Millennials and Utilitarianism

Maddi Cole

Period 6

May 5, 2016

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This current generation of millennials are the movers and shakers of the future.  I am a millennial myself, though some mid-twenties aged people would disagree with that, I have consulted three different sources and have come to the conclusion that the year 1997 is included in the range of millennials.  This all being stated, I have the right to speak from the perspective of the millennials.  There is a lot of talk about how millennials live, whether or not we are capable of taking the world into our own hands, and if this time we live in will be destructive to our lives in the future.  Are we happy? Are we useful? Do we contribute to society in a way that will not only benefit ourselves, but the majority? The millennial generation is quite the ambitious one.  We strive to achieve things that have never been done before, to break records, to invent new technology to further our world.  We want to do everything, but we also wish to gain pleasure and happiness while doing it.  This makes us stubborn.  Sometimes we can be confused about which we want more—happiness, or success? Though confused, we strive on, tripping and stumbling along the way.

I would like to relate John Stuart Mill’s essay on Utilitarianism back to the position of millennials living in the twenty first century.  John Stuart Mills begins by stating the simple fact that we all want happiness.  This is not surprising in the slightest.  Ask any person on the street what they want their lives to look like and you will most likely get an answer along of the lines of “I don’t quite know, all I want is to be happy”. We all have heard this a million times.  But, this happiness is not so easily gained.  For many people, simple happiness can be attained.  If we were to lower our standards to those of say, a dog, we would be content with running around the yard all day.  But it is not that simple for us stubborn kids.  Mill explains, “No intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base. . . “[1].  We want to be happy, but in an intelligent and motivating way.

I see this problem with a lot of younger millennials today.  This is especially pertinent when it comes to education.  College is almost mandatory today.  Okay, mandatory is a harsh word, but in order to really rise to the top, a teenager must go to college.  This is a standard that has not been so intense until semi recently.  I have heard adults talk about time and time again how they are so happy they are not applying to college right now.  Let’s face it, getting in to college is intimidating.  But, we millennials believe that going to college will lead to our eventual success and eventual happiness.  So, we enroll in countless hours of ACT/SAT prep.  We spend Saturdays working on essays and interviewing with reps.  We give up being a kid on the weekends in order to shape up our resumes with extracurricular activities and volunteer work.  But remember, all of this work is for our happiness.

I think millennials have a hard time deciding what will pay off in the end and what is a waste of time.  Mill states, “A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted”[2].  The millennials are a go go go generation.  We want to do everything all the time in order to not miss out on life.  As the cool kids say, we have serious FOMO(fear of missing out).  We sometimes do not realize that our continuous activity can lead to unhappiness in the future.  Taking a lazy day is not a common thing to do in the life of an active millennial.  The active millennial is always checking out the new hip restaurants, going to the music festivals, and studying to get into their next greatest school.  But sometimes, the sacrifice of all the continuous activity would help millennials to refresh, to enjoy the activity more, and to take pleasure in the simplicity of doing nothing.  Mill further explains this notion, stating, “If by happiness be meant a continuity of highly pleasurable excitement, it is evident enough that this is impossible”[3].  Millennials need to really understand this sentiment in order to live a more fulfilling life.

The Millennials have a new way of doing things, a way that is very different than that of our previous generation, made up primarily of our parents.  We are constantly told that we are a lazy generation, that we spend too much time on technology, and that we do not have the same powerful work ethic that the baby boomers possess.  There is a constant criticism towards the millennials by baby boomers, but it leads me to question why.  Why would such a large generation have such a tendency to criticize a generation that is doing so much?  The utilitarian ideology really enforces the value of living in peaceful association with our fellow people.  John Stuart Mill speaks about the firm foundation of utilitarianism which would lead to further happiness, but this requires the cooperation of not only one group of people, but all people.  He explains, “This firm foundation is that of the social feelings of mankind; the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures. . . and happily one of those which tend to become stronger. . . “[4].  If millennials and baby boomers were to work together, we all would work together in a perfect and peaceful unity.  But, because of the stubbornness displayed by both groups, there is still a break within our society that hinders our ability to grow at a very high potential rate.

I do question what Mill means by “the social feelings of mankind”.  I believe that in his eyes, he sees humans being social when they interact peacefully.  In my opinion, social does not always mean peaceful.  In fact, when a man is social, he usually interacts with people on all ends of the spectrum.  He is able to debate, to work, and to help others around him.  I can definitely say that the millennials are a socially equipped generation.  We are comprised of very opinionated young people who are not afraid to speak up and to share their opinions with others.  This is what makes us social.  So I agree with Mill that people are social beings, but I think the definition varies.

The millennials do wish to sacrifice for others, which is very much in line with the utilitarian morality.  Mill further defines utilitarianism by saying, “The utilitarian morality does recognize in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others”[5].  This is a generation who has spent years fighting for the rights of everyone, not just the select few.  We see movements such as Black Lives Matter being completely backed by the force of millennials.  There are young people right now willing to risk it all in order to fight for rights.  So many adults see the millennials as lazy and unwilling to work, but these revolutionary movements are not done just by sitting around.  They are fueled by the fire that burn within the millennial spirit.  There is a very strong desire among the young people to get out into the world and to make a difference, and I see that call being answered every day.

To close, baby boomers and older need to step back and take a look at this generation of people that they are so condemning.  The millennials are living by so many utilitarian laws of happiness.  While I cannot say that they are a perfect example of utilitarianism, for there are some real places where millennials do not match up at all, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism does help to explain some of the motives behind the millennial decisions.  At the end of the day, all we want is to be happy.  We want to live long lives filled with pleasure and excitement and sometimes rest, but we want to be happy above all.  A utilitarian lifestyle is something the millennials strive to be, but do not always succeed in living out.  Baby Boomers: take a second look at the generation that you are all so quick to condemn.

Photo Citation

  1. Bonnie Monych, “Millennials in Charge: How They’re Changing the Workplace,” Insperity, May 5, 2016, http://www.insperity.com/blog/millennials-in-charge-how-theyre-changing-the-workplace/.

[1] 1.  John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Kitchener: Batoche Books, 2001), 9-35.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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