How to Write the Worst Possible Column About Millennials

Reuters

So, you've committed to writing an anxious and hand-wringing newspaper column about the State of Millennials. Congratulations! But be warned. You are working within a highly competitive sub-industry of journalism, so it's important to distinguish yourself in both style and substance, like this archetypal column today in the Boston Globe.

First, establish a connection with your readers through the use of common, vapid tropes about spoiled young people refusing to work because they just don't want to. "A generation of idle trophy kids" is a perfectly cast headline for your purposes. "A millennial in the basement" reference in the first sentence and an "amiable, tech-savvy, yet minimally employable crop of Americans who will ultimately need more subsidies than a dairy farmer" in the second? This is a good way to preview your careful analysis of underemployment.

But don't rest on that snappy lede. Build on its foundation with a smart and useful analogy for today's economy, such as the plague-ridden, undeveloped swamplands of 17th century pre-industrial Virginia.

In colonial times, nine out of 10 people worked on food production, hence John Smith’s famous edict at Jamestown: “He who works not, eats not.” (There was no enabling 99-cent value menu then.) The millennials, alas, are trophy kids, a generation spawned not for their usefulness at harvest but because they look so precious in those matching pajamas from Hanna Andersson.

Millennials can't hoe their own grain, or fix a proper meat pudding, and God help them around a common stew pot. These are real and urgent shortcomings, and they deserve greater attention in future columns.

Third, and this is really key, pretend that every member of this 85-million-person generation grew up in a fabricated life-size playhouse on the set of Hannah Montana. "Matching pajamas from Hanna Andersson" was a nice start, but you can go so much deeper. "Four-car garages, master suites, and cathedral ceilings"—that is a good description of everybody's house now. Blame today's high youth unemployment on "their parents’ success" and suggest they're not actually trying to find work because "they’re already livin’ the dream."

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But remember: What you put into the column is just as important as what you leave out.

By no means should you let the reader think that the Millennial generation is anything more than a uniform blob of rich, self-righteous idleness. If you start with the details—for example, that 80 percent of this generation's parents didn't go to college, or that 60 percent of them grew up in households making less than $50,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars—you'll only confuse people into thinking that not every family buys matching Hanna Andersson pajamas for Christmas.

Talk as little about the Great Recession as possible. This is the most educated generation in American history and the only group for whom real wages fell in the three years after the recession began. These facts have the danger of making readers think that Millennials are wisely investing in their human capital when the opportunity cost of leaving the workforce is historically low. 

But above all, studiously avoid that fact that 6 million idle Millennials, which amounts to a 15 percent unemployment rate, is totally unremarkable in this economy. Youth unemployment tends to be about 2x the national average going back to 1970, in good times and bad (see the graph below of youth/national unemployment). Today it's ... about 2x. In other words, young people are suffering from perfectly predictable multiples of youth unemployment, just like the generations before us did in the 1970s and early 1980s. Definitely ignore this point if you're going with idle basement-dwellers in the opening lines.

In sum, there is only one type of young person, her parents are super-rich, and they reside in a great big house with expensive PJs and an awesome couch to live on forever. There is, it would seem, no American species more tediously homogenous or more consistently inept than the Millennial generation. That is, perhaps, except for the columnists who write about them.

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.


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