at Christian Science Monitor
Gymnast Gabby Douglas, runner Galen Rupp, the women's 400-meter relay team: America got a clear glimpse of its bright future at the 2012 Olympics as 'Millennial Generation' Olympians exhibited their unique take on the country’s traditional pride, diversity, and can-do spirit.
Millennials (Americans born in 1982 through 2003) comprised the bulk of the US team that averaged 27 years of age. Their generation’s focus on the success of the larger group was evident in these ways during the competition:
Patriotism without jingoism. Millennials’ pride in their country, without excessive nationalism, was constantly on display in London. A 2011 Pew survey indicated that 70 percent of Millennials describe themselves as “very patriotic,” but only a third said that the United States is the “greatest country in the world.” That contrasts strikingly with two-thirds of senior citizens and half of baby boomers who think America is the best.
Each member of the gold-medal winning US women’s 400-meter relay team wrapped herself in her own American flag and beamed at the scoreboard showing the team’s world-record time, each expressing her pride in competing and winning for the USA. The contrast with the two American Baby Boomer medal winners in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, who raised their fists in a black-power salute as the national anthem played, couldn’t have been greater.
But, Millennial pride-in-country rarely, if ever, became bragging jingoism when Americans won or sour grapes when they lost. Instead, US athletes seemed to appreciate and applaud the efforts of their competitors.
No story better demonstrates the willingness of this age group to cheer for their competitors than that of the men’s 10,000-meter gold- and silver-medal winners, Britain’s Mo Farah and America’s Galen Rupp. The two trained together and, as Mr. Rupp put it, are “brothers.” To Rupp, a victory for his British brother was as good as one for himself.
Diversity in more than name only. The Millennial Generation is the most diverse in US history. About 40 percent are nonwhite. This diversity was reflected in America’s Olympic team as well. Between 30 and 40 team members were foreign born and many were the children of immigrants.
Most dramatically, Leonel Manzano, who won America’s first medal in the 1,500-meter race since 1968, is the son of an undocumented Mexican farm worker.
A US citizen, Mr. Manzano waved both American and Mexican flags to celebrate the two strands of his heritage.
African-American Gabby Douglas became the first black to win a gold medal in gymnastics. She did so in typically diverse Millennial fashion, leaving her Virginia Beach, Va., home to live with a white family in Des Moines so that she could train with a Chinese-American coach.
Girls rule. In 1972, Congress enacted and President Nixon signed Title IX, guaranteeing that women would be treated equally in any educational program receiving federal assistance, including sports.
Never has the impact of Title IX been clearer than in the 2012 Olympics. For the first time, more women than men (281 to 271) represented the US at the Olympic Games. And, US women won almost twice as many gold and total medals than the men.
Participating and doing one’s best is winning. Critics of the Millennial Generation complain that these young people were reared by their parents to expect a trophy just for showing up; they worry that such an approach will produce soft adults who will wilt in the face of stiff competition.
The success of the Americans in the pressure cooker of the London Games should dispel such fears. But it was also clear that the way they were raised made Millennials appreciate even more the Olympic creed that participating and doing one’s best is its own reward. With few exceptions, Millennial athletes regarded winning a silver or bronze medal or just beating their own personal best as almost as much of a reason to celebrate as winning a gold medal.
Millennials are an upbeat, team-oriented, high achieving, can-do generation. Their belief that it’s a victory just to play the game, work hard, and do your best will be a gift that keeps on giving for America as this generation comes to dominate the adult population.
An April 2012 Pew survey indicated that, even confronted with the impact of the Great Recession, Millennials were significantly more likely than older generations to believe that “as Americans we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want.”
That optimism, determination, and achievement were on ample display in London during the past two weeks. America is fortunate that this generation moving up to enter far bigger arenas where the stakes for the nation are even higher.
In 2008, as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought for the Democratic presidential nomination, many baby boomer women did not understand how a majority of their millennial daughters and granddaughters could support a man against the first woman in history with a realistic chance of winning the White House.
In reality, the readiness of these young women to base their votes on something other than the sex of the candidates was a sign of their strength and self-determination. Bolstered by legislation such as Title IX, which required equality of the sexes in the administration of public education, those boomers created a cohort of high-achieving, confident young women.
Already millennial women are taking their rightful place among America’s leaders. Soon they will begin to help redefine what it means to be an effective leader in the 21st century.
Millennials have overwhelmingly turned their backs on conventional notions about the place of women in society, making their generation the most gender neutral, if not female driven, in U.S. history.
A 2009 Pew survey indicated that 84 percent of millennials disagreed that “women should return to their traditional roles in society,” with two-thirds (67 percent) completely disagreeing with the idea. Last fall 82 percent of Millennials told Pew that the trend toward more women in the American workforce has been a “change for the better.”
Their generation is the first in U.S. history in which women are more likely to attend college and professional school than are men. Women are also more likely to receive bachelor’s degrees than men. By 2016, they are projected to earn 64 percent of associate’s degrees, 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 63 percent of master’s degrees, and 56 percent of doctorates. But despite of their greater representation in the student body, the number of women holding college student government office continues to lag behind men. “At the 50 colleges ranked highest by U.S. News & World Report, less than a third of student presidents are women.”
In the end, however, the greatest contribution of Millennial women to American leadership may not be simply in holding formal positions, but in helping to redefine its very nature.
In 1964, Warren Bennis and Philip Slater, argued that corporate leadership characteristics would have to be altered to survive in a period of increasing social change in their Harvard Business Review article titled, “Democracy is Inevitable.” They cited five traits that would define corporate success in the future:
- Full and free communication, regardless of rank and power.
- A reliance on consensus to manage conflict.
- Influence based on competence and knowledge, not personal whims or prerogatives of power.
- An atmosphere that encourages emotional expressions as well as task-oriented acts.
- A human bias, willing to cope and mediate conflict between the organization and the individual.
In the intervening fifty years, Boomer parents have raised a generation of women whose attitudes and beliefs are best suited to exercising the style of leadership Bennis accurately predicted would come to dominate organizations in the future.
As social media technology constantly drives down the cost of communicating and increases the freedom and flexibility of each worker, hierarchical top down, command and control organizations are being increasingly supplanted by horizontal structures in which effective leadership depends on creating trust, coordinating innovation, cultivating creativity, and building consensus.
Warren Bennis has called Mike and Morley's book, Millennial Momentum, "Extremely useful, readable and important...the only recent book I have been eager to blurb, it's THAT good."