Narcissistic, materialistic and technology-addicted, the Millennial generation is conveniently distilled into a stereotype that screams ‘me, me, me’. But, as this generation redefines adulthood in more ways than one, are Millennials simply misunderstood?
If you value meaning and purpose in life over salaries and pensions, prioritise wellness, are more likely to be caught daydreaming about that life-changing trip to Costa Rica than weddings and are making drastically different life choices to your parents, the chances are you’re a Millennial. Commonly defined as the generation born between 1982 and the late Nineties, Millennials are often characterised in literature, film and popular media as entitled and self-obsessed, living on a diet of kale and the instant gratification that comes from the public over-sharing of every life event from sipping an Insta-worthy Matcha tea to the major milestones of career, love and life. Yet while it might make an attention grabbing headline to casually dismiss an entire generation as a series of relentlessly self-sabotaging kidults like so many of the narcissistic characters in HBO’s cult show Girls, as Millennials come of age – dominating the workplace, technology and the dating scene - these idle stereotypes ring ever more hollow.
“Millennial life goals look different,” says Lisa Walden, communications director and consultant at BridgeWorks consultancy and a Millennial herself. “Millennials were told they could define their own happiness and that they should reach for the stars. Because of that, many Millennials aren’t necessarily going out there and pursuing the more ‘traditional’ life goals. They’re looking to enrich their lives through experiences, and finding ways to give back. Some aren’t prioritising saving for a down payment on a house, but instead have a savings account to fund their goal to travel the world.” As the traditional markers of success have changed over the years – becoming both harder to achieve and less desirable – Millennials are redefining what were once immutable timelines, pursuing the life goals of marriage, children and home ownership much later, if at all. “Take marriage,” says Walden, “Millennials have significantly delayed marriage and starting families. Unlike generations before them, they’re settling down in their late twenties and early thirties (which puts them at a different stage in their career than when Generation Xers and Baby Boomers began getting married and having kids). Millennials are also redefining what parenthood looks like - with their careers ramping up, they’ve had to. What role does the mother have? What role does the father play? It’s all part of pursuing a life goal in a way that fits with their generational identities, but also with the life stage they’re in as they pursue these goals."
Living through dramatic shifts in technology, as well as fluid social and workplace demands, has forced Millennials to adapt to the times at lightning speed and therefore prioritise values over goals. The shifting ideals, multiple career twists – Millennials are the consumers of the workplace, with 60 percent open to a new job opportunity and 21 percent having changed jobs in the past year (more than three times the number of non-Millennials) according to a Gallup survey in 2016 - and indifference to putting down solid roots could be perceived as fickle. But perhaps it simply belies a nimbleness and tenaciousness that have escaped the conformist generations of previous decades.
The fact that many Millennials believe, unlike Gen Xers, that they will never be able to retire, changes the way money and work are viewed and, among other things, deepens the need for career fulfillment. “Millennials’ focus on meaning and passion is very real,” says David Stillman of father-son Gen X/Gen Z speaking team, Gen Z Guru. “It is not because they have struggled of late with their career paths. They want to meet traditional life achievements as well. The difference is that they are asking for meaning and passion at a younger age. The other generations also wanted these things, but their model was that you had to put in time before you could expect more meaning in the role. Millennials want to find that on day one. Not right or wrong…but definitely different.”
But shooting for the moon has not come without its impracticalities. “College turned out to be expensive. 2008 happened. Unpaid internships were normal,” notes Austyn Rask, research and writing associate at BridgeWorks and a late Millennial who identifies more with tech-integrated Generation Edge. “Following their passions in college didn't necessarily land Millennials the highest paying jobs. Many Millennials boomeranged back home to live with parents and save money. They didn't all get the uber-responsible jobs they aimed for, as Joel Stein referenced in Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation. We find ourselves explaining to clients that no, their Millennial employees are not lazy for taking a midday yoga class or for rolling into the office at 10am. Millennials are building a reputation for working obscure hours, whether 9pm on a Wednesday or half the day Saturday. Workaholism and vacation-shaming are on the rise for this young generation.”
Fewer boundaries between home and work life mean that Millennials bring their whole selves to projects, insecurities and all, with a transparency, freedom and expectation to be heard that breeds ideas and innovation but can also be misunderstood. A recent Pew Research Center study found that three out of five Millennials in the US don’t even want to be called Millennials, such is the perceived stigma. “We might live at home, choose not to get married, or participate actively in the sharing economy, but none of these decisions mean a stunted state of growth or intellect – just an evolving culture and worldview,” notes writer Jeva Lange in The Week. While the world might hate Millennials, being one is even worse, she says, particularly finding yourself at the receiving end of tone deaf Millennial-caricature advertising campaigns, ‘hip’ political crusades, endless ironic posts about how to get better at ‘adulting’, international news stories dumbed-down into GIFs from The Hills and articles proclaiming Millennials to be killing everything from the dinner date to the American dream.
