I can't just be myself where and when I want because anything I do has the potential to end up on some site somewhere where anyone can look at it and judge. I feel like I need to water down who I am. —Twenty-year-old Mariah Hanaike
SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty-year-old Mariah Hanaike waits in the disconcerting silence of a temporary employment agency lobby in Redwood City, Calif. Though the interview has not yet begun, Hanaike said she knows she is being scrutinized before she shakes the hand of a potential employer.
“You know the person your going to meet is somewhere close in the building preparing for you, maybe by looking you up on Facebook or Googling your name, possibly reading an embarrassing entry about you on your mom's blog or being surprised to not find you on LinkedIn,” said Hanaike.
“I can't just be myself where and when I want because anything I do has the potential to end up on some site somewhere where anyone can look at it and judge. I feel like I need to water down who I am.”
Millenials, the term given for those born between 1980 and 2000, may be suffering from an identity crisis as they search for their authentic self. According to a recent online study, 1 out of 4 millennials say they can only be their true self when alone. As today’s twenty-somethings create online identities to market themselves professionally, as well as socially, some fear that the disparity between the two can prevent a young person from finding authentic self-definition.
Living life publicly
As today's younger generation navigates the transition to adulthood, reconciling between online and offline identities can be difficult.
Nearly 25 percent of all millennials say they can only be their true self when alone, Belgium researcher Joeri Van den Bergh found.
In his book, "Millennials: How Cool Brands Stay Hot, Branding to Generation Y," Van den Bergh argues that authenticity is key for brands to connect with Millennials.
"The key concept behind authenticity is to stay true to yourself, so we wanted to know when Millennials stay true to themselves," he said.
Van den Bergh asked 4,056 people, ages 15 to 25, when they felt they were or weren't being authentic online or offline, with friends, parents, partners or employers. Identity, he found, was strongly influenced by the back-and-forth of these two spheres.
"Millennials are pre-wired to achieve and create success stories in their lives," Van den Bergh said. "They would rather blow up some stories or pretend they are having fun on instagram and Facebook than admit they had a boring night out to the friends and immediate social circle."
This can alter authenticity in identity, Van den Bergh found. Only half of the millennials surveyed believe themselves to be authentic and real.
"(It's) a response to the social society in which private moments are rare and everything is transparent and in the open on social media," Van den Bergh said.
For Victor Ruiz, 25, a student at Utah State University, social media perpetuates the problem.
"We live in a capitalist society," Ruiz said. "People don't want to be singled out, especially in a negative way, so they will try to make themselves look better and good to impress. They would try to make their online pages look as though they are living the American dream and not expose weakness."
It's a "fluffy portrayal of reality," said 27-year-old Angie Rideout, a hairstylist in Salt Lake City. “It shows what we value, how we spend our time and who we spend our time with.”
If you don't participate online, you risk being uninvolved and out of touch, said Hanaike, who is also attending LDS Business College in Salt Lake City. "Nobody will show you to others for you, so you will be voiceless and unseen."
Hanaike said online media can be detrimental to her offline identity.
"I am perfectly capable of representing myself without a domain name or URL," she said. "But I do not have that option. My freedom is definitely being infringed upon, I can't just be myself where and when i want because literally anything i do has the potential to end up on some site somewhere where anyone can look at it and judge."
Twenty-three-year-old Braden Bissegger, a student at LDS Business College, agrees.
“You’re required to define yourself to be involved: Build a Facebook page and Twitter account and post your thoughts and show the world who you are,” Bissegger said. “But what if that’s inaccurate? What if we are all purporting to be something we're not? Yes, we are certainly in an identity crisis.”
Hanaike is one of 80 million millennials, ages 18 to 24, in the U.S., many of which are competing for the job market, according to a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report. How to get a leg up? Many say self-promotion through online media can be huge.
“It’s standard procedure for hiring managers to check out your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles,” wrote Jenna Goudreau in a recent Forbes article.
