Millennials: The Next “Greatest” Generation?

Photo Credit: Zhengyang Qian (Two teams from my last Organizational Development class.)

Photo Credit: Zhengyang Qian (Two teams from my last Organizational Development class.)

Author: Matt Morava

It feels like I only go backwards baby, Every part of me says, “go ahead.”, I got my hopes up again, oh no… not again. Feels like we only go backwards darling. — Tame Impala

I’ll let you in on a little secret… I love Millennials. I’ve been crushing hard on this generation since 2008, when I agreed to teach in the Management Department at the Daniels College of Business in Denver, Colorado. By 2016, Millennials (those born between 1982 and 2000) will make up roughly 50% of the workforce. The challenges they face are enormous: growing economic problems, entrenched class divisions, a broken system of justice, environmental degradation, competing life philosophies and divisive politics, emerging disruptive technologies, the impacts of globalism, and decreasing mental and physical health across aging populations. I’ve spent the last six years supporting their development as managers and leaders and I’ve come to deeply appreciate their gifts and understand their weaknesses.

Not everyone loves the Millennials however — The supposed naïvety of this generation was skewered by Aaron Sorkin in the opening scene of the show,The Newsroom -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zqOYBabXmA). This scene is typical of the level of contempt that many Boomers harbor against the Millennials… “Worst generation. Period. Ever. Period.”

Here is what stands out for me about this generation:

The Strengths

1. Millennials are clearly less hung up on racism, sexism, culturalism, and ageism. Millennials seem to accept people for who they are and what they can contribute; that’s a huge win for us a society. It’s a step in the right direction towards a more authentic meritocracy.

2. They are less contentious than Boomers. You look at today’s political firefight and it’s mostly due to Boomers and their “Zero Sum Game” approach to life. Boomers like to fight about everything. Everything. Seriously. (They still fight about Vietnam and Nixon as if it mattered.) The Millennials however are focused on solutions. Maybe the “trophies for everyone” has a dark side, but the upside is that they are always looking at the end product. Millennials are solution focused and execution oriented: You tell them to hit a target and they will try their damnedest to hit it.

3. They can team/partner like nobody’s business. Boomers are contentious and endlessly pick sides, Xers tend to be solitary, but the Millennials work together. Camps, sports, and co-active classes have paid off… Millennials can manage their ego needs enough to create group harmony and increase productivity. They’ve watched the movie “300” and have played video games online together enough to know that a. You’re more successful if you work together as a team. b. It’s more fun.

4. There’s a positivity about the future in Millennials that was frankly always missing in GenX and that the Boomers had beat out of them. Think about this… the current zeitgeist of dystopia has largely been ignored by this generation. They’ve been spending their formative years on Snapchat, not watching the Iran-Contra hearings, and that’s probably a good thing. Yes, they’ve had to deal with 9.11, school shootings, and a decade of war but the future is something they believe in and their positivity will become increasingly important as the challenges ahead become more apparent.

5. They’re technologically savvy. We have no idea what’s about to come online in terms of robotics, biomedical, computing, and communications but it will change the world as we know it. This generation embraces, creates, and thrives with disruptive technology.

6. They are Global in values and outlook. I’ve not seen a formal study to confirm this, but anecdotally I believe that this generation has traveled to more parts of the globe by the time they graduate from high school than any generation previously. Technology has allowed them to stay connected with those they meet along their various sojourns in a way that is real and immediate. The world is coming together. Twitter “revolutions” are the future.

The Weaknesses

1. Because they are so solution focused and technologically savvy, they have a tendency to think the ends justify the means. They will often take the path of least resistance and/or cheat to win. With Xers it was uncool to take the easy path (and I think with Boomers too) but Millennials unabashedly will do the bare minimum, cheat their asses off, or draft off of other’s efforts without any sense that they’re doing wrong in order to get the box checked. We’ve trained this generation to execute, get that box checked, but without thinking much about the path to get there or the consequences. “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game!” has become a quaint sentiment. Breaking bad is cool and rules are for suckers.

2. They are terrified of conflict and tend to compromise their values for the sake of team/group harmony. Because I teach in a business college, I run a lot of team exercises and almost never see someone stick their neck out and go against their team. These are really creative, bright students who get suckered into bulls*#t projects just because they’re afraid of making waves. In other words, group think runs rampant with this generation.

