Intergenerational Politics – a report from the neutral zone.
A few years ago the New York Times published an article that left pretty much everyone who read it outraged. It was the story of a college graduate, living with his parents at the time, who had turned down work after 18 months of job searching because it wasn’t in his preferred field. The collective cultural gasp at the level of entitlement – both his parents and his grandfather had paid his tuition and and co-signed his student loans – has touched off a continual discussion about how quickly the world will end once it’s turned over to this <insert belittling adjective, remark about helicopter parenting, or just cut to the chase and use the word ‘spoiled’> group of kids.
I find this unproductive. If you’re in the business of working with, selling to, or marketing towards a group of people, it’s best not to come to the table with the attitude they’re all a mess. It’s not a recipe for success. No one wants to give their money and time to someone suffused with that level of condescension – just think of that scene from Pretty Woman. You know the one.
In the spirit of doing one small thing to change the dialogue, then, I’d like to introduce a couple of items.
1) Millennials aren’t ‘kids.’ I’ve seen studies that kick off the age range of the millennial generation anywhere from 1978 – 1984. I prefer the earlier year because that just manages to nip me into the millennial fold. But think it through. That means you’re talking about people who are starting to hit their mid-thirties. Odds are they’ve been employed for at least five years, owned a house, and are circling the landing zone of starting families of their own. Remember this part of your life? Remember that you thought you were an adult, too? Truth: Millennials…they’re just like you.
2) People thought the baby boomers were a bunch of spoiled brats, and they were right. I want to say the official cut of year for the baby boom was 1962. But the general state of things is that boomers were born to parents who had suffered through the Great Depression, World War II, or both. They were the first generation of whom it was expected nationally that they would graduate high school, thus delaying their entry into what their parents called “adulthood,” much like we accuse millennials of today. They had toys, for god sake. Huge amounts of toys designed to look like the cartoons on that new-fangled thing called the television. Their homes all had dedicated telephone lines. They would never know what it was like to see a movie that had no sound. So when we sit around whimpering about ‘kids,’ all we sound like is our grandparents. Truth…boomers were entitled. No one wants to sound like grandpa unless they actually are.
3) Millennials are coming of age at an unfortunate intersection in the American economy. We’re expected to buy more than we ever have before, with less money than we’ve ever made. Credit Cards. Variable Mortgages. Student Loans. Car loans. All of which were force fed to many of us as the table stakes of being able to hold your head up outside your heavily mortgaged McVilla. There was no one minding the store for quite a while over at debt-dole out headquarters. And full time job opportunities are at an all-time low. Add to that that good old American adage that we need to do better than our parents did, otherwise we simply don”t have our shoulder to the plow in a way that matters. That’s not, as my British friends would say, quite cricket is it? Truth…At this age at this time, you’d probably feel pretty trapped too.
4) Much ado is made of stories about Millennials ending up in therapy because they’ve been coddled all their lives. Much is made about the connection between this coddling and something called helicopter parenting, or as I like to think of it, Skinned-knee phobia. I can buy it that it might sound a little funny. Then you think about all the 40 year old men we saw in the 80’s – both in real life and parodied in film – who were having a “mid-life crisis.” I’m not sure why getting hung up thinking, “Is that all there is,” is more socially acceptable at 40 than it is at 21. But Chevy made an awful lot of money on Corvettes for just that reason. Truth…emotional flailing isn’t funny, no matter when in life it hits you.
By the end of 2015 this group will account for almost 50% of the workforce. At a certain point we’re going to have to stop generalizing milliennials and just accept that their true role in our lives will be, “My Boss” and “My Boss’ Boss” much sooner than we expect. Almost 40 years after the baby boomers took over, so too will this generation. Not coincidentally, this effect is being acutely felt in the tech world, as people who watched the birth of the personal computer, servers that could fit in racks, and the term ‘terabyte’ are naturally pretty proud of what they’ve produced. We’re reluctant to admit that how we used to sell doesn’t work anymore, that it’s all about webpages and not shoe leather and golf. We’re reluctant to accept that we can’t rely on a centralized iconic brand to do all the necessary talking for us, when branding has taken on a passion level so steep people tattoo themselves with logos. We’re reluctant to pass on our so-called ‘tribal knowledge,’ and more than a little hurt when it gets scoffed at- which I’ll talk about later in the context of Pulse- but get happy Peanut Gallery. It’s time.
P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did include my birth year in this post. But most studies would label me outside of Millennial and nowhere near Boomer. Officially I am Generation X as one of my parents is a boomer [and the other one is older, but she’d kill me for telling you that] but I’m a young one because the US experienced a population trough after the oil shocks.