fathom. Maybe that’s because I’m a graduate of lesser flagships–the finest school in South Carolina, and New Zealand’s foremost institute of higher learning. Or maybe it’s because the relationship between students and academia has changed.
Abramson’s experience of Harvard, I would politely speculate, was very different than the experience of many college students now. In the Baby Boomer era, the institutions did not draw their sustenance from massive student loans that students could not reasonably hope to ever pay off. I would guess, too, that they did not steer students toward further expensive schooling–in the form of MFA and PhD programs–for jobs that the program directors are well aware do not exist. To say that these practices fail to inspire much reverence in millennials is not to deny individual responsibility.
These aren’t small differences. And we haven’t even gotten to how many universities have lately given students the bureaucratic runaround when it comes to issues like Title IX complaints. Why should young people feel loyalty to an institution that shows no loyalty to them? As my own editor noted, “We don’t need a tattoo to memorialize the imprint our schools left on us; we have our monthly student loan bills to do that.”
Much of this goes for employers, too. A 50-something writer friend of mine once cautioned me never to let an organization swallow me up. “When I was coming up in the ‘70s, I saw so many of my talented peers get hired by Newsweek, TIME, US News, The Washington Post,” he explained. “Then they spent their entire careers there. They lost their voices, their identities. They got the distinctive features pounded out of them.”
“Well, that’d be nice,” I said, trying to imagine the fantastical scenario of spending decades at the same job. “Unfortunately, there’s very little danger of that now.”
Very few of my friends expect to spend their working lives with the same employer. The contingency plan, whether it’s a side hustle or going back to school for a new degree, is ubiquitous. Sure, sometimes this is a matter of seeking to trade up. More often, it’s because we expect that our current situations won’t last much longer.
The Great Recession helped fuel this job-hopping, looking-over-one’s-shoulder mentality. And as millennials put less faith in their employers, they’re increasingly willing to call them out in public—whether it’s former Yelp employee Talia Jane shaming her then-company for failing to pay a living wage; ex-Twitter engineering manager Leslie Miley accusing the company of failing to adequately address diversity issues; or former International Business Times employees congregating on Twitter under the hashtag #IBTWTF.
But while trust in traditional institutions may be on the wane, millennials do display a great deal of trust in some newer–and arguably much more invasive–institutions. Think of all the data we willingly share with Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. At least your bank never had your nude photos.
As the blogger Venkatesh Rao put it in May, “Millennials … are shaped by an environment of failing or failed institutions and rising new ones.”
And when the failing institutions meet the rising new ones, things get interesting. The digital age has introduced an incredible level of transparency about what our institutions are really up to. Hackers let us know what the Democratic National Committee really thinks about Bernie Sanders; digital records exposed the ethics-free messages circulating in bankers’ chat rooms as they conspired to fix interest rates. Thanks in part to digital evidence, we live now in a golden age of (digital) whistleblowing. Every few months brings a fresh blow to institutional faith. We now know we can’t trust Volkswagen, Russia’s Olympics program, Rolling Stone, or Penn State football. Hell, thanks to Kim Kardashian, we even have dirt on the cultural institution Taylor Swift.
It’s not that millennials don’t trust institutions so much as we know we can’t. Of course, it’s worth saying this isn’t just true for young people. Decades ago, the Watergate scandal helped usher Americans into a new era of skepticism.
But there is a positive way to look at millennials’ tendency to be wary of the man. It is not wrong to consider the motivations of the people who want to coopt you, or to consider the possibility that institutions don’t have your best interests in mind. These are appropriate considerations for any adult interaction, not egregious missteps. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, if you don’t know who the sucker at the table is, it’s probably you.
It’s often a painful process to reevaluate the things you loved as a child and find them lacking. Still, how else can we bring about change? It’s sad, but necessary, to see the world as it really is.