Generation game: Are millennials really that different?

By Greg Bruce

Sua' Muamai Vui Siope with his daughter Fetaui Iosefo and grandson Joshua Iosefo age 21. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sua' Muamai Vui Siope with his daughter Fetaui Iosefo and grandson Joshua Iosefo age 21. Photo / Dean Purcell

When 21-year-old Joshua Iosefo's university graduation speech went viral in December, it was notable for several reasons, not least the fact that his generation is the first for which "going viral" is something that happens.

It was notable also for being the second time a speech of Iosefo's had gone viral, following his spoken-word poem, Brown Brother, which he wrote in an hour while still at high school and subsequently performed for a TED talk and Campbell Live.

Finally, his graduation speech was notable for the fact it drew in his family, past and present, and acknowledged their role in bringing him to this moment in his life, a proclamation of connection and interdependence far from the claims often made about Iosefo's generation, that they are self-involved narcissists, "the me generation".

"When we walk across this stage," he said in that speech, "We carry our ancestors on our shoulders. When we walk across this stage, we grab the hands of our whanau, our aiga, our family, and take them with us, side by side."

Joshua Iosefo's AUT graduation speech. Photo / Facebook
Joshua Iosefo's AUT graduation speech. Photo / Facebook

Iosefo is a millennial, that much-maligned generation, so often said to be cynical, excessively ambitious, obsessed with - and maybe ruined by - omnipresent technology. Is any of that fair? What can we reasonably say about people whose sole shared characteristic is the era of their birth?

Iosefo's grandfather Muamai, 81, had arrived in New Zealand from Samoa in 1959 with five shillings, a plastic bag, two shirts, two pairs of underwear and one pair of trousers. After several years as a farmhand and railway worker in Taihape, he moved to Auckland, where he found a job as a machine operator, working 19-hour days, living in a four-bedroom house with 17 other people, seeing his children only on Saturdays, the sabbath, which was the only day he refused to work.

His co-workers would give him sandwiches, which he would tuck into his overalls and later give to his children. He would walk four kilometres to Panmure to do the shopping and then walk home, carrying sacks of rice on his back.

His daughter, Fetaui - Iosefo's mother - started stealing as a child so she could fit in at school and so she could have decent lunches. She left school, ran away, and at 19 she came home pregnant.

"When she told me she was pregnant, I was shocked," Muamai says. "I thought, 'My poor little girl.' I hugged her and I said, 'I love you, God forgive you, but look up and God give you the good future'."

It was a turning point in Fetaui's life. "I had been such a disappointment and brought such shame," she says. She put a focus on family and on serving others. She completed a foundation course to bridge into tertiary education, then a bachelor of education. She became a teacher, completed her masters and is now working towards her PhD.

"Coming into education so late, at 27, made me appreciate it and want my son to have that kind of lifestyle," Fetaui, now 41, says. "My mum and dad had this migrant dream but they just didn't have the resources or the skills or the access to knowledge to further us as their children. So having Josh, it was like, 'Oh my gosh, I so want him to have everything that I never had.'"

Iosefo had lessons in music, piano, art, swimming, acting and bowling. He was not at all talented at sports, he says, but he became the sports captain. He was dux of his primary and intermediate school, a student leader.

Then, while at Mt Roskill Grammar School, with a career goal of becoming an actor, he auditioned for a television role, during which he delivered a line and was asked to "brown it out a little bit".

"What?" he asked.

"You know," the director said, "brown it out."

"What do you mean by 'brown it out'?"

The director did an impression of what he was looking for, without any apparent sense of the irony implicit in telling a brown person to speak more like a brown person.

"I was like, 'Oh no.' I walked out. I walked out of the audition. I was so upset. I was on the verge of crying. I was so upset."

"I remember you talking about it," his mother says. "You felt like you were being asked to dumb things down, which meant, 'Is being brown a dumb thing? Are you saying that I'm dumb?'"

"I went home and I was raging," Josh says. "I was like, 'Mum, when am I ever going to turn on the TV screen and see me?"

