Back in June, I posted a video to this blog: Millennials in the Workplace. For some reason, it’s become incredibly popular over the past couple of days, netting over 100,000 pageviews a day and earning me some serious AdSense money. From the bottom of my wallet, I thank you.
However, I feel bad profiting from someone else’s pain, especially when the post was made in jest, and since I know and have worked with a lot of Millennials who are the most go-getter people I’ve seen (the people at Shopify, for instance). I thought that I should at least reassure my younger friends and readers.
If you were born between 1980 and 2000, you belong to the Millennial generation, named because you came of age around at the start of the Third Millennium (which by the bye, began on January 1, 2001, not 2000). Sometimes you’ll find yourself also referred to as “Generation Y”, a name derived from the fact that you’re the generation that came after “Generation X”, those people who were born between 1960 and 1980 (I’m one of them).
If you’re a Millennial, I have two things to tell you. Number one: Millennials have an image problem. Number two: Don’t worry, so did the previous generation.
Millennials have an image problem
Let’s talk about the image problem first. Here are the first two paragraphs of the cover story from the May 9, 2013 U.S. edition of TIME magazine, the cover of which is pictured above:
Here are some broad descriptions about the generation known as Millennials: They’re narcissistic. They’re lazy. They’re coddled. They’re even a bit delusional.
Those aren’t just unfounded negative stereotypes about 80 million Americans born roughly between 1980 and 2000. They’re backed up by a decade of sociological research. The National Institutes of Health found that for people in their 20s, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is three times as high than the generation that’s 65 or older. In 1992, 80 percent of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility; ten years later, 60 percent did. Millennials received so many participation trophies growing up that 40 percent of them think they should be promoted every two years – regardless of performance. They’re so hopeful about the future you might think they hadn’t heard of something called the Great Recession.
At least TIME magazine says that a lot of what people think about Millennials is wrong, and that they will eventually “save us all”. Others aren’t so kind.
This Wednesday’s episode of American Horror Story: Coven, does no such thing, and instead lays its contempt for Gen Y quite bare for all to see. The character of Madison Montgomery, an actress who ends up in a supernatural answer to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters thanks to her powers of telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and coercion, says this in an inner monologue-voiceover:
I am a millennial. Generation Y, born between the birth of AIDS and 9/11, give or take. They call us the Global Generation. We are known for our entitlement and narcissism. Some say it’s because we’re the first generation where every kid gets a trophy just for showing up. Others think it’s because social media allows us to post whenever we fart or have a sandwich for all the world to see. But it seems that our one defining trait is a numbness to the world, an indifference to suffering. I know that I did anything I could to not feel — sex, drugs, booze. Just take away the pain. Take away my mother and my asshole father and the press. Take away the boys I loved who wouldn’t love me back. Hell, I was gang-raped, two days later I was back in class like nothing happened. I mean that must have hurt like hell, right? Most people never get over stuff like that, and I was like, ‘Let’s go for Jamba Juice.’ I would give everything I have or have ever had just to feel pain again. To feel hurt.
As Bustle puts it in their review of the episode, “In one meaty paragraph, we’re treated to a sweeping generalization: millennials are like undead corpses roaming the Earth and taking selfies, and we’d best not waste the ability to feel everything while we still have it.”
A quick search for recent news items with the keyword “Millennial” yields telling results:
- The photo above — adult son living at home with the parental units — comes from a story in Entrepreneur titled Employment Trend for 2014: Miserable Millennials.
- In Fifty Years After JFK, Millennials Cross-Examine Boomer Generation, a Reuters piece that’s been published by a number of news outlets for the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, a professor teaching a course on President Kennedy’s era says “Most students, it’s fair to say, just know that JFK is the president who got shot. Beyond that, they’re pretty much blank slates.” In another piece on the assassination’s anniversary, a 20-year-old student is quoted as saying “I don’t really know much about the history of that day. He seemed like a really good president, so we like to remember him. … But when something happens when you are alive, it’s more heartfelt and you can relate to it more.”
- Hypable asks: Are Millennials to blame for our ‘sequel society’? Apparently, they’re the reason Hollywood doesn’t do anything new.
