Inheriting both the best and worst of the modern world, the millennial generation is coming of age and looking to make its way in the world. Most are already out of college and beating the pavement looking for work and opportunity. Armed with lofty ambitions, this generation is talented, creative and well educated, yet millennials face a challenging future encumbered by high educational debt loads, an aging workforce, and a plethora of caricatured stereotypes.
Born during a fateful quirk of recent history, millennials arrived at the intersection of a transformative technological genesis, the tail end of one of America’s strongest periods of economic growth and stability, and shortly before the cascade of economic, political, and social crises that have rocked the world. They grew up in an environment of constant and rapid change. The world they came into was filled with growing wealth and opportunity, increasing global access, and largely committed – if overbearing – parenting. In their younger years, Millennials were pushed to explore, develop new talents, pursue athletics both for fun and for competition, and to engage the world around themselves with open and eager minds.
As millennials left primary school, the fundamental nature of communication changed with the advent of the internet, cell phones, and cheap user friendly electronics. Hardly more than middle school aged, this generation adapted to this technology instantly, melding seamlessly with the new socio-technological paradigm, while their parents and older siblings took a bit longer – in fits and starts – to catch on. Before MySpace and Facebook caught up with them, Millennials were busy building websites, creating online forums, pestering politicians, using resources like Wikipedia to learn and maybe cheat on their homework, buy and sell goods, and fact check the world around them. As a generation they are the living definition of “early adopters”.
Middle school and high school years for this generation were filled with high expectations in academic and extra curricular pursuits. For many, college was never a question of if or when. Rather it was an expectation, a fundamental right of passage into adulthood and the economy. The explosion of after school programs and extra curricular sports and clubs in middle-class high schools, coupled with collegiate aspirations exposed them to the type of leadership and collaborative roles generations before rarely experienced until after they entered the work force. Studying in classrooms far more diverse than previous generations instilled in many a sense of equality and a value for appreciating the multitude of individual and cultural experiences.
Fully immersed in the digital world before graduating high school, millennials intuitively understand how to use technology to break down power barriers and connect with politicians, CEO’s, journalists, academics, and other leaders across society. As a result they are imbued with a natural, perpetual sense of activism and engagement on social and political issues unlike any generation before, while at the same time holding a critical if not often cynical view of power and its frequent abuses by the slick, gimmicky, and ignoble among society. President Obama won the democratic nomination in 2008 largely by tapping into the digital power base of millennials. A few years later the Tea Party (at least in its earliest forms) grew largely out of the online grassroots work of libertarian minded and war weary millennials who backed Ron Paul in 2012.
Millennials have been the first generation since World War II to come of age during a period of prolonged economic, social, and military crisis. These crises have simultaneously exposed the generation to the need for comprehensive solutions to global challenges, while simultaneously changing the basic economic rules before their eyes. The new economic realities bear no relation to the ones their parents and grandparents grew up in. As the title of a popular book declares: “Average is Over”, and millennials know it their bones. In a short period of time, the old guarantee of a good job out of college has evaporated. Meanwhile, military aged millennials have been busy picking up the tab of an aggressive foreign policy with their lives, limbs, and long-term medical problems. Compounding these issues, the collapse of the global economy in 2007 forced many retirement-aged workers to remain in the workforce thus clogging up the corporate ladder for millennial graduates.
All these experiences have gifted this generation with a unique set of skills and perspectives. Born during an economic golden era, they have in innate optimism even in the face of overwhelming challenges. Having grown up with advanced technology at their fingertips, millennials are incredibly adept at managing, learning from, and exploiting technology for profit, pleasure, and higher purpose. Pushed from a young age to excel academically, they are the most educated generation in history, and are eager to use their knowledge. Engaged in leadership and team-based activities from a young age, millennials are driven to seek out responsibility and are adept at quickly integrating into collaborative enterprises. Maturing during an era of crisis and uncertainty, they have developed a flexible and resourceful entrepreneurial mindset coupled with a keen moral and ethical vision.
