In 2014, USA Today declared Charleston to be a "Millennial magnet," noting that our city "now teems with college-educated young people, 20- and 30-somethings who have come for the jobs and stayed for the lifestyle."
And that means we better start bracing for a lot of big changes, for if you believe all the pundits and HR consultants, the Millennials are very different from old fogeys like me.
They're "tech-savvy." They're "connected." They "multitask" and are "digital natives." They are "unmoored from institutions," as the Pew Research Center put it, politically independent and religiously unaffiliated, linked by social media instead of traditional organizations like churches and Rotary Clubs.
To really understand Millennials, experts insist, you must understand how they grew up. The entire generation was raised by smothering helicopter parents who told them endlessly that they were special. Their soccer teams had no winners or losers, and everyone got a trophy.
And now this entitled generation is moving into the workforce — and they might just blow the whole thing up. Reared in a cocoon of gold stars, they expect that same coddling to continue in the workplace. They think "business as usual" ethics are lame. They hate taking orders and have no truck with coats and ties. They insist that their workplace needs to be different, with managers who act more like therapists than drill sergeants, giving constant feedback and praise.
Corporate America is freaked out by all of this, and they're hiring armies of consultants to help them come to grips with this inscrutable new generation. The professionals' advice? You've got to make the office environment fun, offer free food and chair massages, get rid of semi-annual performance reviews, and create "transparency" and "flat organizations."
But I'm not so sure about that. I work with a lot of Millennials. They are amused by my stories of growing up back in the 20th century with landline phones. Or at least they pretend to be. I have been observing them in the wild for several years, and here's the dirty little secret: there's nothing really special or different about them. They're just young people, and they are far more like young people in past decades than they are different.
Kids These Days
There are so many problems with the notion of Millennial exceptionalism that it's hard to know where to begin. Maybe we can start by noting that sweeping generalizations about 30 or 40 million people (every American born between 1980 and 1995, to use one definition of Millennial) is bound to be about as accurate as a horoscope.
And then there's the fact that these Millennial generalizations are based on just one narrow segment of the generation — that is, middle-class suburbs kids who proceeded smoothly down the educational track to a selective college campus.
But even if we stipulate that we are talking just about that relatively well-off group of college-educated 20-somethings entering the professional world, all the blather about Millennials still rings hollow. The more you dig into the "research" on Millennials the more it seems a collection of obvious and unsurprising revelations. Let's look at a few.
Roberto A. Ferdman recently discussed "The Baffling Reason Many Millennials Don't Eat Cereal" on the Washington Post's Wonkblog, citing a survey in which almost 40 percent of Millennials said that cereal was "an inconvenient breakfast choice because they had to clean up after eating it." Oh, those Millennials.
Rather than just chuckling at the folly of youth, Ferdman argues that the findings should scare the bejesus out of "anyone who has a stake in this country's future," for it's further evidence of a "national trend toward laziness" that includes young people drinking pre-ground coffee instead of whole bean, an increase in restaurant delivery services, and children not being made to do household chores anymore.
But is there anything really new about this? People are inherently lazy. The entire history of human innovation has been fueled by our innate desire to do as little work as possible.
My great-grandmother, I am quite sure, was exasperated that her daughter didn't rise at dawn to gather eggs and slaughter a chicken for breakfast but simply pulled them ready-to-cook from the icebox, to which it had been delivered by the local grocer. (My family has a much-repeated and perhaps apocryphal story about the first time my grandfather, a college music professor, visited his new bride's family on their farm. His mother-in-law asked him to go out in the yard and kill a chicken for breakfast. Panicked, he went about it the best way he could fathom. He tried to run it over with his car.)
No, the kids today aren't any lazier than you or me. They're just lazy in new and different ways. And when it comes to the workplace, Time magazine tells us, "Millennials want casual Fridays almost every day." Gone are the days of the suit and tie; jeans and sandals are the new norm.
But why should this be surprising? Standards of attire change, and the trends always move toward becoming more informal — at least in the eyes of the older generation.
Every time I hear one of my peers gripe about how no one wears suits to work any more, I think of the Edwardian gentlemen lamenting the decline of long-tailed evening coats in the 1920s. Such attire was eclipsed by the shorter, tail-free tuxedo jacket, which formerly had been considered too informal and vulgar to wear to dinner in public. (The new mode "gives all the men such a monotonous and tiresome aspect," one Vogue writer complained, "as if they were clerks who had simply changed their coats.")
But let's not forget that Millennials are digital natives — the first generation to grow up fully connected on devices and the internet. Again, so what? Every generation has some technology that they're the first to grow up with. The so-called GI Generation (born between 1901 and 1924) was the first to grow up with automobiles; the Baby Boomers were the first with television. My grandchildren will be the first generation to grow up with self-driving cars, and I'm sure they'll be insufferable because of it.
