“Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” I don’t know what descriptors you would choose to describe this young adult generation, but a recently published study by the Pew Research Center lauds current 18- to 29-year-olds for optimism and adaptability in an age of economic uncertainty. I don’t know how much I agree with those labels; I certainly felt more pegged by Christian Smith‘s sociological observations of this generation as wandering and noncommittal. I was, however, very intrigued by the study’s comparisons of the Millennial Generation with preceding generations — in particular, what makes us, well, us. The study outlined a number of our generation’s distinguishing trademarks, including religious conviction, education, employment, political identity, and social values.
But our generation’s #1 self-professed distinguishing characteristic? Our use of technology.
In fact, no other generation came close to giving a unified response to their generation’s calling card compared with ours. Nearly 1 in 4 Millennials claimed our use of technology as our standout quality. “It’s not just their gadgets — it’s the way they’ve fused their social lives into them,” says the site’s executive summary of the report. We sleep next to our phones, use social media sites, text while driving — and are more likely to do these if we have a college education (see page 25). In addition, more Millennials than not think that our use of technology integrates people rather than isolating them.
I think such ubiquitous technological connectivity creates a complex problem for our self-identities. If the use of technology really is a distinguishing element for our generation — and the statistics in this study indicate that it is — then we won’t fit into our own worlds. Think about social media. Facebook and chat rooms and even blogs remove spatial barriers and connect us with people around the globe. My cell phone means that friends around the country are just a quick text away. And yet as connected as I am, my world becomes ridiculously small — about the size of my cell phone or my laptop.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’ve been recognizing a lack of community in my life. I have been a part of some unbelievably close communities in the past, which can make the absence of a strong community even more difficult. My beautiful friend Heidi wrote about this recently. And I’ve realized that, for me anyway, social media gives an illusion of community that isn’t really there. I LOVE connecting with old friends on facebook. I appreciate the photos of new babies and weddings. But if these things distract me from investing in the living, breathing human beings around me, then it’s to my detriment. You might be thinking, “Duh,” (or something much more intellectual) but here’s the problem: most of my best friends in the world are accessible only through these mediums. And that’s where social media can become an attractive, seemingly viable way of maintaining some semblance of community.
But it occurred to me today that the deep communities in my life have always been just the right size. Somehow these crazy inventions called cell phones and laptops make my world both incredibly big and incredibly small. But my past communities — 14 girls in a dorm, 10 students in Gulfport, 7 friends in an apartment commune — have never been under or oversized. And I think that God fits those people around us. I’m not sure where he’ll bring them from this time — but I know they’ll be the perfect fit.