Unfortunately, there are still many that do not see the value inherent to this generation. A common refrain is that millennials are lazy, unmotivated slackers. There certainly are a few lazy millennials out there, just as there are a few lazy boomers and gen x-ers. As a cohort, however, this generation is high achieving, entrepreneurial, and highly skilled. Yet there are quirks to the generation that make them look a world apart to the generations that came before. When Boomers came of age their role models in business were the likes of Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, and Lee Iacocca. A group that embodied a nose to the grindstone, corner office hunting, corporate and brand loyalty mentality. Millennials, however, look to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. They are forward thinking, innovating disrupters, who create value by exploiting untapped opportunities and out of the box thinking. For a generation raised doing things the way they have always been done, this way of thinking looks and often sounds ridiculous, but it also drives impressive bottom lines.
Forged in an era of constant change, millennials are inherent risk takes willing to try and fail at new things. As a generation, they are one of the most entrepreneurial in a long time. Starting a small business, or launching a start up is no small feat, and it is one that has a high likelihood of failure. Yet, the practice of going it alone in the business word teaches an enormous number of lessons and imbues those who do with a deeper set of skills, knowledge, and experience, while building broad professional networks and fostering a healthy competitiveness. Success or failure, millennials bring those hard won skills into the economy. Smart CEOs and business leaders are already tapping into them to the benefit of their companies.
Bombarded by staggering amounts of information from a young age, millennials have become experts at slicing through BS to get to a point. Millennials understand better than most that time is money. More so: time is precious and limited. They watched their parents work long hours and end up unhappy as a result. The children of the divorced generation, they are eager to avoid the work/life balance mistakes of their parents. Motivated by this understanding of time scarcity, they vigorously protect their personal time. At the same time, they are productivity addicts who want results now and are willing to tear down impediments that slow progress. For those stuck in old ways of doing things or locked into comfortable business structures and routines, these traits are certain to cause conflict. However, embracing these traits leads to aggressive efficiency, and rapid engagement.
The combination of these traits will allow this generation to overcome not only the roadblocks that they face in their personal lives, but also the challenges faced on national and international levels. Millennials are burdened by high student loan debt and a job market that is finicky and bottle necked. They live in social and political environments that are cracking under the weight of outdated policy, inefficient and ineffective implementations, and rapidly changing conditions.
Burdened by collegiate debts, millennials have had to stave of big purchases of cars and homes, in addition to delaying a marriage. Yet, as a result they have pioneered the sharing economy, dividing the cost of expensive items over many users, enabling many more to leverage those resources in ways that were never possible before. Think of services like car sharing and AirBnB. Additionally, millennials are largely rejecting the traditional suburban model of living, opting instead for walk-able or cycle-able neighborhoods with higher density and greater connectedness. As the effects of their choices reverberate through the economy, towns and cities are likely to get denser and friendlier driving economic and ecological benefits to society at large. Oddly enough it is the cell-phone-slash-selfie generation that will re-create the city with an eye towards deeper social interconnectedness.
Surrounded by political failure on the left and right, millennials are taking the reins of political activism. Unswayed by political pandering and sound bite messaging, they are working to hold elected officials accountable and engineer new methods of engaging in the political process. True to form they are also looking to disrupt existing political structures and innovate new political solutions. Millennials are just now entering their 30’s en mass. While the impact of their political activity is yet to truly be seen, hints what could be possible abound, from Occupy Wall Street, to Black Lives Matter, to the dark horse campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Evan McMullin. They are still young, disorganized, and probably a touch too idealist (as every generation once was). However, each year they get more politically mature, more organized, and more tactically practical. Now more populous than the boomers they will be bringing that demographic cachet to a district near you in short order. It is inevitable that they will soon be reshaping American politics. The smart money is on working with them to meet our challenges, before they figure out they can just take the reins of power for themselves if they really want to.
Millennials are often a mystic breed to older generations. Articles abound trying to discern what they are and what they want. In reality, they are, like every person from every generation, merely the product of the time and place they were born in, shaped and molded by the social, political, and economic forces that surround them. Understanding the world we grew up in shines light on how we are forging ahead in the present and the vision of the future we look forward to. Like the generations that came before us, we have our unique set of challenges. Similarly we have developed our unique set of skills and talents for meeting those challenges head on. The path ahead won’t be easy, but the rewards will be tremendous.