Friday, August 01, 2008

Millennials – they’re not all that!


A publisher of a local paper complained about one of her younger employees, a newly minted journalism major. The young man had an entitled air about him belied by an annoying up-tone he shares, sadly, with far too many women and men who are no longer teenagers or from the Valley (an up-tone is a rise in pitch at the end of a sentence or phrase, which makes an utterance sound like a question). Moreover, he was not particularly productive or punctual except when it came time to collect his pay. “He barges into my office, demands his check and announces that he’s taking a few days off,” fumed the publisher. She wanted to respond, “and what have you done for me lately?”

The young man is a Millennial, someone born roughly between 1980 and 1994. Millennials are also referred to as the YouTube Generation, the Internet Generation or the lesser known Echo Boomers.

Claire Raines, author and expert on intergenerational workplace dynamics, describe them as such:

They’re the hottest commodity on the job market since Rosie the Riveter. They’re sociable, optimistic, talented, well-educated, collaborative, open-minded, influential, and achievement-oriented. They’ve always felt sought after, needed, indispensable. They are arriving in the workplace with higher expectations than any generation before them—and they’re so well connected that, if an employer doesn’t match those expectations, they can tell thousands of their cohorts with one click of the mouse.
Raines attributes their collective personality to experiences peculiar to their generation. She identifies eight key trends which started from the 1990s and continues to the present. These are: (1) Re-focus on children and family; (2) Scheduled, structured lives; (3) Multiculturalism; (4) Terrorism, local and global; (5) Heroism; (5) Patriotism; (6) Parent advocacy; (7) Globalism; and (8) Compelling messages.

Among these trends, parental advocacy and messages have most to do with who they are. Raines explains:

The Millennials were raised, by and large, by active, involved parents who often interceded on their behalf. Protective Boomer and Xer parents tried to ensure their children would grow up safely and be treated well. Parents challenged poor grades, negotiated with the soccer coach, visited college campuses with their charges, and even went along to Army recruiting centers.

Their parents have thus been labeled “helicopter parents,” constantly hovering overhead to make sure their progeny is protected, endorsed and advanced, whether the children like it or not, and deserve it or not. This behavior persists through the kids' early adulthood. Wikipedia offers an extension of the term - "Black Hawks" - for parents who cross the line to unethical behavior such as writing their children's college admission essays.

Such dysfunctional behavior is compounded by overly positive and sometimes unrealistic messages drilled into children’s heads. Raines lists the following: “Be smart—you are special.” “Leave no one behind.” “Connect 24/7.” “Achieve now!” You are unique and talented and very special and should be adored by everyone. Are we surprised then by the insane number of Americans who believe that they can be the next Idol or think that they can dance?

A psychologist friend of mine adds her own theory (and concern) that cell phones, email, blackberries, texting and social networking sites have not only reattached the umbilical cord (and given it super tensile strength) but have also spawned codependent connections among the Millennials themselves.

But is this all simply another generation gap?

Surely Baby Boomers complained about Generation X. And Baby Boomers heard their parents say, “when I was your age …”

My own experience with Millennials has been rather positive.

While working at Human Rights Campaign, I was impressed by the passion of young women and men – gay, straight and questioning - for advocating equal rights. I was heartened by their comfort with diversity.

Slogging my way through Southern heat and humidity, I am frequently accosted by cheerful and energized youth asking whether I’d like to support Barack Obama. All over town, these future operatives are joined by teenagers in blue blazers and smart dresses interning on the Hill or at K Street, future politicos and lobbyists.

At Aspen Institute, I work and laugh with a Brown graduate, who intends to stay in the nonprofit sector. Walking the halls or typing at their desks are other twenty-somethings with impressive credentials analyzing policy issues in the middle of summer.

The other evening, I met a sophomore from Southwestern University who had decided to spend a couple of weeks at her aunt’s office, a Labor lobbying firm. Her younger brother is set to enter West Point this fall. And my partner’s own nephew will attend NC State College of Engineering to study robotics. Till then, he is life guarding and teaching kids how to swim.

