As far as newspaper corrections go, it was a whopper. On August 24, the editors of the New York Times sucked the air out of a windy essay that had blown through its pages a few days before. The original article bore the headline “Generation Nice.” It was adorned with color photos of fresh-faced teens and twenty-somethings. All of them looked nice. In case Times readers were confused (they’re not getting any younger), the subheadline drove the point home: “The Millennials Are Generation Nice.” And that was the theme of the article, too. The millennials—all those people born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s? You’ve never met a nicer bunch.
“An article last Sunday about the millennial generation’s civic-mindedness included several errors,” the editors wrote in the correction. The writer of the original story, a Times staffer and “public intellectual” named Sam Tanenhaus, had illustrated the selflessness of millennials by citing the dramatic upswing in applications to AmeriCorps, the government agency that hires young people to volunteer to do good works. The correction pointed out that the agency can’t document such an increase, presumably because there isn’t one. Tanenhaus had also told his readers about the millennial-fueled surge in applications to the Peace Corps and Teach for America, a teacher-training group that finds jobs for recent college graduates in poor schools.
“Applications to the Peace Corps recently have been in decline,” the correction read, “with a 34 percent decrease from the peak in 2009, and applications to Teach for America decreased slightly last year; neither organization has seen ‘record numbers of new college graduates’ applying for jobs.”
Published corrections carry a sly implication, as many newsmen have pointed out. The admission of error, and the display of conscientiousness, together suggest that every other assertion in the story is pristinely factual. And sure enough the revised article survives in the Times archives, the sutures barely visible where the misstatements were removed. But it is a slender and much-diminished thing, for the correction deprived the article of the only real-world evidence the writer had presented to support his thesis. Now that we have the correct application figures—which seem to prove that millennials will dive out a second-story window rather than face a Peace Corps recruiter tapping at the front door—should we continue to call them, as the Times still does, Generation Nice?
Yes! That’s the wonderful thing about the millennial generation. They are nature’s gift to “generational analysts,” those big thinkers who are able to grasp entire national cohorts in their meaty arms, lift them up, turn them upside down, and shake them till every last cultural insight falls from their pockets. Generational analysts can make any assertion they want about the 80 million people they identify as millennials and then dare somebody to disprove it, though hardly anyone ever tries. Since the Times story on Generation Nice, I’ve thrashed my way through much of their work. In a single morning the other day I read that “millennials would dump a friend to get ahead at work,” that they have a “deep sense of entitlement,” and that they “will take credit for other people’s work”—three assertions from three articles based on three different social science studies. I learned that bad millennial behavior arises from their “selfishness” and “narcissism,” which also causes them to overestimate their own “specialness” and “uniqueness.” Generation Not Nice! At All!
I read on. Long experience playing online video games with faraway strangers has inspired in millennials the desire to “create communities built around shared interests,” although their millions of hours slumped in front of the TV playing online video games with strangers has left them feeling isolated and atomized. Reality TV has stoked their hunger for wealth and fame as ultimate virtues. They are the least materialistic generation in American history, thanks to the diversity in their ranks. The great recession has left them anxious and depressed and pessimistic, and their faith in technology makes them far more upbeat about the future than earlier generations. Overprotective child-rearing has crippled them socially, and a lifetime of self-esteem classes means they interact across the generations with tremendous ease. Technology has aggravated their tendency to be self-involved; social media have deepened their fellow feeling.