It seems like a lot of people think Millennials are garbage.
I’m surprised how often I hear people I basically respect go on and on about how “entitled” “narcissistic” and addicted to social media this generation is. I have an alternative view. [disclosure: I am technically an elder Millennial]
Several years ago, I stumbled across Strauss & Howe’s theory of generational turnings which states that each generation is a response to the one before. They actually map out each “Turning” back to the War of the Roses to present. I totally buy into this schema.
Strauss & Howe have helped shape how we understand ourselves by age cohort. These two actually coined the terms “Baby Boomer,” “Gen X” and “Millennial” though their ultra-prescient work seems to be basically outside the zeitgeist these days. According to them, Millennials are poised to help save the world from itself thanks to their concern for each other, conformist nature and confident optimism. Not exactly what you hear around the water-cooler…
The Next “Great Generation”?
The gist of their Generational Turning theory is that there are four types of generation archetypes: Hero, Artist, Prophet and Nomad. Under this theory, Millennials, like their grandparents, are a “Hero Generation” which historically has meant that they are community-oriented and are likely to advance new technologies and industries. There have been three American Hero generations, including that of the the founding fathers and the GI Generation.
Each four Turning cycle, or saecula as Strauss and Howe calls them, is an 80-90 year period which begins with a “High” that comes out of “Crisis” like the post-WWII Era Baby Boom and burst in new industry and innovation. This in turn leads to an “Awakening” where societal norms are challenged in favor of the individual rights and spiritual autonomy as reflected in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of “Free Love” ideals. Think of being a young person coming of age in the 1950’s in the U.S. as the “Great Generation” quickly sought to rebuild a society nearly destroyed by Hitler. Unlike their GI parents, teenage Baby Boomers could easily take their security and prosperity for granted and seek “more” from life – more meaning, more purpose, more connection, more progress and more art. The Turnings are a natural ebb and flow of human call and response type behavior.
After an “Awakening”, we have an “Unraveling.” Since societal institutions have been challenged and weakened in the generation prior, this era is characterized by individualism and a lack of idealism. Think of the go go culture of the 80’s with Gordon Gecko-types in Wall Street and the Brat Pack in Hollywood, as well as the beginnings of MTV, the pre-cursor to today’s ubiquitous and vapid reality TV. Meanwhile, self-serving in-group first mentalities were a perfect breeding ground for the ensuing 1980’s “Culture Wars” that would shape a highly-polarized political discourse for decades to come.
A New Saecula begins withMillennials Rising in “Crisis”
Finally, we arrive in our current “Crisis” era (a new saecula has begun!) which Strauss and Howe date roughly from 2008 to 2026. Just as that of the Great Generation, this final type of Turning is an era of destruction. The last one started with the 1929 Market Crash and culminated with the all out global conflict of WWII. Our present one in began with the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks which began our ongoing new Always At War Era and hit a fever pitch of uncertainty and calamity with the 2008 Financial Crisis. Based on the Turnings theory, we have another decade ahead of increasing threat before our society will be saved…or not. Now, back to Millennials…
How are Millennials like the Great Generation?
- They hate credit cards
- They have experienced intense threats to social order and the erosion of key institutions such as religions, universities and political ideologies.
- They aren’t particularly rebellious? Millennials like influencers not revolutionaries. They are more likely to go to Fyre Festival than Woodstock. To better understand how conventional and uncreative this generation is, please check out this 2011 Report published by the U.S. War College entitled “UNDERSTANDING MILLENNIALS TO IMPROVE RECRUITING EFFICIENCY” This report heavily references Strauss and Howe, as well.
- Millennials like consensus, cohesion and collective advance hence they (insert heart icon) social media “Pew Study: Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change”
The bottom line here is that the dominant dialectic around Millennials as spoiled children is tired and anecdotal. It is a symptom of what I call the “get off my lawn” perspective of an older person who is romanticizing their generation’s early days and likely their own past. The most concerning issue is that the condemnation of Millennials inhibits the ability and imagination of older age cohorts to best work with this rising generation and their unique mindset and potential.
Condemning a group as incapable or entitled engenders a comforting narrative for those who can’t incorporate or engage the said group. It’s a whining excuse that is still working for companies that can’t retain Millennial employees, homebuilders who can’t sell their poorly designed McMansions and cable companies that are already hemorrhaging losses due to young “cordcutters.”
By marginalizing Millennials, these older naysayers are actually adopting a short-sighted strategy for dealing with the largest generation in history. One that is set to implode in just a few start years as Millennials begin to form households (many are delaying this) and shape the worklife they want.This new way of living poses major risks to their elders.
For instance, if Millennials continue to prefer small dwellings in urban areas, what will happen to all the Baby Boomers who have their retirement locked up in their suburban mansion that suddenly no one wants to buy? What about retiring professionals (doctors, lawyers, accountants) who want to sell their book of business to someone young but no buyers are willing to work the 100 hours a week necessary to realize justify the sale price they want (based on revenue projections/multiples)?
American religious institutions await a brutal reckoning with more than a third of Millennials identifying as a “non” which is to say they don’t identify with any religion at all. Religious leaders would be wise to remember the Prayer of St. Francis (a radical himself) which says to seek first to understand than to be understood. Though, if history is any indication, a listening stance among old-guard religious leaders seems highly unlikely. Same with political parties handing a significant percent of Millennial voters over to “What is Aleppo?” Gary Johnson “WashPo: Could Donald Trump lose the millennial vote to Gary Johnson?” (I voted for him myself and no longer publicly discuss politics with any smugness).
In sum, Millennials are actively carving out their own ideals and their own ways of living, working and loving. As the largest age cohort in history they (we) will reshape the world and they (we) be should mentored and encouraged in order to achieve the best outcome.
Endlessly complaining about Millennials isn’t productive but it may have the positive effective of making younger people care that much less about what older people them of them. As Katherine Hepburn put it: “I don’t care what they think about me, I never think about them.”
You can read more of my stuff at maurna.com