by Emily Enger
The practice of comparing oneself to your neighbor is not a new problem. Self-comparison has its roots in jealousy and envy; caution against such things dates way back to the biblical commandment against coveting and can possibly be found in folklore that dates even earlier.
So to say society’s comparison problem is purely a Millennial issue would be untrue. But envy has taken on a new skin in recent years and influences my entire generation in a way not seen before.
Throughout history, comparison looked something like this: Your mom is hosting Thanksgiving this year. Last year, Aunt Ada hosted and despite age and arthritis, she had festive decorations and a gorgeous table spread that could have been the cover of Better Homes & Gardens. Amidst all the hustle of cleaning and preparing, your mom keeps buying expensive items she’ll never use again and lamenting that there isn’t a big basement for the kids to go play in, like Ada’s house had. She even suggested a remodel project a few months back in preparation. Your dad is ready to file for bankruptcy or divorce. When you spoke to her on the phone last time, you reminded her that no one actually cared what her house looked like and somehow, instead of helping, that actually hurt her feelings.
Comparison has always been frustrating to everyone in its vicinity, but it also was often temporary. As soon as Thanksgiving ends, your mom will return to herself for a while, until the next envy-inducing event pops up. The whole thing will become a funny story to tell in a few years.
Enter the 21st century and the age of instant communication. It’s like never leaving Aunt Ada’s house. Millennials have never been able to get away from the world around us, so when we compare ourselves with others, we stay jealous permanently.
The most obvious culprit for this change in habit is social media. My friends’ carefully curated Facebook profiles can certainly make me wonder if I’m doing life right. But it extends beyond that. Millennials grew up with cable news. My parents often had reporters and pundits playing as background noise on the TV or radio. That had the opposite message of social media — most of the news was negative, not positive — but it still kept me in a mindset of seeing my situations measured against the world.
Then there’s just the internet in general, and the many ways cell phones and other technology enables us to over-communicate and over-share. Even as these tools can bring about positive traits in people, they still have their roots in comparison. A text from a friend about a local tragedy or a trending news topic online can make me feel sympathy or gratitude for my own life, but only in relation to what someone else is going through. Contentment for contentment’s sake just doesn’t exist.
Your mom had built-in excuses for not having everything Aunt Ada had. Myself and my peers do not, because the information age has given us everything. If we don’t do or have or know what everyone else does, it is because we refused to look. For the first time in history, it is actually harder to ignore something than to research it. And so Millennials feel like we are dumb if we don’t know something.
Growing up in a world of “everybody wins” sports and attitudes relating thereto, Millennials were rarely praised for their talents as individuals. We were told we were ‘special’, certainly, but also that our best friend was special and our neighbor was special, and our nemesis in high school was special. If you look at social media you can see a distinct thirst to be noticed. After all, what is social media, but self-aggrandizement? In lieu of anyone else praising us, we began to brag about ourselves!
It might appear to be a contradiction — how can we want to be individuals at the same time that we constantly struggle to be like our friends? Because even as we compare ourselves with others, we are also hoping to out-do our friends. That is what comparison is, and always has been. Even your mom never wanted the same respect as Ada had — deep down, she wanted the family to be so impressed with her, they forgot all about Ada.
The comparison issue among Millennials may seem interesting, but what does it mean for you as a business person? How does it apply? That depends on your position with Millennials.
If Millennials are your employees, or your children or grandchildren working in the family business, this is something to be aware of and watch for. As a boss, how can you encourage your Millennial to realize that his or her actions have merit regardless of surrounding circumstances?
If Millennials are your customers, this angle is important marketing news. To target young people, don’t try getting your products to everyone in the generation. Your goal can simply be to get a handful of Millennials as regular customers. Trust me – if you can get a few, all the rest will follow.
Emily Enger is a millennial farm kid turned farm journalist. She also works in marketing, serving as Communications Director for a nonprofit that covers nine rural counties in northern Minnesota. These opinions are her own and should not take the place of legal or professional advice. To comment or pitch future topics, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For reprint permission, email editor Joan Kark-Wren at email@example.com.
Millennial Mysteries: The Envy Generation
by Emily Enger