by: Carole Symer

An attempt to slow down the conversation, to contemplate the emotional shadows flickering in the room in the real-time space between us. An examination of the enigmatic ways of the intellectually precocious, ambitious and globally aware Trailing Millennials…

As a psychologist practicing in a university town, I work primarily with eighteen to twenty-four year olds. These students are commonly referred to as Trailing Millennials. Varied by race, class and gender, they are often intellectually precocious, ambitious and globally aware. At the same time, they are hyper-focused on grade point averages, future incomes, and “getting it right’ on paper and social media. As one millennial put it, “relationships come and go, but grade point averages are forever.”    

Trailing Millennials are also the generation most likely to use social media to navigate their hunt for jobs, money, and love. And in doing so, they have left scads of data and selfie-portraits showing us where their interests lie. Still, there’s much to sort out with regard to which forces have shaped their interests most strongly: parents, economy, biology, or digital technologies. Shifts in parenting and education practices have groomed these kids. Aging baby boomer parents, involved as they are, report difficulty relating to their selfie children. Perhaps it’s a cross-generational paradox, given that aging boomer parents were once called the “me generation.” A defining characteristic of the boomers’ youth was their ambivalence toward authority and derivatives of this show up in their ambivalence as parents, refusing the role of authority while anxiously hovering in the wings of their kids’ first efforts. Poets and philosophers long before Freud might link boomer parent’s ambivalence to our shared ancestral march — the wish for our children to surpass us, while fearing they will do so.

But is generational rivalry what now resurfaces in the millennials’ chases for the perfect grade point average? Society’s narrowing emphasis on test scores over critical thinking has had its lingering effect as well. So, too, has coming of age during a time of great economic uncertainty. Reality bites hard and fast as college loan offices come knocking and the sad truth is that there are no guarantees that these students will find jobs even if they work hard and test well.

Biology plays its role, too. These Trailing Millennials often struggle to regulate their thoughts and feelings. Their still tender age accounts for some of their difficulty with emotional regulation. They are sensitive and apt to react quickly. Neurobiologists have linked these regulatory challenges to their overactive limbic systems and not-yet-fully-developed frontal lobes. These are the brain areas vital for sustaining attention and relatedness, as well as synthesizing higher-level learning needed to succeed in college and think about careers. The gift of time isn’t enough. The white matter that needs to get laid down in their frontal lobes to calm their fiery hormones depends on enriching spaces to support new growth. But learning does not happen in a social vacuum. These kids need to be surrounded by people spotting them in their reaches for new skills. Here’s where it gets tricky for this age and this generation. With shrinking spaces to practice conversation in real-time, free from cyberspace, it’s no wonder these students are uncomfortable with silence and the messiness of relationships.          

It is also no wonder that Trailing Millennials feel vulnerable. One running thread in the stories I hear highlights the tensions they feel trying to balance cyber-realities with their actual reality. On another feedline, they are conscious of feeling hemmed in by parents and societal demands to do more. Nevertheless, their optimism has a way of breaking through these pressures. Limitless access to people and data on digital technology has likely fueled them and these cyber-realities offer compelling spaces that are hard to resist.     

As I listen to this younger generation trying to sort through these developmental challenges, I’ve begun thinking of their vulnerabilities as existing on a double register — in their bodies and in their social landscapes. On the social register, they try to keep pace with the new norms and defy the limits of their intelligence and biology. They play at their adult performances with impressive determination. Parents, educators, and even therapists have aided and abetted them in their strivings for precocity, glorifying adulthood as the answer to their proverbial imperfections.

At the same time, on the somatic or physical register, millennials want to be okay in their bodies, relax into being, and to not have to feign competence before they’re ready. Yoga helps, but the degree of stress and uncertainty I see in their faces has me pushing back on terms like “post-adolescent” and “emerging adult.” These terms don’t fit millennials’ lived experiences. Even more, such descriptors seem to be code for an aversion society has to their vulnerability. In the effort to move millennials along in development, there’s something special that gets missed: having a limited number of years and letting them really count for what they are and not for what they could lead to that needs savoring. Given the applause they receive for hyper-competence, is it any wonder that some millennials speak of their minds as if they are commodity-things they can control with the flip of a switch? Medications like Adderall, Ritalin and Concerta used to treat Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders are also increasingly abused by these students to enhance their energy and concentration while studying late into the night. These licit pills entrap non-ADHD students into a vicious cycle of addiction, padding their illusions about achieving perfection. A close second to marijuana and Adderall as the drug-of-choice for millennials is painkillers; over 12% of college-aged students have abused prescription opioids, according to recent statistics by the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Despite their insistence that their bodies and intellectual limits are easily by-passable through drugs and unlimited access to the digital world, I hear their yearnings for embodied connections. To anchor themselves onto something where they can just be, to gain more practice at relating with others, tap the body’s imagination and dream the world big. They also need a chance to resist disillusioning reality before settling for life’s tedium.              

