A few years ago, everybody freaked out over a new generation entering the workforce. Dubbed Millennials (though the labels “Generation Y” and “Generation Me” have also been thrown around), these people’s values and habits have been scrutinized by career specialists trying to predict their impact on the office environment. According to analysts, those born between the early 1980s and early 1990s are optimistic, diverse, open-minded, experimental, and technologically savvy and embrace multitasking like no other generation before them has. They demand creative freedom and won’t put their careers before their physical and emotional well-being. Of course, there are exceptions to every generation, but these are the characteristics most associated with Millennials.
The most oft-stated trait is that this generation is highly self-involved, compared with its predecessors. And it’s probably true—just count how many people you know aged fifteen to thirty that belong to social networks. But the focus on their “me first” tendencies has led to a mistaken assumption that they don’t care about much outside of themselves. In reality, it’s the value they place on others that characterizes Millennials the most.
Bros Before … No, Chicks Before … Well, You Know
According to a U.S. Census Bureau population survey in 2006, those aged eighteen to twenty-four years old were 20 percent more likely to be married in 1972 than young adults today are. In 1970, twenty-three was the average age for men to get married; for women, it was a little over twenty. In 2006, that number rose to twenty-seven for men and twenty-six for women. Part of that has to do with the fact that success and stability are increasingly tied to the individual, instead of to the family unit. But many Millennials are a little gun-shy about marriage. And given the amount of divorced parents out there, their hesitation comes as no surprise. Just as past generations taught them that jobs aren’t the only key to happiness, they also learned that marriage isn’t always the answer, either.
So if Millennials don’t look to careers or romantic relationships as primary sources of relief or comfort, what do they turn to? The answer, simply put, is their friends. In a survey Rebecca Huntly cited in her book, The World According to Y: Inside the New Adult Generation, most people in the sixteen-to-twenty-four age bracket put their platonic friendships before partnerships. Though much has been made of technology’s causing isolation and introversion, Millennials are more connected with each other than any other group because of it. Thanks to email, smartphones, social networks, and instant messaging, friends stay in touch almost effortlessly. When surveying young adults, the Pew Research Center found that over half had received or sent a text message in the past twenty-four hours. Peers are constantly tapped into, and therefore influenced by, each other.
The Rise of the Urban Family
I recently spoke with three Millennials—Travis, Kaity, and Rita, all twenty-six—who concur. “I have instant messenger open all day at work and usually … at home, too,” says Travis. Kaity devotes a good amount of her day to chatting with friends in person and online. “Oh, I spend way too much time communicating and being social with friends,” she shares. “I would say anywhere between thirty minutes to four hours a day.” Rita appreciates the constant access IM allows, saying, “If I want to propose spending time with friends, I can reach them online whenever I want.” She doesn’t consider it a substitute for hanging out in person, but, like many others of her generation, she feels it’s a useful tool for staying in touch.
For Kaity, it’s important that she spend time with her friends because they’re as close to her as her own family is. “They’ve laughed at me through the high parts of my life and held me through the low parts,” she says. Similarly, Travis derives a sense of well-being from the frequent contact. “[It] contributes a lot to my overall happiness, it makes the day go by faster, and it creates a sense of familiarity and comfort in the workplace,” he says. And while Millennials as a whole are emotionally close with their families—all three interviewees valued familial relationships above all others—they often move away from them in their generational quests for exploration.
That’s where the idea of urban families comes in. “When you live away from family, friends fill that role,” Rita shares. “And if you grew up with less-than-stellar family relationships, a strong, supportive circle of friends feels like heaven on Earth.” Travis agrees, saying, “If you have a lifelong friend, the line between friend and family is all but obliterated.”
Millennials came of age with TV shows like Friends and Seinfeld, on which friendships were more intimate and crucial to happiness than anything else. For them, having a strong group of friends to rely on is a fundamental, natural part of adulthood, especially as their relationships—platonic or otherwise—mature and intensify. “It wasn’t until I bridged into adulthood and started dealing with larger issues that my friends became so important to me,” Kaity tells me. That’s undoubtedly true of all generations when they reach a certain age, but the advent of technology has certainly allowed Millennials to take that connection to a deeper level.
They Get By with a Little Help from Their Friends
It’s said that Millennials were generally overpraised and coddled as kids, which caused them to enter the real world with unrealistic expectations about life. However, these same people came of age in a society characterized by rising divorce rates and casualties of war. They’ve witnessed the rise and fall of industries, major stock-market crashes, and the worst terrorist attack on American soil. They’re also in the midst of the most severe recession since the Great Depression. Despite all this, surveys have found that Millennials feel positive about their futures overall. But they also know that few circumstances are reliable these days.
Huntly put it best in her aforementioned book, writing, “In this world of uncertainty, divorce, and unhappy marriages as the norm rather than the exception, notions of eternal romance … have been fatally compromised. But they have not disappeared. Instead they have been transferred into the realm of friendships.” Understanding how Millennials are redefining the workplace requires understanding how they’re redefining society overall—one urban family at a time.