- Jennifer Graham in the Boston Globe called Millennials A generation of idle trophy kids. “This generation has contrived a new level of inertia, which the Japanese call hikikomori,” she writes. “It’s young people who don’t leave the house at all, not because they’re scared like agoraphobics, but because their needs are met and they’re content.”
- Of course, there’s the video…
- Millennial Branding’s Gen Y Workplace Expectations Study points out two stereotypes about Millennials that employers have: that they’re not loyal, and that their soft self-esteem-focused upbringings lead them to think that they all deserve a trophy for just showing up. Other complaints include “unrealistic salary expectations”, “poor work ethic”, and “easily distracted”.
- How Stuff Works recently posted How the Millennial Generation Works, which devotes a paragraph to how employers see Millennials: entitled and narcissistic, the product of helicopter parents who “vehemently encouraged the importance of self-esteem”, needing constant appraisal, approval, and promotions, and disloyal job-hoppers.
- …and if you want the general picture of present-day reporting on Milliennials in a single article, read TruthOut’s Blaming the Victim: Media Bias Against Struggling Millennials.
I also feel bad for Ben Kosinski, founder of the startup Sumpto. The poor guy had to stand on trial for all Millennials who can’t land a job, and on, of all places, FOX Business News:
The Minor Villain: David Brooks and The Organization Kid
The Organization Kid is an article written by David Brooks, a journalist with a knack for writing sociological articles and often described as “the conservative author liberals like”. Published on April 1, 2001 (some might view this as an apt and very telling publication date), it seems to be the piece from which articles about Millennials borrow, either directly or indirectly. Based on a visit to Princeton at the turn of the century, it paints a rather unflattering picture of the first cohort of Millennials to go to college, describing them as being the sort of offspring you’d expect from late-gen Boomers: 21st century lotus-eaters:
To understand any generation, or even the elite segment of any generation, we have to keep reminding ourselves when it was born and what it has experienced. Most of today’s college students were born from 1979 to 1982. That means they were under ten years old when the Berlin Wall fell, and so have no real firsthand knowledge of global conflict or Cold War anxieties about nuclear war. The only major American armed conflict they remember is Desert Storm, a high-tech cakewalk. Moreover, they have never known anything but incredible prosperity: low unemployment and low inflation are the normal condition; crime rates are always falling; the stock market rises. If your experience consisted entirely of being privileged, pampered, and recurringly rewarded in the greatest period of wealth creation in human history, you’d be upbeat too. You’d defer to authority. You’d think that the universe is benign and human nature is fundamentally wonderful.
But the outlook of these young people can’t be explained by economics and global events alone. It must also have something to do with the way they were raised. As the University of Michigan time-analysis data show, this is a group whose members have spent the bulk of their lives in structured, adult-organized activities. They are the most honed and supervised generation in human history. If they are group-oriented, deferential to authority, and achievement-obsessed, it is because we achievement-besotted adults have trained them to be. We have devoted our prodigious energies to imposing a sort of order and responsibility on our kids’ lives that we never experienced ourselves. The kids have looked upon this order and have decided that it’s good.
He tells a story of kids who’ve never known hardship and were obsessively socially engineered by their helicopter parents from birth: from Baby Einstein and other carefully crafted early childhood development aids to send them to elementary school with ever-expanding backpacks full of books, to the invention of the “play date” and the schedule-driven child life. The end result of such pampering and conditioning, he asserts, were amoral creatures who were only too happy to conform and craved structure, were poorly-equipped to handle adversity, and were driven to succeed and climb the corporate and social ladders and quickly as possible.
The major villains: The comedian and the economist
Bad as Brooks was for the image of people born between 1980 and 2000, it’s a mere Darth Maul compared to the Emperor Palpatine and Count Dooku for the Millennial Republic: William Strauss and Neil Howe.
“What if I told you that a sketch comedian and a capitalist came together to basically invent an entire category of HR theory? That’s not a joke – that actually happened.” writes Matt Charney in his article, Millennials Drive Like This: The Why of Gen Y. It’s a snarky summary of Strauss, Howe, and their work, but given the generalizations of Millennials that have arisen from it, I can’t blame Charney for feeling a bit testy.
