Since at least the time of Socrates, older generations have criticized younger ones for not being as smart, hardworking, polite, selfless, or strong as they themselves were when they were young.
For that reason, it’s hardly surprising that a cottage industry has arisen devoted to attacking the nation’s youngest generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), as a lazy, soft, self-centered, and narcissistic “me” generation.” Why? Research suggests this tsk-tsking of young adults has found a receptive, albeit selective, audience among older Americans.
Attacks on young people make for provocative media copy and may help sell books or generate publicity for those who find satisfaction in criticizing other generations. But, contrary to these charges, both generational theory and the real-life attitudes and behavior of Millennials demonstrate that, in fact, their cohort is far more accurately described as a “we” than a “me” generation.
Four types of generations have cycled throughout American history.
William Strauss and Neil Howe, the founders of generational theory, know that not everyone in a particular generation can be painted with the same brush.
They make a strong case that both of the two generations that immediately preceded the Millennials—Generation X and Baby Boomers—contain a larger share of individuals who are inwardly focused and self-oriented than does the Millennial Generation.
- Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) were encouraged by their parents to develop strongly held internal values, which, as Boomers aged, gave their lives meaning and on which they continue to be unwilling to compromise.
- Gen-Xers, (born 1965-1981) reared by their parents in an unprotected, critical manner, often became individualistic risk-takers and entrepreneurial adults.
- Millennials, by contrast, are considered a “civic” generation and have historically been group-oriented, problem-solving, institution builders or, in other words, a “we” generation.
The beliefs and behavior of Millennials confirm this description.
- As teens, almost all are involved in community service. Among 2011 college freshmen, 88 percent had participated in such activities while in high school.
- The contribution of these young Millennials to America’s nonprofits is both striking and crucial. In 2008, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, Millennials provided over a billion hours of service, worth more than $22 billion.
- Some would argue that as impressive as these numbers may be, much of this teenage community service is actually “forced labor” because it is a graduation requirement at many US high schools and, therefore, will not be sustained once Millennials graduate.
- But, in fact, most Millennials do retain at least this lesson from high school as they age. Among Millennials entering college in 2011, for example, 70 percent said it is “essential or very important to help people in need,” the highest percentage ever recorded.
- After leaving college, 60 percent said they wanted to engage in service to “help the country” and they have delivered on this pledge. An April 2012 Pew survey indicates that 58 percent of Millennials (compared with 51 percent of older generations) had “done volunteer activities through or for an organization within the previous year.
Now, in ever-increasing numbers, Millennials are beginning to bring their civic generation values to the workforce.
A 2010 Cone Cause Evaluation study found that when deciding where to work, 87 percent of Millennials, compared with less than 70 percent of the overall population, consider the causes a company supports.
Some Millennials are creating social entrepreneurships that let them use their energy and talent in original and imaginative ways.
- For starters, they are creatively solving problems in arenas ranging from the environment to education and from economic opportunity to civil liberties in dictatorial countries.
- Others expect to implement their values when they join more traditional organizations. In either case, more than other recent generations, Millennials will be driven by a desire and a need to make the world a better place.
- This will permeate all aspects of their lives; not only their free time, but their work as well.
The bottom line
Older workers, take heart! And take a page from—or at least understand—the Millennials playbook.
Traditional or social entrepreneurs who recognize the Millennial Generation is a “we” rather than a “me” generation, and operate on that basis, will be in the best position to compete and prosper in the Millennial era ahead.
How Millennial are you?
To find out, take this quiz, courtesy of Pew Research:pewresearch.org/millennials/quiz.