There was a popular myth post-election that a Yale professor had offered an optional midterm for students upset over Trump’s victory, and it lit up social media quickly. I counted about a dozen Facebook shares from friends on both sides of the political aisle. Comments typed fast and furious spoke of this snowflake generation, these spoiled, entitled babies who were raised so dreadfully and coddled by their parents. More than once I read, “This is what happens when you give everyone a trophy!” That the truth behind the rumors revealed an entirely opposite story made no difference: This was another opportunity to make fun of those insufferable millennials and their need for safe spaces.
I am a work-at-home parent now, but before I gave birth to my children, I taught hundreds of millennials, this supposed generation of special snowflakes. I myself was raised in an upper-middle-class home with two parents. I went to summer camps, I went to college, and while there were some difficult times, I was sheltered from the realities that so many of my students lived with on a daily basis. Issues ranging from neglect, abuse, hunger, deportation worries, and parents struggling with addictions. But while my students were weighed down by matters I thought only existed in novels, they got themselves to school every day and worked hard.
During my second year of teaching, I sat in my third-period class with two-dozen millennials as we watched the twin towers fall. The following year, my students zigged and zagged each morning as they hurried toward the safe haven of the school building to avoid being gunned down by the Beltway sniper. They did not hide in their rooms under the covers, but instead they persevered.
This generation has never attended school without the dark cloud of school shootings hanging over their heads. Whether it would be fear of fellow students or fear of outsider attackers, these millennials went to school knowing that it was a place where someone might do them harm.
When I was young, the mass shooting in a Luby’s restaurant in Texas made international news and shocked the nation. For millennials, a similar event might last only a day or so on CNN. This is the reality of the world in which they came of age: Their classrooms and their dorm rooms are potential targets of gun violence.
As long as this allegedly-coddled generation can remember, our country has been embroiled in military conflicts. A good number of them are veterans themselves, with wounds both visible and invisible. These millennials who are mocked for being self-absorbed are the ones putting their lives at risk for the security of this country.
When I attended college, the Internet was in its infancy, so rumors and gossip were spread the old-fashioned way, through word-of-mouth. If a girl had too much to drink at a party and flashed a crowd of people, the worst that might happen would be someone taking a poorly lit photo. Even then, the negatives could be destroyed. Should the same incident occur at any university today, a high-resolution photo could be mass-distributed within seconds. One error in judgment could mean permanent damage to any one of these millennials.
My children have these supposedly-entitled millennials as their teachers and caregivers. These millennials work with me to make my children feel safe. They model empathy and patience daily as they educate my children. This world in which my children are growing up with all of its uncertainties is the world in which these millennials were raised. They understand much that I do not, and I rely on them for their invaluable contributions. That these young people continue to not only show up but to thrive in spite of all that they have seen and endured is a testament to their character and strength of spirit.
I cannot attempt to quantify the suffering of the previous generations. That people walk among us with numbers tattooed on their arms by Nazis, that children woke up during the early 1950s wondering if their legs would still work because so many of their classmates had fallen sick with polio might give one the impression that the millennial generation need not complain. But instead of drawing comparisons that will inevitably fall short — none of us lived through the bubonic plague, if you really want to compare suffering — the generations that have come before the millennials might consider exercising some perspective.
Thanks to this age of information, not only is every foolish thought or action of a millennial prone to immortalization via social media, but the overabundance of commentary available means a constant stream of criticism directed at this generation. The suggested searches on Google when one types the phrase, “Why are millennials so” are “lazy, weak, selfish, and immature.” In contrast, Generation X is simply expensive, and my parents’ generation is referred to as “the Greatest Generation.”
I’d like to revisit the idea of participation trophies for this generation. Setting aside the fact that they had zero responsibility in that phenomenom anyway (their parents created it), I think that millennials deserve an outward symbol of all they have survived and that we have put them through. While all other generations have also experienced tragedies, this generation has done what no other generation has had to do, which is live each day as if someone is always watching, waiting, and criticizing. Moving through this life with grace isn’t easy. Perhaps if we all had a small statuette on our nightstands to remind us of our unique worth, it might help. Nothing outlandish or expensive, just a small reminder that there is no one else like us nor will there be. Kind of like a snowflake, come to think of it.
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