A copy of Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation was on my side table when Emma walked into my office. She glanced at the book and sighed. “Why’d I think coming to therapy today would transport me from my life for an hour?” Emma was trying to write an essay about Turkle’s research. She said, “Yeah, okay. So she’s proven that parents are as distracted by their iPhones as their kids are. Old news. But the idea that in-person communication is indispensable in the workplace is totes ridic. I mean, seriously. What difference will face-to-face conversation have if I major in pre-med or international business? Both fields are completely digitized now anyway.”     

Registering her frustration, I commented on what a coincidence it was that we were both reading Turkle, and then asked about her paper. Emma outlined her thesis on the impact of screen-time on innovative start-ups by millennials raised by immigrant parents, which she planned to eventually translate into French, her mother’s mother tongue, to post on her latest WeChat blog. I admired how much this nineteen-year-old had gleaned from her reading to form her argument, and I told her so. But she admitted that she’d given up after the first chapter, relying instead on lecture notes, adding that her professor had instructed his students as to which arguments to make, and that her mother was waiting to edit her draft. So, as she assured me, her anxiety about the paper was unwarranted.       

I nodded and agreed with her that Turkle’s thesis about the power of face-to-face conversation in so-called real-time is a hard sell in a world wanting fresh ideas to appear with the efficiency of fast search engines. Then, I added, “Seems like you are having trouble believing that…”

“Like why go through the trouble and be disappointed?” she asked. “More like devastated.”       

“I guess it’s hard to appreciate that an argument takes time to develop. There may not be any obvious benefits for a while. As Turkle might put it: “will it be worth the struggle to give voice to our unedited selves?”

“You got that right.” She reached for her phone to silence a text tone, rolling her eyes.  “Sorry. It’s my mom. She has the patience of a flea.” Her face returned quickly to an impressive poise.

As I listened for Emma’s next response, I started to think that in her reach to feel calm (or at least to distance herself from struggling with her paper on Turkle) she was foreclosing on the emotional friction needed to develop her own voice. I found myself in a bind when she added that her mother would probably “rewrite” her essay. The lilt in her voice flattened as she announced, “She’s obsessive about grammar and eager to edit anything that’s not a pile of pharmaceutical reports.”  

“That’s awfully good of you to help her out,” I said, knowing that Emma felt her mother to be an “asexual, nut-job who takes helicopter parenting to a whole new level.” I softened the irony of my comment, adding “How will you find your own voice when you have a professor and a mom telling you what to think and how to punctuate it?

At this point, Emma re-introduced her “problem of undecidability” — the catalyst that had brought her to therapy. She described how she felt torn between wanting to spend August touring Provence with her new besties, whom she had met on a chat app, but not yet in-person, or helping her mom move her grandma into an assisted living facility. “All my friends feel caught, like me, between what we want versus how we should serve humanity.”

I said something like, “Ah, the delicious uncertainty of young adulthood,” smiling reminiscently. As soon as I spoke I realized how quaint my view might sound to someone coming of age post-2000. Emma and her peers construct their futures (their wishes) in cyberspace, morphing through a steady-feed of edited selfies, creating an evolving epic, only to be replaced by the next episode or epic.

Emma looked at me blankly.    

“Sorry for waxing nostalgic for a second there, Emma. I know, I know. Gone are the futures co-edited by parents on payphones or talked out in dorm lounges in messy real time.” I raised my left eyebrow and shook my head, feeling a little embarrassed.

Emma tilted her head to one side but her face remained still, motionless, without so much as a flicker of emotion. The medium in which Emma and her peers live generates a vast tangle of exchanges that has me listening more closely. Yet, at the same time, listening to these millennials, alive and in-person like Emma, is not always easy. Their attachment to technology has already had a dulling effect, making for their apparent lack of grit, and making it especially hard to locate oneself as a therapist in real time, in reality, with them. Millennials appear satisfied with their connections to “friends” to whom they don’t have to reveal much. Yet, conversely, they struggle to tolerate boredom, lulls in conversation, and intimacy in relationships, making it hard to locate desire itself in real time or cyber-reality.

Emma’s cell phone vibrated and she turned again toward it. “Jeeze. She knows I’m in therapy. She just can’t help herself.” Without so much as lifting her gaze from her phone, Emma returned to the topic of her mother and said, “Mom isn’t good with emotions and dealing with Gramma is more than she can bear on her own. On the other hand, how will it be if all I can say about my summer is that I stayed home to help mom?” Curious about the conflicting desires I was hearing, I asked Emma about her use of the word “undecidability.” Was this a feeling of anxiety or an expression of her freedom to “undecide?”      