Strauss, “the sketch comedian” in Charney’s summation, got his bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1969 and his JD from Harvard Law in 1973. He became a Washington, D.C. policy wonk for the rest of the 1970s, which gave him heavy exposure to all the goings-on “inside the Beltway”. This exposure, plus Strauss’ inclination towards comedy and music, led him to assemble a group of staffers to sing satirical songs at his Senator boss’ Christmas Party in 1981. The performance was such a hit that he ended up forming The Capitol Steps, which is probably best described as a mash-up of The Daily Show/Colbert Report and musical dinner theatre, and made up of former congressional staffers who are now comedic songwriters and performers (whether this is a step up of down is left as an exercise for the reader). They put together shows with punny titles like Obama Mia! and song parodies like the one below, which riffs off one of the best-known tunes from Fiddler on the Roof: If I Were a Rich Man:
Howe is one whom Charney refers to as “the capitalist”, and his story is simpler. He got his bachelor’s in English lit in 1972, studied abroad in Europe afterwards, then landed Master’s degrees in economics (1978) and history (1979), which is the perfect preparation for the sort of person who plans to earn his or her keep not by creating anything of value, but rather by shuffling around the value created by other people. After getting his degrees, Howe went into the wonkery business, specializing in the sorts of topics that would interest people whose catchphrase is “Damed kids! Get off my lawn!”, namely long-term fiscal policy, human migration, and aging. If that wasn’t “Grampa Simpson” enough, he was also senior associate for the Global Aging Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. If someone were to start a High Pants, Hard Candy, and Slow Driving Advisory Board, he’d be the perfect guy to chair it.
In 1992, Howe and Strauss released their book Generations, followed by The Fourth Turning in 1997. Both books explain American history as a series of successive generations that live through a repeating cycle of four different “turnings”, which are eras about two decades in length with a specific kind of circumstances and zeitgeist:
These turnings are:
- High: An era that comes after a period of great crisis, when institutions are strong and individualism is weak. Society is confident about where it wants to collectively go, though those outside the majoruty often feel stifled by the conformity. The most recent high starts in 1946, the year after the end of World War II, and is considered to have ended 50 years ago with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.
- Awakening: A time when institutions, which reigned during the High, are now questioned and attacked in the name of personal and spiritual autonomy. The conformity of the previous era is seen as strangling and there is a desire for personal authenticity. Young activists see the previous era as a time of cultural spiritual poverty. The most recent Awakening was the “Consciousness Revolution”, which spans the time from the revolts of the mid-1960s to the reelection of Ronald Reagan in 1984.
- Unravelling: The opposite of a high. During this turning, institutions are weak and distrusted, while individualism is strong and flourishing. As Wikipedia puts it: “Highs come after Crises, when society wants to coalesce and build. Unravelings come after Awakenings, when society wants to atomize and enjoy.” The most recent Unravelling was the Long Boom and the Culture War, beginning in Reagan’s “Morning in America” in the mid 1980s, and Wikipedia says it ends “in the late 2000s”. My guess is that the historic moment that sociologists will eventually use to mark the end of this Unravelling is Barack Obama’s election.
- Crisis: An era where institutional life is destroyed and rebuilt in response to some perceived threat to the survival of the nation. Civic authority and community make a comeback, and people start to identify with things larger than themselves. In American history, Crises have all been new “founding moments”. The last Crisis started with the stock market crash of 1929 and ended with the end of World War II; it is believed that we’re at the beginning of a Crisis turning.
Strauss and Howe postulate that each generation is a product of its time. Since they believe that times tend to follow in a four-phase cycle, they argue that generations do so as well, following these four archetypes:
- Prophet: Born near the end of a Crisis, when community life springs anew and a new societal order coalesces. They tend to be remembered for their coming-of-age fervor and their values-oriented elder leadership. Their themes are vision, values, religion. The Boomers (born 1940 – 1960) are Prophets.
- Nomad: Born during an Awakening, when social ideals and spiritual agendas are the order of the day. They are remembered for their adrift, alienated rising-adult years and their midlife years of pragmatic leadership. Their themes are liberty, survival, honour. Generation X, a.k.a. the 13th Generation (born 1960 – 1980, which includes me) are Nomads.
