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Column: A digital generation, forging ahead

I'm a millennial, according to the label that pegs us as those born from the early '80s to late '90s. My reputation precedes me.

Apocalyptic tales of my attention-deficit generation abound.

We're narcissistic and disaffected, reeking of entitlement. A legion of Peter Pans, we're complacent in our dead-end temp jobs, squatting in our parents' basements.

We've been spoiled by our helicopter parents and coddled with trophies received for every tiny achievement — or just for showing up. We're Pavlov's dogs, raised on the instant gratification of social media.

We don't know what bootstraps are.

All 80 million of us.

But those criticisms ring hollow. From where I sit, the view is far less dire, even as the economic challenges my generation faces are all too real.

Our student loan debt, due to soaring college costs, is a staggering $1.1 trillion. The youth unemployment rate hovers at 16.2 percent. We will inherit a toxic load of national debt incurred by soon-to-retire baby boomers — and lose, in the recession's aftermath, hundreds of billions in projected earnings.

Yet I know mine is a generation with a new perspective that sets us apart from any other.

We are true digital natives. The Internet is something we live alongside. Our experience of the world doesn't shut off as soon as we log in, and the Internet's influence doesn't abate when we're offline. Instead, it's an ever-present layer, intertwined with our reality in a natural way.

It has imbued in my generation a sense of exposure far more influential than television was for baby boomers. Unfiltered information answers questions instantly. Finding a cultural niche has never been easier. That access dominates our understanding of the world: open-mindedness toward people of all kinds; openness on a global market scale; openness of communication and borders. It's spurring a sea change in demographics and policy: My generation will be the most racially and ethnically integrated of all time. Our support for gay marriage hit 70 percent in March.

Technology has given us an intuitive sense of incessant change, from the rapid adoption and desertion of websites to constant product upgrades to the 24-hour news cycle. We fix deficient systems quickly, or we adapt to new ones.

And social media, especially, has given us the ability to build an image of ourselves, a projection of who we are and what we represent. Narcissism drives some of the incessant updates, to be sure. But I also see the same anxiety-driven question of identity that youth have grappled with throughout time, only now displayed for millions of people.

Millennials have changed the world already. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in his dorm room. In 2008, 66 percent of those under age 30 voted for Barack Obama, making the disparity between young voters and others larger than in any presidential election since polling began in 1972.

I graduate next spring. Some of my friends are treading water in unpaid internships and low-paying jobs, looking for the next step. Some are slackers, just as there have always been slackers. But most are gritting their teeth and forging ahead, landing jobs or volunteering or making connections while still in school.

A 2010 Pew study found that millennials strongly identify as confident, upbeat and open to change. I believe it, just as I believe in my generation. Our high ideals, adaptability and initiative, all of which I've seen firsthand, will lead to innovations of great meaning.

I can't presume to speak for everyone ages 15 to 32, and my middle class background has informed much of my knowledge. But I know the unfair derision and self-righteous condescension of my generation is a path to nowhere.

The "kids these days" trope is a predictable one: Youth disrupt the status quo and meet resistance. But soon, their reality becomes the new normal, and the world continues to turn.

A Newsweek cover once proclaimed the 1970s the "Me Decade." And consider this: "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders. … Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" That's Plato, circa 400 B.C. The recent New York Times headline, "Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?" is just a drop in the ocean.

Claire McNeill, a Times intern, is the 2013 Pittman Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She can be reached at [email protected]

Column: A digital generation, forging ahead 06/13/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 13, 2013 9:47pm]
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