"For Josh," Fetaui says, "It was like, 'Can't we be greater than this? Are we not meant to be more than this?'"

Iosefo felt his career path shifting. Instead of wanting to be an actor, being told what to do and how he should be, he wanted to be the one telling the story, representing his people, all people, in an authentic way. He now wants to be a film-maker.

"Will there ever be a time when our representation goes deeper than putting our own people to shame?" he asked in Brown Brother. "Will the stereotype of an illiterate, misbehaved, unintelligent Polynesian still be the same? Will it ever change? Or are we still going to sell ourselves short for a few seconds of fame? Are we not capable of an art form that is thought-provoking or seen as a form of intelligence? Or are we still going to keep to our low standards of what we feel as 'culturally relevant'?

"Are we not more than a F.O.B? Immigrants from the islands in search of a J.O.B? Are we not more than the eye can see? Can we not move mountains from point A to point B? Are we not more than assets to the 1st XV? Are we not more than gamblers at a pokie machine? Are we not more than fathers at the T.A.B? Are we not capable of attaining a bachelor's, a master's or a PhD? Brown brother, look at me."

What does Joshua's experience of life tell us about what it is like to be of his generation? Does it tell us anything at all?

The word "millennial" has become so trendy. We love to chuck it around like it has some kind of meaning, as we do with all labels, partly because life and the people in it are chaotic and our brains long to impose order.

Academic demographers, whose job it is to study changes in populations over time, dislike the term, as they dislike all such labels: Generation X and Generation Y and Z, because they are so subjective. Demographers take groups born during a precise, specified time period and measure them. Terms like "millennial" and "Gen X" are poorly defined, where they are defined at all. They have been predominantly defined by marketers who are hopeful of finding broad, easily targeted characteristics of the groups to which they want to sell.

Roughly, says Jacques Poot of the national institute of demographic and economic analysis at the University of Waikato, baby boomers were born between 1945 and the early 1960s, Gen X between the early 1960s and early 1980s, millennials (also known as Gen Y) between the early 1980s and late 1990s and Gen Z between the late 1990s and the present.

"Once you have defined a 'gen'," Poot says, "it is straightforward to take Statistics New Zealand census data by single year of age and calculate 'the average' outcome/characteristic for the group you have defined as a particular gen."

That is the sort of boring academic talk that will never get you a job in the marketing department of a large international perfume brand, or a position as a pithy cultural commentator at some website that millennials will largely ignore, in spite of the amount of time it spends discussing them. Much better to say that millennials are unhealthily obsessed with technology and themselves, that they are entitled and shallow and, from those conclusions, determine the best way to sell them perfume.

Alan France, professor of sociology at the University of Auckland, says the catch-all nature of the term "millennial" ignores important divisions within that group. "Is there any validity to it?" he asks. "I would argue that there isn't."

Of particular concern to him is that young people with more economic, social and cultural resources are vastly better equipped than others of their age to deal with the challenges of life.

"The problem with labels like that is they make young people into a homogenous grouping - 'this is what young people are' - and are a denial of the diversity within the young. To construct a generation around those terms as if it's a universal trait is enormously problematic. Young people are enthusiastic, clever, creative, political. It denies that and suggests the next generation are in some ways not those things."

France says things are getting harder for the young. More job creation is happening in low-skilled areas with low pay, insecure work and non-standard hours. OECD research shows that young people were hit hardest by the GFC and that inequality between the young and old has been growing. Youth incomes have dropped massively while those of people aged 65 and over have remained stable or, in some cases, grown. Young people can't afford to move out of home, particularly in Auckland, and are having to reconsider relationships with friends and family as a result of continuing to live with their parents.

Some parents help their children buy houses, pay university fees, get them good internships, provide access to professional networks. Others, with fewer resources, are unable to offer this support. A long-term study of children born in Dunedin in 1972/3 has shown that massive inequalities among the group were established by the age of 38, with those from wealthy families able to maintain their advantage.

