I just watched a very engaging TED talk about millennials and all the things that are supposedly wrong with my generation, those born between 1980 and 2000. Apparently there are characteristics that we possess that are so different from the generations before, which affect how we live and work. People have started consultancies specialising in training companies on employing and getting the most out of millennials. Really, how special could a generation be? But all of this noise about millennials made me wonder how my “PhD personality” could be affected by the fact that I fall into this generation.

Apparently there isn’t much difference among millennials around the world.  “Each country’s millennials are different, but because of globalisation, social media, the exporting of Western culture and the speed of change, millennials worldwide are more similar to one another than to older generations within their nations”. And, looking at socioeconomics, “…these aren’t just rich-kid problems: poor millennials have even higher rates of narcissism, materialism and technology addiction in their ghetto-fabulous lives”. This is according to this very, very detailed Time article based on existing academic research on the millennial generation.

You’ve already had a little foreshadowing with that Time quote. Narcissism.  Materialism. Technology Addiction. There’s also laziness, entitlement and desire for instant gratification and recognition…If these things are real, I should recognise them and deal with the problem head on.

Take instant gratification and recognition for instance. If the need for constant gratification and recognition of one’s efforts is deeply entrenched in the millennial, then it might be problematic for our PhD completion journey. What we work for takes a few years to complete.  And along the way are research tasks that often take longer than we planned, challenging analysis, the frustrating writing process and so on. This leaves very little room for instant gratification. Which can very quickly lead to de-motivation.  But there are things which give us little wins along the way, depending on how you define that for yourself.  I experienced a huge boost in motivation when I published my first article from my first stream of data.  And every time I attend a conference, writing seminar or networking event I feel energised. They are little boosts along the way that make me stop and appreciate what I have already achieved, and look forward to more.

One of the positives that stand out to me is the collaborative spirit of millennials. It means that the future of science is in good hands then, with researchers that thrive in team work – joint grants, publications etc. And if millennials are really more liberal, open-minded and accepting of others it means we may expect and foster non-discriminative work environments and collaborations where all voices matter. I value diversity in my friendships, I like adding my voice to politicised public health issues (mostly through my Twitter, but it’s okay). Millennials are involved in decolonisation conversations not just about education but practice and power relations in public health/ science collaboration. There is a call to be exactly this type of millennial PhD. Our idealism and need to be seen makes us ideal candidates to bring visibility and traction to causes.

I was thinking the other day of how a simple thing like a community garden project actually contributes to the continuum of care, which is what my research is based on. This is a need I observe in my township and have read about similar projects elsewhere. Projects such as Siyakhana tie academic research to community projects that improve food security and social development. This is just one example; many more abound across the country and are just a Google search away. These projects address the poverty and malnutrition that lead to poor health among our people.  So it is important for us to be present, whether it is making an issue trend on social media or grass roots initiatives with big societal impact. Millennials are the ones for the job.

So here’s to millennials, may our optimism help us pick ourselves up when the PhD journey gets too hard. May our oversharing help us cope with life’s problems and change cultures for the better. May our fear of missing out keep us connected to important issues, and not just entertainment. And may we learn how to keep at it, and be a little bit patient. We need it. Especially for the PhD.

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