The World Changes, People Don't
Ultimately, the real problem with attributing special characteristics to the Millennial generation is that it gives us a false, distorted lens for interpreting what's going on in the workplace and in the world at large.
First, there's the question of change. Humans tend to treat the world as if it is supposed to be static, and when things do change, we tend to find it shocking and significant. But we live in a dynamic, rapidly evolving world — and there's nothing new about that. The fact that the fashion, language, and mores of one generation are quite unlike those of the previous one shouldn't surprise us one bit.
But yet it does, and being baffled by change can result in a lot of bad ideas, like the view that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
At its mildest, you'll wind up sounding like an old crank, as Sandy Hingston does in a recent piece for Philadelphia magazine entitled "How Millennials are Ruining the Workforce," in which she gripes at length about kids not respecting their elders and the fact that no one reads newspapers anymore. Taken at its worst, you start formulating public policies based on making America great again.
Flummoxed by change, we insist on reading too great of importance into what are superficial differences, concluding that something fundamental has shifted and the old rules no longer apply, that we must throw out all the lessons learned from experience because they just don't work any more. (Remember the daft notion of "internet time" from back in the dot-com boom days — the idea that the internet had broken the laws of business and a website with a sock puppet mascot could zoom from nothing to a billion-dollar valuation in one year?)
We do need to rethink hierarchical, command-and-control structures at work, but not because the people in the workplace are fundamentally different. Society and the economy is continuing to evolve, and the way we did things in the old days simply doesn't work very well in the post-industrial, digitally connected world.
Human beings are fundamentally human beings, and the Millennials, I suspect, will turn out OK. In a few decades they'll be ready to write their own handwringing think-pieces about the kids in their offices and how different they are. And they'll say with amazement, "This was a big meeting. He could have at least put on a pair of jeans!"
Millennial, Generation X, Boomers, Beatnik, or Lost Generation?
Old folks fretting over the younger generation is nothing new, nor is a younger generation making earnest statements about how they are fundamentally different from their parents' and grandparents' generation. Here's a selection of such earnest statements. Can you match them to the generation by or about which they were uttered?
Lost Generation: came of age in the 1920s
Beat Generation: 1940s/1950s
Baby Boomers: 1960s
Generation X: 1980s/1990s
1. "[This] generation is also one that feels bitter over what previous generations bequeathed it: a crippling national debt, an anemic economy, a spoiled environment, an entrenched underclass."
2. "Despite graduating into a terrible economy . . . [they] should be more inclined to sacrifice personal freedom in favor of a commitment to family than we've proven to be."
3. "The older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us . . . and then they are surprised that we don't accept it with the same enthusiasm with which they received it."
4. "We're not going to settle. Because we saw our parents settle."
5. "One father, fearing that easy times may not be enough of a character builder, remarked, 'They're lucky. But do they know it?'"
6. "Born into relative prosperity . . . they began to seek a deeper purpose than accumulating money in a context dominated by business interests and routine."
7. "We have more independence and education than other generations have had. We are going to be able to take care of ourselves and our world."
8. "The success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just financial performance."
9. "A more democratic system of relationships with frank exchange of ideas is growing up in many homes: "My mother was a splendid mother in many ways, but I could not be that kind of mother now. I have to . . . listen to my children's ideas."
10. "They grew up with this instant gratification that the older generations didn't grow up with."
11. "They are selfish and inconsiderate, thinking of no one's comfort or pleasure but their own."
1. Generation X: Frank Bruni, "Who Talks to Xers?" Charleston Post & Courier (November 25, 1993)
2. Millennial: Taylor Tepper, "Confessions of a Spoiled and Entitled (Yet Affable) Millennial Worker," Money (January 29, 2016)
3. Lost Generation: John F. Carter, Jr., "'These Wild Young People,' by One of Them", Atlantic Monthly (1920)
4. Millennial: "The "Millennials" Are Coming", CBS 60 Minutes (May 23, 2008)
5. Beat Generation: "The Luckiest Generation", Life (January 5, 1954)
6. Baby Boomers: Theresa Richardson, "The Rise of Youth Counter Culture after World War II and the Popularization of Historical Knowledge: Then and Now." Paper Presented at the Historical Society 2012 Annual Meeting, Columbia, South Carolina, May 31st – June 2nd 2012.
7. Beat Generation: "The Luckiest Generation", Life
8. Millennials: "Shocker: Millennials Want To Switch Jobs and Work From Home," BizPhilly from Philadelphia Magazine (February 9, 2016)
9. Lost Generation: Mother interviewed in Robert S. Lynd & Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in American Culture (1929)
11. Lost Generation: Letter to the Editor, Chicago Tribune (May 20, 1928)