Sick and tired of the "snowflake" generation? You have only yourself to blame, writes Paul Little.

In the days following the election of Donald Trump as US president, thousands demonstrated against the result.

Some looked at these crowds and saw free speech at work. Others saw a pack of whiny millennials, so used to getting their own way they couldn't accept the legal result and took to the streets to throw their toys about.

We hear a lot about what's wrong with the millennial generation - roughly, those born between 1982 and 2002, so aged between 15-35.

The stereotype of the millennial includes: snowflakes who can't risk grazing a knee; minimal interest in permanent employment; inability to live apart from their parents; inflated self-esteem; short attention spans; a lack of life skills; certificates for taking part; entitlement; cellphone addiction; permanent adolescence; brand-obsession; political apathy.


How much of this is true?

Quite a lot.

Is it all bad? Not necessarily.

But what made the millennials? Three things: their baby boomer parents, new technology and the economy.

As for the first, according to US-born Professor Paul Jose of Victoria University's school of psychology the West has seen a trend toward "more permissive parenting along the lines of being warm and attentive and providing lots of opportunities for kids to develop and entertain themselves". Or as harsher critics have put it: helicopter parents have raised a generation of precious little snowflakes.

But Jose gives New Zealand parents a high score for common sense.

"New Zealanders are more balanced than many of them think from a worldwide perspective," he says.

"There's a big gulf between being prudent and overprotective. I see New Zealand children and adolescents getting appropriate training and experimentation and getting permission to fail."

James Beck manages the Parenting Place's Attitude programme for schools. He has spent his life "working with millennials or for millennials".

In fact, having been born in 1986, he is a millennial.

Beck agrees the self-esteem movement has played a part in shaping his generation: "If you spent your whole life being told you're special, you might end up believing it."

And he has seen the generation gap obliterated by parents "wanting to be their kids' friends - hang out with them and share their music and clothes".

He suggests this trend may be a reaction to the "far more archaic and violent" parenting of the generation who brought up the boomers.

They have reacted by raising children to be, in historical terms, civilised Athenians, not battle-hungry Spartans.

He says boomer mums and dads can confuse kids by acting as though parents are experts who should always have the final say, "but then go, 'Can you set up my phone'?"

Telling an 8-year-old they know more than their parents isn't the best message to send.

Family counsellor Diane Levy partly blames a move to accentuate the positive. "Instead of being able to bark at them," says Levy, "you had to rephrase things to: 'I like it when you listen to Mummy.' You weren't allowed to say don't and naughty or no."

And we discovered star charts that said: if you do this good thing, this is what will happen.

"And parenting became conditional," says Levy.

"In the previous generation, if a parent requested something, then that was what was going to happen. It was unconditional. Then we moved into negotiating. So it's no wonder children expect to be rewarded for breathing."

Boomer parents sometimes forget their children are different people from them.

"I remember running into a mother once," says Jan Pryor, retired adjunct professor at Auckland University School of Psychology. "I said, 'How are you?' and the mother said, 'We're really stressed because we have our French exam this afternoon'."

Retired adjunct professor at Auckland University School of Psychology Jan Pryor.
Retired adjunct professor at Auckland University School of Psychology Jan Pryor.

Pryor describes parents who are scared of their children. "They don't want to upset them. They feel insecure in whether their kids love them or not.

"Kids for that reason don't get the boundaries they need and when they don't get them, they push the boundaries and feel pretty insecure."

This can be exacerbated by separation or divorce, when both parents are worried if they discipline their child he or she will go and live with the other parent.

"There are awful stories of boys becoming quite dominant over mothers who won't stand up to them."

And with both parents working, there's less time to model the basic life skills that used to be acquired in the home.

Children whose parents barely have time to snatch something from the supermarket and get it on to a plate in the evening won't have time to teach their kids how to peel a potato.

Alongside the special psychology of boomer parents, society has thrown up numerous other influences in the form of new technology, often pointed to as a leading cause of the millennial malaise.

Young people took to the streets of Paris to protest Trump's recent Muslim ban. Photo / Getty Images
Young people took to the streets of Paris to protest Trump's recent Muslim ban. Photo / Getty Images

For one thing, social media makes it harder for kids to get away from helicopter parents, who follow their every digital move through cyber space. It has been pointed out, though, that many kids run parallel social media identities, one of which is invisible to parents.

Parents, in turn, bemoan their offspring's apparent inability to connect in the real world.

"Parents think it's horrible and that kids are losing social skills" says Beck.

"They don't see kids have developed a different set of social skills, in a world they're not fluent in. One linguist has said the art of conversation will be lost in 50 years. Another said this generation has come up with a new form of verbal language in less than a decade."

"I'm doing research on whether kids who text more are better or worse adjusted," says Jose.

"I'm finding adolescents in their generation who report that they text more - reported higher levels of good friendship. My data indicate texting is a means to end."

But Levy sees texting as enabling less accountability.

"It's not necessary to make a fixed arrangement and stick to it," she says. "It used to be you arranged to meet someone somewhere at three. Now whole groups can change arrangements. It's like watching a swarm of bees change direction. It makes for a lot less accountability and not sticking to arrangements."

Jose says the issues around Facebook are more concerning.

"People who are incipient narcissists can find a forum to let it bloom," he says.

"Facebook is a platform where you can have unhealthy characteristics come to the fore. The research is unsettled on that issue. My guess is a healthy individual will use it in a healthy way; if someone is depressed or angry they'll use it in those ways."

But there's no fighting the future: "The new world we're heading into is digitally mediated," says Jose.

"[Millennials] will have an advantage on that."

Improved medical technology may also be moulding the generation. Where is the pressure to grow up, pair off, settle down and conceive the next generation when you know that, as many millennials will find, your life span will be considerably longer than that of the generation before?

And what about the workers, or lack thereof, with millennials reluctant to join the workforce and settle into long-term careers? According to many experts, such careers have gone the way of MySpace and fax machines.

If you spent your whole life being told you're special, you might end up believing it.


"When I got trained to do a job, says Jose, "I expected to do it for life and it was clear cut. Today, it's less so. There may still be some professions like that, but things are changing rapidly.

"There are jobs that will disappear in five years, and new jobs that there is no credential for. That's the world our young people are facing, so I have a lot of sympathy for them."

If millennials seem to have difficulty focusing this may be because they are adaptable, which could prove to be the most useful skill of all as the jobs available continue to evolve and change.

"When you apply for a job it's credential-based," says Jose. "Do you have a credential or degree? But on top of that, or more important, is whether this is an adaptable person, because this job might change in a year."

Other economic factors include the difficulty of repaying student debt, resentment at paying for boomers' superannuation and, throwing everything out of kilter, the impossibility of buying a home in larger cities - although Beck cites "people in a place like Invercargill who have their first job, are paid next to nothing but have bought their first house with friends".

It could be just a matter of perspective.

"My impression of some of these young people is that though they seem entitled they're often self-confident," says Pryor.

"You can say they're unwilling to work hard, but they're also quite good on work-life balance."

"They're great at thinking of a better way to do things," says Beck.

"An organisation may have done something the same way for 20 years. The millennial knows there's an app that can do it."

Or perhaps it's just the eternal cycle of one generation bemoaning the state of the next.

"I don't have a lot of time for people who bash generations," says Jose.

"People are basically doing the best they can. It's not like they are inherently lazy or malicious. Young people today have a range of difficulties we need to empathise with."

The last word should probably go to Diane Levy's daughter, Deb. "I was grizzling about something going on in the family," says Levy, "and she hugged me and said, 'Don't worry, Mum. It's either nature or nurture, and either way that makes it your fault'."