I have a confession to make. I’m a recovering millennial basher. For several years I hopped on the stereotype bandwagon and spewed rhetoric about the narcissistic, digitally obsessed, trophy-kid millennial Generation. I even devoted a chapter or two to it in my book Geeks, Geezers and Googlization.
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But time and blinding confrontation with the obvious has changed my views.
Over the past seven years or so, I’ve had thousands of interactions with these young adults, born between 1980 and 1996. Yes, it’s true—the oldest millennials are no longer just young know-it-alls but 36-year-old managers, parents, spouses and teachers. Without hesitation I can say many of them have been pleasant, and even inspiring.
I’ve been impressed and awed with the courtesy, knowledge and positive attitude of the 22-year-old restaurant server who is going to school full time, while working two jobs.
I’m a bit jealous of the savvy, ambitious and entrepreneurial college graduate who is wooing investors to support his new venture, while simultaneously attending classes in pursuit of his graduate degree.
For sure, some millennials are self-centered, spoiled and socially immature. But so are many of my baby boomer peers. Just like each generation has its fair share of introverts and extroverts, slackers and winners, there’s no place better to discuss entitlement than a group of aging baby boomers commiserating over young people’s horrible work ethic and how great America used to be. They seem to forget that just four decades earlier, baby boomers were described in a LIFE cover story in May 1968 as “privileged, narcissistic, entitled, spoiled and promiscuous.”
Generation X doesn’t get off the hook so easily either. Equally frustrated and often resentful of the generation breathing down their necks, Gen X also grabbed headlines in their teen and young adult years. In December 1985, Newsweek hit the stands decrying “The Video Generation.” It read,“There they are, those preening narcissists who have to document every banal moment with their cutting-edge communications technology.” Yes, that’s right. Three decades ago, Gen Xers—often the most vocal bashers of millennials—were the brunt of everything wrong with America and now they are repulsed by the digital fixation of today’s young adults.
Irony rules, or as many of our parents warned, “I hope your children give you the same heartache as you gave me!”
Once we cut through all of the noise, each generation begins to seem more similar than different on the big issues of life and work. For example, 25 percent of millennials value “making a positive impact on my organization” during their career—not so different from Gen X (21 percent) and baby boomers (23 percent). Similar numbers were shared for “solving social and/or environmental challenges” and “working with a diverse group of people.”
Younger generations seem to catch the blame for the environment in which they grew up. But teens didn’t create the smartphone, tablet and all of the other devices that seem to be distracting them—just as baby boomers didn’t create the television and Gen X didn’t create computers and video games. The kids didn’t purchase these devices either. Their parents did.
So, next time you consider bashing a Millennial, remember that they didn’t cause but were born into this world of economic, demographic and societal disruptions. They are simply adapting to the only environment they know.
Previously published on ReWork, May 2016