- Hero: Growing up during an Unravelling, when individual pragmatism, self-reliance, and laissez-faire, they tend to be remembered or their collective military triumphs in young adulthood and their political achievements as elders. Their themes are community, affluence, technology. The G.I. Generation (those who grew up in World War II or the boom immediately afterward) and the Millennials are Heroes.
- Artist: Born during a Crisis era, when great dangers lead to a tendency towards public consensus, aggressive institutions, and an ethic of personal sacrifice. Members of this generation tend to be remembered for their quiet years of rising adulthood and their midlife years of flexible, consensus-building leadership. Their themes are pluralism, expertise, due process. The Silent Generation (those born around the Great Depression and fought in World War II) and the Homeland Generation (those born between 2000 and about 2020).
Here’s how the turnings and generations fit together:
Strauss and Howe were masters of a trick that Malcolm Gladwell would later pick up: tell an intriguing story about some deep insight you gained by looking closely and finding the pattern, and don’t sweat the research and math because they’re hard and boring. As a result, historians have tended to dismiss their idea of the four-turning cycle, while people in fields where critical thinking isn’t as much of a big deal — political science and sociology — tend to eat their stuff up.
Unlike Gladwell, who’s turned himself into the sort of pop author that writes books that people who say “I really don’t read for fun” will pick up, Strauss and Howe took the consultancy route. My educated guess is that as policy wonks, it would never occur to them to go into pop pseudo-science, but instead appear more scholarly and sell their semi-baked ideas to suckers with money. They created a company called LifeCourse Associates, and their clients, “companies, government agencies, and non-profits” pay big bucks for their “services”.
What Strauss and Howe are selling are expensive employee horoscopes tarted up in corporate drag. They’re not the first to do so; the mother-daughter snake oil sales team of Myers and Briggs did the same with that test that sorts people into sixteen personality types with four-letter codes (such as mine, ENTP).
In coming up with a way to divide and classify people by generation, Strauss and Howe invented the concept of the Millennial, which they described in great detail in their 2000 book, Millennials Rising. In it, they ascribe set of specific qualities, tendencies, and beliefs to them:
- Compared to previous generations, they’re more conformist, veering away from the excessive individualism of their forebears and favouring community, following authority and promoting group loyalty. They’re more likely to defer to their parents.
- They’re more cooperative and compliant. They’re less cynical and creative.
- Their pop culture is not alienated grunge rock of Nirvana or the ironic MAD magazine, but the bubble-gum pop of Britney and the peppy shows of the Disney Channel.
Other authors took their lead, writing their own expansions and adding to the Millennial pile-on:
- In Generation Me by Jean Twenge, whose subtitle is Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before, Millennials arew described as tolerant and confident, but also entitled and narcissistic. (That’s why they take all those selfies!)
- According to Wikipedia: “In 2008, author Ron Alsop called Millennials “Trophy Kids,” a term that reflects the trend in competitive sports, as well as many other aspects of life, where mere participation is frequently enough for a reward. It has been reported that this is an issue in corporate environments. Some employers are concerned that Millennials have too great expectations from the workplace. Studies predict that Generation Y will switch jobs frequently, holding many more jobs than Generation X due to their great expectations.”
- They’re seen as less politically involved, which is why Urban Outfitters saw fit to sell this shirt, thinking that “the kids would totally get into it”:
- In the U.K., they’re called the Peter Pan Generation, after the children’s literature character who never aged. What with nearly a third of them living with Mom and Dad after graduation (not unlike Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s shiftless and skeevy friends), and seemingly deferring marriage, mortgage, and careers, they’re seen as “eternal teenagers”, who on the bright side, “will eventually grow up”.
- The Daily Mail (yes, it’s a rag, but their stories get forwarded around the ‘net like wildfire) has this to say about Millennials:
- 32% of Britons aged 25-39 are living with their parents
- Many of those still living at home said they chose to because someone else cooks and cleans up after them
- One in three do not even do their own washing while a third change their bed sheets once a month or less
With all this bad press, but Strauss and Howe making a buck off selling their Millennial theory to HR people, it’s no wonder that twentysomethings get a bad rap at work.
