Age is an arbitrary system. It matters because we as a society decided to make it matter and agreed that larger numbers denotes more experience, more intelligence, and a more privileged status. Our obsession with youth has of course put certain limitations on this but generally, one assumes that the young are inexperienced and stupid.
I spent half the morning trying to find a quote from Tom Hiddleston in which he talks about how his/our generation was raised with a certain skepticism due to media influence and issues with truth in politics (he says it much more eloquently than I can summarize so if you have any idea what quote I'm talking about and where I can find it, I would be incredibly grateful). It's true - Millennials grew up after a lot of political turmoil and conflict (for the U.S. I think specifically of Vietnam and Watergate, as well as the culture wars of the 1980s) and in a time when the media such as 24 hour news networks were beginning to strengthen and grow. There's a certain fascination with media (from fandoms and interests in celebrity to discussions of journalism and valid news sources) as well as a certain distrust of it. We live in an era of truthiness (God bless Stephen Colbert and his writers for this word), a concept that didn't exist when my parents were growing up. But my generation has been completely absorbed in it all of our lives. And it's having some interesting affects. The world has become a very strange place to many people, a place that looks nothing like it did when they were younger. But it's more or less looked this way to my generation's entire time here and we're going about things as usual. Pictorially, I'd say it look something like this:
The previous generation:
I believe that my generation has had a lot more expected of us than those who preceded us. As a recent college grad who's going back to school because I couldn't get a full-time job, I believe the job market is much more ruthless and less forgiving that it was in the past. People claim that my age group has no experience in "the real world" (as if school is part of some alternative universe), but in order to get a job or go to grad schools this day, it's necessary to have done a number of internships, had a work experience, have excellent grades, have a thriving social life as well as important extracurricular activities, done volunteer work, have good credit, and possible describe in fifty words or less on the spot where exactly they see themselves in five years (and if that answer is anything less than stellar, then, well, you just don't care enough). Aside from the fact that it is very difficult to gain all of this experience by the time you graduate college (and even if you do, it guarantees nothing), there's also inherent paradoxes in the whole thing: we have to work to gain experience, but in order to get a job, we're already supposed to have that experience. I went on the tour of the University of Minnesota with Sarah and her sister a month ago and was shocked at what is expected of students entering college now. Sarah's sister is interested in nursing and one of the representatives of the nursing school asked her if she had done any work (ie: volunteer work) in a hospital. She turns eighteen in a few weeks. Eighteen. She's just started considering what she wants to do with her life. And she's supposed to have already gained experience before she can even be considered for the major? It's unreal to me.
The paradox intensifies with the ageism towards young people. I know ageism is generally applied to people who are older, and I don't want to downplay the seriousness of the issues they face and the wrongness of how we view people over the age of fifty. But ageism is also relevant to the young. I have often been treated differently just because I am the youngest person in the room, or because I was new to something and also young. It's not an overt treatment but a subtle attitude of superiority from someone simply because they are older (I'm paraphrasing Sarah here). It's an assumption that time equates experience, not effort or initiative. And it's a belief that you have to prove that you are an adult, instead of just being accepted as one (being an adult, of course, is also arbitrary and linked to age. I for one go back and forth between feeling like I'm thirty-four and fourteen. Which is continually terrifying). This treatment prevents us from having conversation with adults, as Sarah pointed out, keeps us from feeling like adults, and splices us off into this strange amorphous state of being both too young and too old. It, in short, sucks.
I have a lot of respect for Millennials. We're constantly being described as the generation with its hand out expecting special treatment and have everything given to them on a silver platter, expecting to live the life of ease that they grew up in. This is a very warped perception of Millennials, one that only focuses on those who grew up with a lot of privileges and who do expect to easily gain what their parents have. That's not the sort of Millennials I most often see. I am surrounded by a generation crippled by debt with parents who are worried about their finances and their mortgages and keeping their jobs. I am surrounded by young people who can't get jobs or internships or into grad school because there are so many other people struggling to get the very same thing. I know people that do have jobs but are no less worried about the state of things. We rent instead of own, we walk instead of drive, we question the idea of owning things to begin with. We question "the American Dream" and its ideology, we question the idea of democracy and how its practiced and how its come to be defined, we question the media and what is supposes are facts and truths. We're searching for truth, surrounded in a world that seems to think that truth doesn't exist anymore. So when I hear that people think my generation is stupid, I get very upset. Maybe I'm not your average twenty-something. But I don't like the idea of averages or any one group being entirely one thing or another. Millennials are complex and diverse. And we deserve to be treated as such, not as fools who are still expected to make leaps and bounds in the workplace, who are expected to have experience even while they are treated as though they have none. We're floundering around, trying to make sense of the world as much as anyone else. And it would be nice if people older than us would treat us like equals.