"It would seem to me," France says, "that it is not a coincidence that youth suicide in New Zealand is one of the highest among the OECD countries, or that we are seeing a massive increase of young people with mental health problems, or that we are seeing an increased number of young people living on the streets. It is tough out there for large sections of young people."

21-year-old Jamie Beaton is studying at Harvard University where, all things going well, he will this year finish his degree in applied mathematics and economics under his thesis adviser, Larry Summers, the former secretary of the United States Treasury and former chief economic adviser to President Obama.

Jamie Beaton with his mother Paula Beaton and grandfather John Beaton at St Heliers beach in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring
Jamie Beaton with his mother Paula Beaton and grandfather John Beaton at St Heliers beach in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

He continues to run Crimson Consulting, the mentoring and tutoring company he started, which was last year valued at US$50 million when its second funding round raised $5 million, and he also works as an analyst for Julian Robertson's New York hedge fund Tiger Management.

Beaton's grandfather, John Beaton, 87, arrived in New Zealand from Scotland in 1954 seeking a better life. He settled in Otahuhu, where he worked as a welder. His wife worked for many years at the Tip Top icecream factory. They had two children, including Paula, Beaton's mum.

"I wanted Paula to work with her brain, which she did, and not do something manual," John says.

"They were a very supportive family," Paula says. "They were very proud that they were flourishing in New Zealand and they wanted me to perpetuate that. There was this saying, 'Make the most of opportunities'."

Paula attended Epsom Girls' Grammar, went to university and started her own body corporate management business. As a child, Beaton went with his mother to business meetings and played with Lego while she negotiated. Later, he went to Saint Kentigern Boys' School.

At King's College, he was consistently among the top two or three students and he graduated as dux.

Jamie Beaton, aged 4, 1999.
Jamie Beaton, aged 4, 1999.

Paula says: "I think he's a product of where I came from. My mum and dad immigrated from Britain with the sole purpose of getting into an education system that was merit-based. I tried to seize every opportunity and really enjoyed it. Rather than anyone wanting me to follow in my parents' footsteps, I was encouraged to leap ahead and I think I've been responsible in some small part in encouraging Jamie to leap ahead. Once you grasp the logic, the logic is that you can do anything."

Beaton says: "I see the leap of faith my grandad took and the really tangible example of my mum, diving into education, building her own business and everything. I feel like I sort of need to, I won't say beat it ..."

"I want you to beat it!" his mum interjected.

He continues: "I definitely feel that the way this family has the three generations, I can see the clear progression and definitely feel the obligation to carry the mantle forward."

His business, Crimson Consulting, helps talented students find their way into Ivy League and other prestigious academic institutions, making use of a network of 300 consultants around the world, mentoring and tutoring via Skype, 24/7. It's a service of its time; it couldn't have existed in any other era.

Beaton says he never expected he would get into Harvard, but times have changed. "The concept of elitism in these places - our family is a good testament to that - it's not true anymore. You can meritocratically aspire to go to these places and get there and make it work with the sort of funding available."

He says being in an environment like Harvard, where students are surrounded by intelligent, ambitious people, pushes talented students a lot more than if they were the strongest achievers in a lesser school: "I'm a very big believer that the environment you get put in defines who you are," he says.

The thing that makes Paula proudest of her son is not the fact he's studying for his masters at Harvard under a world famous economist, nor that he's working at a leading New York hedge fund for a world famous billionaire, nor that he's just gained entry to the Stanford MBA programme, one of the most competitive in the world - it's that he wants to change the world for the better.

"I'm so, so proud of that," she says. "He's opening up the world, delivering a product, delivering a service that is going to improve people's lives. Oh, I'm so proud of that."

Ambition comes in a number of flavours though, and there are many ways to improve people's lives.

"What do you want for Jamie?" I ask his grandfather.

"Prime Minister," he replied. "That's what he wants."

"Do you think he'll do it?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah," he said.

"We just don't doubt it," his mother said.

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