Granted I live in Washington, work in the nonprofit sector, and somehow find myself surrounded by really intelligent and simply good folk, I nonetheless think that Millennials are okay. I am optimistic about the future precisely because of how this generation sees the world – as theirs to change and enjoy.

Now if we can only do something about the up-tone.

Illustration from Adbridge.com.

7 comments:

Valerie said...

I find them to be naive and overly optimistic. But maybe that is because I am a Gen Xer, you know the cynical, slacker generation who is so burned out on life that we don't vote or even attend our HS reunions (I'm not joking, in my graduating class of 556 there were not enough responses to our tenth reunion invite so it was cancelled!)

Madhavi Nambiar said...

I cannot help but bask in the tone of your piece. As an almost millennial myself ('79), while I agree completely that we are fabulous, I also think that we care passionately about ideas that matter.

In my graduate study colloquium this week, the "Harry Potter Girl" broke out of her reverie and said that our generation is not afraid to let ideas that do not serve us die with the generation that chose to nourish them.

While this was a bit jarring to the Boomers in the group, it brought up an interesting point. Ideas die. Our generation is not afraid to let the ones that no longer serve us go.

While I too have the nerve to look at the glass as half full, your post drops a hint of rose into the glass. As a mythological studies student, I am interested in symbolic images. What specific images come up when certain ideas die and others come to the front? And isn't the death of some ideas essential at this time in human history?

Will we as a generation have what it takes to face the challenges that continually await us without becoming rigid in our own world views? Perhaps only time will tell.

Anonymous said...

Good job Erwin,
I think it is mostly spot on. Of course there will be some Millennials who will blow your mind as well as some who make you want to blow out your mind. I think this is with most generations and, having the same networking and media flood that is today, i believe that early generations would have had similar articles. The key is to look at all Millennials collectively and not just one or a few. I know you have experienced the less laudable of my generation but I am very pleased to see you looking at both sides. Nice blog.

Erwin said...

Thanks Val - it will be interesting to see how these young people turn out. I suspect, like every generation, they will experience life and get a bit more pragmatic, realistic and even cynical. I can only think of socialists and other left-leaning folk from the sixties and seventies who are now neocons, libertarians or staunch conservatives.

Valerie said...

I don't know, Erwin. I feel like the Millenials were really coddled and protected. Gen X did't so much become cynical but was cynical from the get go. One can hypothesize as why, but I can see a few things: Nixon, the effects of Vietnam on their Dads and Uncles, Jimmy Carter telling us to put a sweater on, Ronald Reagan, the 1980 Olympic Boycott, Mortgage rates in the double digits, the Cold War, recession, the space shuttle blowing up before our eyes (at school, no less!) No wonder we are the Generation that invented grunge.

As for changing political allegiance, most of us don't care. I have no respect for the Democrat Party or the Republican Party. As far as I am concerned they are both puppets of the corporations and corrupt as they come. I personally have voted for Ralph Nader in the past 2 elections and intend to do so again this year.

Erwin said...

I see your point about the times in which GenXers grew up. Thanks!

JWR said...

I think that the Millenials are a very diverse group of individuals. First, the millenials have grown up in rapidly changing times with conservative values. Conservatism breeds the perception that there is only a limited amount to go around and that if I am not getting where I want to go, I need to pull the person down in front of me and step on them to get there. This is probably the reason that many individuals see Millenials parents as being protective.
I personally believe that there is little belief of entitlement for millenials. Because we grew up with conservative leadership and increasing globalization, many millenials come to expect that little will be given to us and that we will have to work increasingly hard to have the same standard of living as our parents had. Millenials who go to college are having an increasingly hard time finding work, are told that they are not educated enough or don't have enough experience and commonly are uninsured or underinsured. Millenials also are emerging from college with huge amounts of debt to pay off for the education which is no longer seen as being sufficient in the global economy.
My parents didn't pamper me. Living on my own without any financial support from my parents, I feel like I can say that the publisher has not met a lot of the millenials that I know.