Seriously, another article on millennials? Yes, seriously. Although I hope this one is a bit different for you as the reader. As a writer, I have sworn to myself many times that I would never write about this topic. But after seeing the arguments going back and forth on both sides - the side of the millennials and the side of the humans that raised them - it became clear to me that a large chunk of the conversation is ceasing to be spoken. There’s lots of finger-pointing but little listening; lots of talking but little understanding. It is only when we seek to understand that we have the context necessary to come to the middle ground where both parties can move forward in a respectful manner. The discourse thus far between millennials and the people that raised them has not looked like this. Instead, it’s looked more like this:
Older generations: “Millennials are so entitled and lazy!”
Millennials: “Baby boomers have no passion or adventure!”
Older generations: “Millennials are the worst employees and have no direction!”
Millennials: “Baby boomers are the worst bosses and don’t understand things like work-life balance, giving back, or doing what you love!”
Now obviously most of us don’t use those exact words in our defenses, but the gist is the same. With that as the background of the resounding themes we read about nearly every day, what follows is an attempt to understand both sides in hopes that we may all be a little more empathetic in the conversation, finding ways to operate together instead of apart.
My generation, the millennials, was raised during a massive shift in the way society functions. The world as a whole, in just a matter of years, moved from an age of walled gardens to an age of information. The knowledge that was historically held within the coffers of libraries, institutions, and places of work was suddenly available to anyone at any time anywhere in the world. In the blink of an eye, we all had any information we would ever need at our fingertips.
Curiosity has no doubt riddled every generation for all of time. This is not new. But when you combine that curiosity of a generation with the explosion of the web and the information age, suddenly that curiosity meets a nearly inexhaustible match. This information age that my generation was raised in was on an unbeknownst collision course with generations of people before us. No longer could our parents answer the question “Wait, but why?” with “Because I said so.” At the stroke of a keyboard we could find other possible answers to whatever questions we were posing. “That’s the way it is” became an insufficient answer for an entire generation.
This head-on collision left a lot to be desired in the minds of millions of kids as we watched and observed the way our parents lived their lives.
We watched as divorce skyrocketed, impacting our own families or families we knew.
We watched as countless Baby Boomers were in what was supposed to be the prime of their career, but instead were in jobs they detested for decades on end.
We watched as the era of loyal employers ended, iconic companies were crumbling at the seams, and new companies were taking their place at an astonishing rate.
We didn’t choose any of those things. It was simply the way the world was shifting, and our moldable minds watched first-hand as it unfolded. As we watched these changes in the world happen within our own families and communities, we combined this with this new-found access to information and came to the conclusion that there were other, possibly better, ways to live life. The information in aggregate was clear - the old way wasn’t going to work anymore.
We observed. We processed. We came to conclusions.
And so we started getting married later in life. And we decided that we wanted to work on things we enjoyed instead of things we didn’t. And we decided there’s a big world out there to see, and we wanted to travel and see it. And we realized that the university system is antiquated at best, and useless at worst. And we saw that if we found something we were good at and that we enjoyed, we had a recipe for long-term success, even if it meant hopping jobs for a few years to figure out what that “something” is.
The issue, or at least a large chunk of it, did not lay with us. It lay on the grounds of the world changing faster than at any point in history and we have been scrambling to figure it out ever since.
It is not the fault of the people that raised millennials that all of this happened so quickly, and it’s also not their fault that they don’t fully understand it. They in large part are seeing the changing world at an arm’s distance. They “see” these things happening, but they’re also several decades into their career, nearing the tail-end, and that (understandably) means they won’t be changing with them. They do not have the bulk of their career ahead of them, whereas we do, so it’s natural that they wouldn’t be adjusting to the times like we are forced to.
It’s also understandable that the generation that raised us gets frustrated by what appears to be a lack of work ethic. They are an incredibly hard working and loyal generation, and this foundation of the American dream that many of us benefited from was built on the backs of their hard work and their parents’ hard work. So when they see us switching jobs, changing industries, traveling, or trying to start companies, this can seem at surface-level like a lack of commitment and work ethic. What they don’t get to see, which again is not their fault, is the other side of the coin - how hard a generation of millennials truly does work once they find something they care about. My career has been spent surrounded by 20-something-year-old entrepreneurs, and many of them are the hardest working people I know, of any generation. Put those same people in a job they don’t like? They likely won’t work hard. But focus their attention on a pursuit they feel is worthy of pursuing? They’ll work as hard as necessary until the job is done.
What seems like a lack of work ethic to the generation that raised us is really just a lack of context. The world has changed, and we have changed with it.
I write all of this to come to a simple conclusion...
We’re not as unique as we think we are.
My generation is still wired to work hard, commit to their craft, and focus. We merely have been forced to take a different path to get there. The generation that raised us would have likely reacted the same way had they been raised in our circumstances. And we would have not been much different from them had we been raised in their generation.
Humans are wired to survive and contribute to society in some meaningful manner. When the basic tenets and constructs of society evolve, it means humans will evolve to meet the survival and contribution demands within them. A generation of millennials just happens to have been born into a time when those tenets and constructs were evolving faster than ever.
To the millennials, myself included - work hard. Find something you enjoy and are good at, and go be the best you possibly can at it.
To the generation that raised us - have faith. We may not be doing it the way it’s always been done, but we’re figuring it out. Our paths are different. Our intentions are not. We’ll get there.
To everyone - the best way forward is together. We may not understand each other, but that doesn’t mean we can’t respect each other. Here’s to more hard work, fewer articles like this one, and paving the way for future generations that we also won’t understand.