Now if you’re going to get through this book, you can’t hurl it against the wall every time Howe and Strauss make a huge generalization about an entire age category, because you’ll either knock down your house or tear your rotator cuff. This is not a good book, if by good you mean the kind of book in which the authors have rigorously sifted the evidence and carefully supported their assertions with data. But it is a very good bad book. It’s stuffed with interesting nuggets. It’s brightly written. And if you get away from the generational mumbo jumbo, it illuminates changes that really do seem to be taking place.
It gets better
Once upon a time, as the 1980s were turning into the 1990s, a young designer received a $22,500 advance for writing a handbook on his birth cohort, people born in the 1960s, which seemed to lack an identity. He used the money to move to warmer, drier climes — Coachella Valley and the Mojave Desert — to work on his book, which along the way turned from an extended Cracked article into a novel starring three aimless characters who just happened to live the same sort of warm, dry clime where he was doing his writing. The publisher who paid him the advance first turned down the book, but changed their minds afterwards, and it hit bookstores in 1991. The designer was Douglas Coupland, and the book was Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.
My favourite summary of the book is this cartoon, which is from the book Generation Ecch!:
In the end, that’s pretty much it. You’ve got three characters, Andy, Dag, and Claire, all of whom are living the slacker lifestyle with varying degrees of success. The only character with any ambition, Tobias, “the yuppie”, is the closest thing the novel has to an antagonist. Andy’s younger brother, Tyler, is a more spoiled, more materialistic “global teen”, and ends up being the template for the main character in Coupland’s next novel, Shampoo Planet, as well as for the Millennial stereotype.
Generation X became a surprise hit. One of the most surprising things was that it managed to get a lot of people who normally wouldn’t do so to actually shell out money for non-required reading. Another surprising thing is how the book became assigned as the central totem for people born between 1960 and 1980, which was also called “The Slacker Generation” or “The Nowhere Generation”. Although Coupland had changed it into a “story”, the pundits acted as if Generation X were still the “This is what Gen X is like” book it was originally intended to be and as if the characters’ behaviour were some an actual report of Xer behaviour in their natural habitat. It even crossed over into other fields; according to Wikipedia, “Many critics linked the novel to the popularity of grunge and alternative rock, but it makes no reference to grunge, and the song that is widely credited for boosting grunge into mainstream popularity (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) was released after the novel’s publication.”
I’ll give you three guesses as to who wrote a book that purported to explain everything about our generation shortly afterwards:
That’s right: in 1993, Strauss and Howe’s 13th Gen was released, and it can quite rightly be described as the prequel to Millennials Rising. It painted a picture of Generation X as seemingly apathetic but more disillusioned than anything else, cynical, and slackerish. One of the most telling things about the book was this quote they highlighted from a Xer:
I think Charles Dickens was paid by the word.
It was meant to convey their subtle-but-not message that Gen X was too lazy to read. However, while the assertion that he was paid the word is considered to be a myth, his novels were originally published serially in newspapers, and he was paid for each new installment. This required him to recap the story so far with each new installment, and gave him the incentive to make his novels go long. The kid who was quoted wasn’t lazy, but perceptive.
As a result of all the hype, a lot of it driven by Strauss and Howe, Gen X was also given a bad name and painted as not likely to be able to function in the working world. It’s just part of the generational cycle that has been proven to exist: that the young’uns know nuthin’.
Simply put: Don’t worry, Millennials — we know you’re not all lazy lotus-eaters. The mockery will pass, and someday, you will do the same to younger generations.
The Boomers did it to us, we’re doing it to you, and you’ll eventually trash the Homeland generation. I suggest you make fun of the themes of their generational archetype: pluralism, expertise, due process. Here’s a suggestion for teasing them when the time comes: compared to Gen X’s themes (liberty, survival, honor — sounds like it should be on a coat of arms) and Milliennials’ themes (community, affluence, technology — it sounds like the guiding principles at Apple or Google), the themes for their generational archetype — pluralism, expertise, due process — sounds super-lame, and kind of like the “mission statement” that an organic vegan cafe would tape onto the cash register for all the customers to see.
Let me close this article with the way I opened it: with as TIME magazine cover featuring a story on a particular generation. This one’s from 1997: