Millennials broadly refer to youth born in the 1980s and 1990s. They came of age at the turn of the new millennium.
But when commentators describe Filipino youth as millennials, they typically refer to a very specific segment of our population. Millennials are characterized as young people who are educated, tech-savvy, well travelled, and cosmopolitan with their choices in life.
Market researchers and advertisers are naturally interested in them as a target demographic.
But they too reinforce the stereotype that they are highly mobile and readily willing to transfer from one job to another.
But there’s a problem. These are, of course, young people who come from affluent backgrounds with a lifestyle that affords them to experience the best the world has to offer.
Eat, pray, love
To use the title of a hit movie, these millennials can choose to eat, pray, and love. Theirs is a disposition that is not only consumerist but also willing to encounter new discoveries. After all, the affluence of the Philippine economy – thanks to booming industries and OFW remittances – has given birth to a segment of young people who can afford an experimental lifestyle.
Although their disposition is thoroughly individualistic, they are not necessarily egocentric. Older people might find them selfish because, as studies show, millennials especially in the West “want it all” and they “want it now.” This explains their insatiable drive for new gadgets, clubbing, travel, rewarding jobs, and even designer drugs.
But they are not self-seeking. They want occupations that give them meaning. Passion is a tangible virtue for them. And in many cases, their passion is about making a positive difference in the world. That’s why they have many passion projects. After all, YOLO.
Passion, experience, adventure, and meaning. These are just some of the words that define today’s millennial.
But something is amiss with this caricature.
When generations are described wholesale – as Baby Boomers, Gen X, or Millennials commentators in the Philippines commit at least two mistakes. First, these categories are directly imported from Western societies with their own historical conditions that shaped the consciousness of their young people as they were growing up. Filipino youth, having been born in the 1980s and 1990s, surely have their own social conditions. Many of them are not aware of Martial Law. Many of them are children of OFWs.
Second, commentators run the risk of essentializing young people by using such general categories. Essentialisms are problematic in sociological analysis because they impose only one way of understanding reality. Deviations are treated as outliers or abnormalities, which overlook other experiences that can enrich our understanding of social issues.
That is why from the point of view of the sociology of generations, observers need to underscore not only the dominant youth culture. We need to recognize other groups or segments of young people who may have undergone very different experiences even if they may belong to the same age group. Karl Mannheim, a classical thinker in the sociology of generations, calls these other groups generational units.
In this light, to call Filipino youth millennials conceals more than it reveals.
The complex picture
Ours is a very young population. Half of Filipinos in 2015 were younger than 25. As they will shape our future, young people need to be understood well.
Official unemployment statistics are revealing. While the total unemployment rate is declining, it is remarkable that as of April 2016, 50% of the unemployed are 15 to 24 years old. 28% come from the 25-34 age group.
Unemployment, in other words, hits our youth more than it does any other age groups.
For the lucky ones who found employment, the skills for which they trained at university may not match their current occupation. Students typically enroll in such courses as engineering, information technology, and business administration. But 80% of jobs generated in the past 6 years are in the service sector, which includes BPO, tourism, and retail.
The findings of the National Youth Assessment Study 2015 are also instructive. The study, sponsored by the National Youth Commission, profiles the needs, attitudes, and economic state of Filipino youth aged 15-30 years old.
70.2% reported that their household income on average is less than P10,000. 18.8% of households are recipients of 4Ps, which means they are indigents. 42.5% of surveyed youth are hoping for a job within the next five years. Among those who are employed, 26.2% indicated that their occupation poses some form of hazard to their health.
These basic economic data suggest that many of our youth are not as upwardly mobile as we thought they were. They have a very limited lifestyle.
Given this complex picture, characterizing the Filipino youth as millennials is a mistake. Affluent youth, after all, constitute only a very small proportion of young Filipinos. In urban centers like Manila and Cebu, we might take this for granted. Malls, cafes, and condominiums have become youthful spaces adjacent to universities and hipster offices.
But in the rest of the country, the opportunity to travel, set up enterprises, and pursue passion projects is not as widespread as we are led to believe. They are faced with barriers to relevant education, decent employment, and other entitlements that could enhance their prospects about the future.
Maybe I am a party pooper, but we need to be cautious when we refer to the Filipino youth as millennials. My view is this: Not all Filipino youth are millennial insofar as their experiences and life chances are concerned.
So when commentators celebrate their independence, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit, they neglect the struggles of many other youth in our society. Purpose, adventure, experience, and meaning are buzzwords that matter only to young people who have the resources and time for such things.
Vulnerable youth, on the other hand, lead lives of precarity, risk, and social exclusion. They are not adventurous. They take risks simply in the hope of a better chance at life.
If we really wanted to make a difference in the lives of our youth today, we need to recognize not just their aspirations. We need to confront the barriers that make it difficult for them to achieve their dreams.
Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist and the director of the Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University. With Dr Clarence Batan, he recently convened #Kabataan Ngayon: A Workshop on Youth and Social Change at the University of Santo Tomas. He is also the author of Being Catholic in the Contemporary Philippines: Young People Reinterpreting Religion (Routledge, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.