Protracted Liminality, the Millennial Generation, and a Different Side of the Story

Protracted liminality: it’s an anthropological term for drawn-out periods of transition.  It’s a pretty fitting term for the current experience of being twenty-something years old in the United States.  Other social scientists have called this the Odyssey period, which was incorporated into the current social science modeling of life stages (which previously had 4 and now has 6 stages).  The fact that this has become a stage of development isn’t necessarily a bad thing-~-but for some reason, people seem to treat it like it is.

Society at large seems to take issue with the millennial generation all too often.  Time magazine literally published a cover story called “The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents”.  I admit that they go on to say “why they’ll save us all”, but let me first talk about that portrayal of millennials…and why it has everything to do with feminism.

Before I get to that, though, a couple of things.  First and foremost, we are all products of our own socialization.  This means a couple of things.  1) It means that not all members of a generation, or even of a social group, are necessarily the same, because they are all socialized differently by their different parents.  That’s why stereotyping is bad.  Stereotyping isn’t only problematic when it’s applied to races and ethnicities, folks.  And while the writers at Time cite plenty of sociological research backing up their claims that our generation is narcissistic and lazy, the fact is, someone taught us to be that way.  Probably the generation now pointing fingers, because 2) Someone had to teach us to be this lazy and narcissistic, someone had to let us slide by without teaching us personal responsibility, and that was the generation that came before us.

Credit where credit is due: the author of that article largely argued that rather than just be shallow and obnoxious, millennials are just adapting quickly to a rapidly changing time.  We’ve come of age in a period of rapid technological advancement, globalization, and changing markets and structures, and as a result, we’re not settled into one path, we just keep jumping around.  That’s still not a bad thing.  But just because Joel Stein took the time to examine why Millennials are doing things right doesn’t mean the rest of society is, and that’s where I want to focus.

There are a lot of things that probably need to be said here, but I’ll start with some simpler bits.  In his book, The Social Animal, David Brooks explains the reasoning behind this sort of extended post-adolescent period.  First, protracted liminality/the Odyssey period is a bi-product of the fact that people live longer, and therefore have more time to settle into a path.  Second, our society has altered the order in which things are done with regards to reaching certain benchmarks for adulthood: it used to be that young people first got married and then established themselves together, but now the general social trend is for people to first establish themselves and then get married.

Feminists get blamed for this a lot, and I’ve had to discuss it more than once on this blog.  The reality is that yes, women entering the workforce has contributed to women being willing to put off marriage-~-but that’s okay.  The fact that women are able to delay pregnancy and marriage hasn’t crippled the institution of marriage, it has just altered the marriage market so that when people do choose to delay marriage it doesn’t curtail their options.  Feminism also gets blamed because if men can get sex without getting married, or if women are comfortable living with their boyfriends without there being a ring involved, the incentive for marriage is (allegedly) diminished.  First, I haven’t seen compelling evidence that this is true; and second, if people are delaying marriage anyway, it makes sense for people in relationships to be co-habitating.  The fact that women can delay pregnancy means that they don’t have to hold off on sex until marriage; and anyway, marriage isn’t the only kind of valid committed relationship.

Our so-called loss of direction and/or family-oriented values aside, there’s a more pervasive, more subtle problem going on here that’s bothering me.

Look, I’m not saying that young men don’t get criticized by older generations-~-they do.  But their protracted liminality is treated differently than women’s.  First, because they can scapegoat feminism; but second, because young men can play off their lack of focus as “being young” and “embracing freedom”; they’re “poetic” and “free-spirited”, and because there’s no biological clock ticking, there’s less historical reason why men need to settle down while they’re still young.  When it comes to the subject of sex…well, boys will be boys, right?  (I still hate that concept.)  But for women, this all isn’t the case.  Large numbers of women in the workforce is still a relatively new phenomenon, and norms regarding women and sex are still changing, and changing relatively quickly (though not quickly enough).  But even as the Millennials embrace new ways of thinking about relationships, sex, careers, etc., older generations aren’t necessarily on board.  The result is a vilification of both the changes and the people seen to be behind them-~feminists, liberals, and of course, just young people in general.

It’s probably worth mentioning that a lot of the traits that people find most annoying in Millennials have nothing to do with feminism.  Our attention spans are shot because we have so much media fired at us constantly.  We grew up in a culture of instant gratification, rather than having one develop around us after we had already grown up, so it has become an expectation (and it has been fueled by technology).  And Millennials are moving back in with their parents because we came of age during a time when the job market is shot and student debt is out of control.  Nothing to do with feminism.

But the Twitter user whose tweets are pictured above is correct: many of the traits about the Millennial generation most vilified are those we associate with women.  We’re painted as having poor or no leadership skills, being shallow, being too self-involved, lacking focus, and being estranged from our values.  We’re viewed as attention-seeking and in need of coddling.  I’ve already talked about the values point and why it’s relevant, but let’s take a second to look at the others.  First, it’s often assumed that women will be more vapid than men, even though this is not necessarily the case.  But second, and more importantly, when men demonstrate these characteristics, they are “going through a phase”, or again, “boys will be boys”, or “they’ll grow out of it”.  When women demonstrate these traits, it seems to confirm that we are in fact the ditzes that everyone thought we were to begin with.

At the end of the day, the Millennial generation likely has more to offer than some people seem to give us credit for-~-and if our generation has society-wide flaws, you can’t really blame it on our individual characters.  We’re adapting, and we’re adapting fast-~-to new technology, to new social rules, to new gender expectations, to new ideas about how society should function.  Don’t shame us for it.  The Tweeters shall inherit the Earth.


~ by Randi Saunders on July 23, 2013.

One Response to “Protracted Liminality, the Millennial Generation, and a Different Side of the Story”

  1. Women’s behavior is endlessly scrutinized and criticized. The entire media industry (and I write for it, for a living) would collapse in a heartbeat if we all just shut the hell up and let people get ON with their lives. Imagine!

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