3. They trust systems to a fault. The thing about Xers is that the systems were broken… Schools were failing, priests were molesting, parents were absent and there were no functioning summer or soccer camps. (The 80’s were horrific for children when you think about it.) For Millennials, it’s just the opposite. Everything has worked for them and they can’t even begin to envision a world where the system is not your friend; they are the system. What happens when that system starts telling them that poverty is a crime and indentured servitude is a solution?

4. Some of them have been infected with that horrible virus known as “nostalgia” which wiped out the most creative minds of Boomers and Xers. If you’re under 35, you should not be talking about Neil Young. At all. Millennials need to find and/or make their own amazing music. I was at a bar a few months ago and witnessed a 90′s “Tribute” Band. These are 22 yo’s already infected with nostalgia. I kid my students about their awful taste in music, the 00’s was the worst decade for music in American History, but great bands are out there now… yes Grimes and Tame Impala I’m looking at you. My deepest wish is for this generation to fall in love with the Future and make it so, but the cynical part of me believes that denim is holding us back… why are we still wearing denim?

The Challenges Within

1, Porn & Sexual Liberation — I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to love and I believe in the institution of marriage (gay, straight, doesn’t matter.) I seriously worry about the death of love and commitment in this generation. If it’s the expectation to have sex casually and early in a relationship, it takes away the art of seduction and the power of deeper emotional bonds that come from long term, committed relationships. Sex is great, don’t get me wrong, and it’s a step in the right direction to un-fuse sex and love, but who speaks for love in this generation? Who speaks for the hardship and terrible beauty of commitment?

2. Post Post-Modern Feminism and the Neo Men’s Movement. We may be faced with a lost generation of men. Universities are nearing graduating classes made up of 70% women.

(See Ali’s amazing TED talk on bringing back boys — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jynsAdRpoJk)

Women are naturals for the corporate life, as collaboration and communication rule the day, but these traits aren’t in the typical male psyche. I’m speaking now in gender stereotypes, but I wonder what a generation of men raised on video games and paintball wars will accomplish in the non-virtual world where conversation is the coin of the realm? There are new men’s movements, mostly in response to the Post Post-Modern Feminism movement (“Wait, you’re goddesses now?”) but it seems we’re working towards mutual independence versus interdependence. Do we as a society need to prove that we truly don’t need each other? Women first with artificial insemination and men next with fembots? How do we start working towards rapproachment?

3. This generation, more than any other, has had very little connection to nature. They know the earth hangs in the balance, feel deeply about the loss of rainforest in the Amazon or the plastic islands building in the Pacific, but they haven’t actually had much connection with the nature that’s right outside their front door. When they are outdoors it tends to be goal oriented vs. letting Mother Nature have a few words. Being able to recognize the “other” found in nature is how narcissism is ultimately cured. We all need a connection to nature, not just in a National Park, but to the ecosystem we live in.

4. Creativity and Visioning aren’t real strengths. I blame the cult of celebrity on this, but fame and wealth are all that seem to matter sometimes. “Why do anything unless it brings you money or fame?” It’s a question that they’ll have to find a better answer to than what’s currently being provided by our celebrity obsessed culture. Creativity and visioning come from stillness and silence and both are in short supply with this overly entertained generation. Why learn to paint (sing, dance, write, play an instrument) when there are 152 top of the line artists working on “Titanfall” for your enjoyment? The value of learning to do something isn’t always because you’ll be the best at it, or will get paid, but rather because it grows your character. Personality has replaced character as a value in our society.

A Coin Toss?

My deepest fear is that this generation is the next “Greatest Generation” only in reverse (Greatest Generation: Great Depression, WWII, then the 50’s) and for Millennials they’re enjoying their “salad days” right now and will face increasing challenges over the next two decades. Will they have the requisite variety to meet the challenges ahead? I’m working my ass off to help them, but it’s 50/50 in my opinion. It will hinge on their ability to keep their strengths out of liability phase and remain conscious of how their weaknesses are acting as liabilities.

In my heart of hearts, I know they will rise to the occasion.


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