The Millennial as Generational Fantasy (A few thoughts following the Digital Media and Learning Conference)

I had a wonderful time at the Digital Media and Learning Conference this past weekend, and I’m still feeling that post-conference buzz. I’m determined not to let this conference go by without jotting down and sharing some of the ideas that I found most compelling. Here’s one of the key ideas that stayed with me.

Sonia Livingstone‘s closing keynote offered an important reminder of how we can oversimplify young people’s comfort with technology. She presented as counterpoint her own experience speaking with young people and their families, and observing their use of technology within their daily contexts. She found that parents can overestimate their children’s technological savvy, and that young people may speak with a bravado that breaks down as they are questioned further about how to, for example, adjust privacy settings or tweak who can see what of their profile on online social networks such as facebook.

This point–that we shouldn’t conflate prevailing *perceptions* of youth ease with technology with reality–resonates with my own work; in my research on the millennial generation, I argue that the millennial generation is as much if not more discursive construct than generational reality. (I have a piece in the upcoming Flow TV Anthology on the millennial discourse surrounding ABC Family’s Kyle XY.)

The notion of the millennial generation functions as a backward-aspirational category. According to cultural consultants such as Strauss and Howe, who popularized the term, millennials range from birth years in the mid to late 1970s to the early 2000s. But the category of millennial is culturally expansive; older generations engage with the generational fantasy of a youthful natural skill with technology, and identify vicariously with the sense of techno-savvy or techno-ease associated with millennials.

The millennial generation is a concept constructed in part by commercial interests such as TV networks like ABC Family and in part by cultural consultants–some of whom are working for commercial interests. The permeability of its very wide boundaries thus speaks in part to the category’s commercial logics. It is a cateogry that manages to straddle the line between niche and broad-based market group/cultural category. Indeed, the millennial construct’s expansive definition encourages blurred boundaries of identification, where we all imagine ourselves as part of the Gossip Girl martini-drinking, super-powered-phone-wielding generation.

As I write this, the perfect example circulates on twitter: this little quiz, created by the Pew Research Center as part of their new report on millennials that determines what percentage of millennial you are. This quiz would certainly lead us to believe that the millennial generation isn’t an in or out category, but rather is something we can identify with and see ourselves reflected in, at least in part.

So yes, as Livingstone argues, it seems wise not to just take this generational definition at face value. But on the other hand we don’t want to knee jerk in the other direction, to jump wholesale on the narrative that youth are actually techonologically ill-equipped and
thus need us seasoned adults to protect them from the evil machinations of the digital dangerscape as embodied by Facebook. Young people are neither all magical technowizards nor digital innocents and passive fodders to corporate attempts to coopt and manipulate them.

Part of the purpose of the DML conference (as supported by the MacArthur Foundation) was to consider issues of youth and media literacy. As we do so, I’d suggest we simultaneously interrogate the ideological stakes involved in defining youth as our subject of study, especially where–because of the ideological work of notions of youth and generation–we may find ourselves projecting our own fantasies of technological negotiations onto young people as a convenient category.

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4 thoughts on “The Millennial as Generational Fantasy (A few thoughts following the Digital Media and Learning Conference)

  1. lstein says:

    Thank you!! I remember seeing your frustrated tweet at DML about wondering if you were the only millennial in the audience, and very much agreeing with the underlying sentiment (even if a) I was born too early and b) the Pew quiz says that I’m solidly Gen X).

  2. Mary Walker says:

    Fascinated to read this. Fits with a disconnect I’ve been having anecdotally: that many <30s I interact with (even here in Silicon Valley) are not particularly tech savvy or tech infatuated. Yes, they've had a cellphone since they were 10…but that doesn't mean they're more tech knowledgeable.

    I'd love to see more finely drawn distinctions around different kinds of technology skills & useage. As products go mainstream — they require less genuine tech knowledge — & although the product may be transformative in terms of people's lives & society at large — that's not based on individuals becoming significantly more educated or capable.

    Again cars, TV & telephones…when those went mainstream, people had to develop the basic physical & psychological skills to use those tools,and those tools transformed people's lives & society. But that didn't mean that most people developed sophisticated knowledge about the science & mechanics of cars, phones or TV. Similarly, just because lots of people are on Facebook doesn't mean we have more people who understand how the internet really works…or even how Facebook really works.

    For most people: most of the tools we use are magic black boxes…it's the "enchantment of the world" model, where the world is full of magical things that we learn how to use at a basic level, via ritualized behavior & basic incantations.

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