“Simply sifting through job postings and sending out applications en masse was never a good route to success, and is even less so now," wrote Phyllis Korkki, an employment editor for the New York Times. "One of the most important questions that many job seekers can ask these days is this: How searchable am I?"
Professional self-branding and social networking is necessary no matter what the economy looks like, according to David Lake, a 25-year-old marketer in Lindon.
“When tools like these are available you can either keep up with the times and use them for your benefit, or you can let others take advantage of the opportunity," Lake said. "The days of a paper resume and a blind interview are over. With social media platforms and personal websites, interviewers can know a lot about who you are before the interview even starts.”
For many millennials, however, self-branding can bleed into narcissism or the creation of a false persona.
“It is upsetting to think that an employer can base their decision to hire me on who I appear to be on online media. That is not the person that they are hiring,” said Hanaike.
“I don’t want to appear narcissistic when I talk to a potential employer,” said Duncan Purser, 25, a student of managerial financial accounting. “But with the way the applying for jobs goes in today’s technological work, you have to promote yourself and continually go for presence.”
Thoren Williams, a 22-year-old studying accounting at LDS Business College, agrees.
“If you don’t update your Linkedin when applying for jobs, your personality doesn’t come through on social media platforms and it can seem as if you don’t have one,” Williams said. “Potential employers may assume they know what type of an employee you would be because they’ve checked out your resume on Linkedin.”
It’s almost necessary to be a little bit narcissistic, Hanaike said. ”If you want to get noticed, or if you want someone to see your qualifications, you have to show them, lest you get swept away with the tide."
For Hanaike, this can lead to a disparity between online and offline identity.
So how do you reconcile the two identities and maintain a true center?
For Mutual Leonard, an 29-year-old actuarial analyst living in Salt Lake City, culture can be a strong source of identity.
"Mormons with pioneer heritage, for example, say 'My grandmother walked across the plains. I'm not giving up my religion for anything. This is my identity.'"
Leonard said culture prepares youth for adulthood, preparing boys to be men through priesthood duties in a church, or a hunting for your first kill as initiation into a tribe.
"Psychologically, you need that kind of a thing," he said, noting that identity requires an outward focus. "You will establish identity as soon as you focus on something beyond yourself."
Katie Greer, a nation-wide internet and technology safety trainer, recommends tolerance.
"I could follow someone's entire day online, seeing when they wake up, eat, what they wear and the traffic they hit," said Greer. "Perhaps we should lift our eyes from our screens more often and live the lives we are purporting."
Reconciliation, Greer said, requires creating an identity worth owning up to online.
"I'm 30 years old and it's really bizarre to think of all the things in my life that have formed my identity: Soccer, politics, clubs, sports, friends," Greer said. "I worked really hard to prove who I was, for myself, my friends, my family, the colleges I’ve applied to. Can I just put all that effort into saying I am something I'm not online? It's kind of like cheating."
The things today's twenty-somethings do can later define you, Greer warned. Being cautious about what one posts online can avoid false labels and assumptions.
Millennials, themselves, are learning how to create a consistent identity across the many platforms before them.
"I meet people who seem to be in a sort of fog because they are so focused on Facebook and getting likes," Bissegger said. "But then I've also seen many people who are not trying to boast or brag about themselves, but trying to show how they are contributing to something or giving of themselves and social media is one of their most effective platforms."
In fact, those who are able to see social media as a means of getting beyond yourself are the ones who are confident in their identity, Hanaike said.
"We’ve been given a lot of crap, as millennials, but if we want our future to be something significant and if we want our lives to be great, we have to have self-confidence," she said. "It takes a certain level of self-awareness to think I am going to provide something for the community and the world that no one else is, so that I can do the best job of doing this. That is the antithesis of an identity crisis."
For David Lake, the two platforms can actually enhance one's identity both online and offline.
“Facebook and other social networks give a voice and confidence to many people that didn't previously have either of those things,” Lake said. “ They might be shy or naturally lacking in confidence. Now that they have a stage to project their voice, we really get to see who those people are.”