This desire for respect makes the broad-brush labels all the more difficult to accept. “The irony of generational stereotyping is that the group most offended by Millennials acting entitled are other Millennials who do not act entitled,” says Jason Dorsey, president and researcher at The Center for Generational Kinetics, a Millennial and author of Y-Size Your Business. “They think the entitled segment of the generation is giving them a bad reputation. In terms of Millennial truth vs. fiction, there are actually more Millennials working today than any other generation. At the same time, people love to say that Millennials are broke, yet Millennials will outspend every other generation as consumers this year. The truth is that every generation - whether Millennials, Gen X, or Boomers - has a sub-group that may act entitled, lazy, or be firmly attached to the latest technology, but Millennials have been branded with way more than their fair share of negative characteristics because of the click bait results the media is able to generate by taking a negative angle towards Millennials.”
Far from the navel-gazing hipsters society loves to hate, we find a generation of workaholics afraid to take time off, who value volunteering and community (both online and IRL) more than any other generation before. In unstable global times Millennials are more globally similar than other generations because of the rise of the Internet, yet the strength of Millennials is demonstrated differently depending on the context of their environment. In the Middle East, not only does Millennial power show itself in luxury spending, the rise of entrepreneurial tech-conscious small businesses and the influence of industry leaders with global reach but in a growing social conscience and political activism that now has an outlet coursing through every smartphone.
According to historian and author of The New Arabs: How The Millennial Generation Is Changing The Middle East, Juan Cole, a youth bulge means that now more than a third of the Arab world’s population is made up of Millennials. Although facing staggering rates of unemployment in many nations, these young adults were significantly more urban and literate than preceding generations at the time of the Arab Spring, leading to widespread unrest among a population that not only had access to information from the outside world, but the ability to analyse and spread it. Social media, camera phones and blogs, found a political significance not seen before and Millennials - exposing the lie of their supposed apathy - were at the helm.
The tide continues to turn as the typecasting wears increasingly thin and the Millennial dollar is courted by the consumer industries. “Millennials are starting to get a more positive spin,” says Dorsey, “but that seems to be largely driven by Millennials themselves who are disproving - and disputing - the negative stereotypes rather than other generations adapting their view. The good news is that employers have recognised that Millennials can be valuable employees and are recruiting, retaining, and developing Millennials’ talent by adapting to bring out the best in this generation - while also expecting the generation to take some steps to adapt in return. On the consumer side, brands have finally realised that Millennials are not only the drivers of every major consumer trend but also exhibiting brand loyalty. Millennials are the number one generation to refer a friend to a particular product, service, or person.”
Further cross-generational understanding of the issues Millennials are facing and the smart workarounds they have devised that benefit everyone can ease the generational gap even further. Think remote working, flexible hours, the ease of online shopping, a guilt-free focus on wellbeing and apps for everything from dating to food delivery. Progress brings change and there will always be pockets of resistance to overcome. “There is too much negative chatter about Millennials,” notes Stillman. “There is a lot of Millennial fatigue today. Therefore, people are not as likely to want to invest time in the Millennial mindset. That is not fair. The people complaining about Millennials are often the ones who raised them. The best thing we can do is end the negative chatter. More than just avoiding stereotypes it is about…having an open mind and learning how Millennials are just different.” Draining generational conflicts hinder productivity and happiness all round, agrees Rask. “With generational understanding, however, we can understand our coworkers’ perspectives, resolve some of those conflicts, and leverage each others’ generational strengths to benefit ourselves, our teams, and our organisations. This starts with seeking to understand one another.”
Changing the dialogue about Millennials as entitled avocado addicts busy cultivating ‘portfolio careers’ through their iPhones to the reality of a multi-faceted, socially conscious and diverse group of grown ups might not be headline grabbing, but it’s necessary and it’s happening. Millennials - the most studied generation in history - are growing up, forging new paths for today’s young people to follow, offering us solutions, leaders, creativity and redefining traditional life goals. Besides, it’s the progressive (‘woke’) Gen Zers who have never known a world without the Internet, have an average attention span of 8 seconds and an annual spending power of $44 billion that are seizing the spotlight now. And with that heightened sense of intuition, maybe, this time, they will be the ones to define their own generation.