“Huh? Well…maybe both. College has been a complete immersion in Western thought, and I’m thinking about hanging out in Europe for the summer?”       

I heard myself say, “Sounds nice,” in an effort to shore up what sounded like desire trying to break free from Emma’s self-doubt.

Emma then said, “But I wanna shout out to myself, ‘Girl, get real!’” She looked convincingly melancholic for an instant, before the feeling sank into quicksand. Still, I wondered about her self-reproach. She said, “If I can’t figure out August, how can I make a life?”     

“What do you want?” I asked.

She looked at me quizzically.

I followed up, “You know, like what gets you jazzed? What’s your expectation of people and relationships?”  

“Whoa! I’m working hard to manage my expectations.” She gave a startled look she didn’t shake off.  

“Contrary to the ‘friction-free life’ we’ve been promised by social media sites, with networking threads appearing manageable by the click of a key, online relating is messy too, Emma. Sure, there’s the novelty and excitement of learning a different language and culture in cyberspace, with expansive views of spectacular-looking others. But these digitized rooms are moving us into interpersonal arenas with new relationship demands we still have to sort through and manage.”

Emma looked unmoved. I just sat and waited. Part of the task I take on when working with this generation is the need to slow down the conversation, to contemplate the emotional shadows flickering in the room in the real-time space between us. I sat some more. Emma would still need to locate her feelings about her grammatically-judgy mom — not just manage her difficulty with her own ambition by letting her mother write her paper.    

It may have sounded like a non-sequitur, but I asked Emma something like, “What would Turkle say about how our expectations for romance and work, even our perceptions of our mother’s bodies, are now managed through online data science?”

This loosened something in Emma. “Who knew anyone read Turkle to figure out mothers?” Her eyes welled-up with tears.   

I said, “it’s a lose-lose dilemma if we take our mothers’ wishes to edit our very selves literally.” I added, “They can’t know what we want, and we can’t want what we want if the space to imagine ourselves into our futures is already pre-designed for us.”  

Emma wept. When words came, they tumbled out: “I struggle hard trying to not need my mother, let alone feel feelings. I know she means well, but with her it’s about daily data sets and practicality.” Emma showed a strained, thin smile.

“What do you wish for her?”

“I wish she had time to paint or do something with her hands…anything besides grabbing at my life.”    

Somehow “Buy her paint” felt too pat, but I said it anyway. Emma laughed, repeating my words with a tone of mockery and relief. By the session’s end, I was glad we had found her a space where she could begin reflecting on her desires. We would still need to help Emma declare her beautiful, irrepressible voice. In good time. As she left, she surveyed my bookshelf.

“Wait a sec! Level 2 Mandarin?”

I shrugged, “Caught.”

She gave a wry smile, “How very practical of you.” A half a dozen retorts came rushing to mind, but I decided to hold off interpreting her thoughts. Instead, that day, I let my reading of Turkle — in whatever language — be hers to edit.

Somewhere in the folds of a Trailing Millennial’s mind lies desire. Between the thirst for social connection and an uneasiness about intimacy are the memories of feeling jazzed about something. The desire to play, grow curious, nab resources, fend off rivals, and nurture life — especially the germ of a new idea — are deeply emotional, as well as relational and ancestral, located in our brain’s earliest stories. Listening to the leftover lusts from childhood, encrypted in the body’s memory, and not just in cyber chatter and schooling, takes more than time. Yearnings for a bigger, better world, outside of our known selves, need practice and pruning.

Some will sort these things out without much setback, striking precocious poses between living offline and cyber-relating until they get there. Others will reach for drugs, alcohol and pornography to calm their overactive limbic systems and underdeveloped frontal lobes. Still others will find their way to therapists who will listen and wait with them as they take the occasion to acquire their own voices and practice their first intimate relationships, offline and outside their families. Interest in the smell of people, the sound of one’s own breath, the feeling of when the heart skips a beat in response to the proximity of another is a start. But many will get stopped by fears about their desirability; these are the cohort who can scarcely imagine life without a constant digitized feed of ‘likes’ from social media friends cheering them on in love and school work. Some will let go of the predictability of grades for the uncertainty that comes from growing love or playing with an idea that wasn’t part of their curriculum. In the meantime, those of us who form the other generation have as much to learn from them as they will from us, if we take the time to listen deeply, offer empathy, and make the space to converse with them both digitally and face-to-face, unedited.      


Carole Symer is a neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Ann Arbor. She teaches and supervises counselors and therapists at New York University, Michigan Council for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and the Relational Psychotherapy Group of Ann Arbor. She also serves on the Committee for Ethnicity, Race, Culture, Class and Language at New York University’s Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy that she helped found.

  Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

0 replies on “Selfie-Interests”