Even as a non-Millennial, I just can’t wrap my mind around this ongoing ruthless and public practice of dismissing the entire generation coming up behind us. Typically the criticism comes with terse anger from those deeper into the Gen X or Boomer set. This time, however, we have been treated to the pseudo-intellectual snobbery of the recent 15-minute video featuring the less-than-famous leadership consultant, Simon Sinek.
I’m not quite sure of Sinek’s objectives for this very one-sided (edited?) presentation on an entire demographic. Probably a bit of infamy. I can’t imagine he has ambitions to lead people again…like…ever. A great leader uses insight to inspire and motivate, but I see none of that happening here. I wouldn’t expect many Millennials would respond to his framing of an emerging new generation, assuming they could even bring themselves to work with him.
The arrogance of summoning the corporate world to solve the problem of Millennials like they are a global concern akin to climate change not only reeks of drama, but also presupposes that the older cohorts are pretty much the shit. I think it’s time we conduct a little audit on precisely that assumption, at least in the context of economics, careers and the workplace. As unlike that for Millennials, the story of Gen Xers and Boomers has largely been written, so I’d like to tell it. And I’m probably the right kind of guy to do it as an older Gen Xer who has worked with all cohorts for an extended period and seen first-hand how we have developed and how the world has changed.
For if we want to condemn others, it would only be prudent to look first in the mirror to understand where we started, where we finished and the mark we are leaving as a result. Only then can we take a balanced view of how we can move forward with not only understanding but a little respect.
Our life was simpler, easier.
Our story, and the long path that shaped what Millennials face today begins sometime after WWII (relax, this won’t take that long) when the Boomers were born. At that time and in part due to the fresh victory of the allies, the world in many ways belonged to the west. Germany and Japan entered a decades-long rebuild, while South America, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia were not much a force in the global economy.
America and parts of Europe invented, built and commercialized most things of value. Over time, and through diplomacy, new markets opened up, and business steadily expanded. The lack of both technology and competition kept the pace of growth and invention markedly measured and your leading status fairly protected.
These were in fact the glory days with all key markets in favorable position:
- The housing market teemed with supply and manageable prices of only a few orders of magnitude of our salary
- The job market was great; unemployment for those leaving school was about 50% less than it is today. The ratio of school debt to salaries were not such that graduating students were faced with more than 10 years of debt repayment
- Western investment markets grew in tandem; a few bumps along the way in the Viet Nam / Watergate eras, but portfolios doubled about every five years. Then in the late 1990s, another four-fold market explosion in the dotcom boom, although valuations were supported by promise and vapor and not real business metrics (a hint of the beginnings of a new era in the 21st century)
In those days you could leave school, be assured of a decent paying job and afford a home that you could easily pay off by your early 50s. Freedom 55 was a thing back then, and over 20% more households built their wealth on one income, allowing the other spouse (usually the wife) to tend to most needs of domestic administration. A simpler, more focused existence in which you could build a substantial amount of wealth by holding on to a job that was inherently stable, while blue-chip stocks and hot housing markets multiplied our wealth at a torrid pace.
And even with all that we were bonused the ultimate participation ribbon – company pensions. Nope, not merit based. Just stick around and don’t screw up. Companies could afford to stay loyal, while employees couldn’t afford not to. Everybody won.
Absolutely, we worked back then and put in an honest day. But at the moment we crossed the threshold of our office door we could disconnect. There was a rather clean line between our work and personal lives – up to 14 hours each day (and weekends!) to separate and reboot. No one could find us and few tried. If we chose to work more we did it uninterrupted. We ate with our family, slept a good night and awoke to no emergencies. We ate a full breakfast and read the paper and then headed to work with a rested mind that could easily focus. That was a glorious way of working that generated less wear and tear on our minds and bodies…and I miss it.
This type of stability bred a mindset that has endured in the older generations for both better and worse. Sit tight, put your head down, don’t take unnecessary risks, don’t make any mistakes. Just work, and an outstanding second half of your life will be assured. We did work hard but we sacrificed mostly for the sake of that second half, a glorious set of decades to spend and relax.
These were the generations of stuff. Houses – massive houses with two-car garages for your…well…two cars. Large yards, furniture, trips, clothing, jewelry, all of it. We wrote the book on stuff, making competition out of it (‘keeping up with the Joneses’), and convinced everyone that this was the new standard of the American Dream. Something we are now learning to be unsustainable.
Things began to change….
The walls came down. The banana republics that we developed so they could buy our stuff became our fiercest competition. Germany and Japan awoke and became a force in especially technical disciplines. The decades-long stock market run collapsed back to reality in the early 2000s and again in 2008, ushering in a brand new era of volatility and instability.
….and we mortgaged their future.
We loved our stuff and became attached to the insane rates of growth we historically enjoyed, so we fought to sustain it. When corporate revenue gains slowed we locked in our returns by deleting company pensions, and often times only for new employees to make sure you weren’t impacted. We clawed back benefits and then championed the good business sense of this new concept of downsizing. We threatened our politicians with their jobs if they didn’t keep taxes low.
And what where the beneficiaries of our generation’s mounting wealth? Not social security, which stands to be unfunded within 15 years. Not the disenfranchised who are experiencing unprecedented income disparity. Not the environment. Not our cities’ infrastructure. Look around. We hoarded much of what we earned. We have many accomplishments to be proud of and a higher standard of living in many ways, but we left a lot in disrepair as we battled like crazy and at great expense to sustain it.
But above all, we pulled the rug out from the future of our kids.
And then this.
Boomers and Gen Xers in my mind are responsible for mastering the use of one specific and dangerous tool that kept the economy growing while preserving our ability to accumulate stuff. We made debt a way of life.
Credit, to be clear, gives us the financial means to possess something now when we cannot afford to pay for it in full. Credit became our generation’s scandalous manifestation of entitlement. Nope, don’t have the money but yup I somehow deserve to have it now. A brand new mindset was born. Nicely done.
We did away with responsible layaway plans (seems our stuff wasn’t coming to us fast enough…) and accumulated $3.5 trillion in revolving consumer debt to complement the troubling $8.5 trillion in household mortgage debt, of which only a tiny fraction existed 40 years ago. In that time we nurtured what amounts to a smoke-and-mirrors economy not so much on our strong backs but more on spending our (or someone’s) future income. Everyone got rich off it. In the coming decades we will be forced to pull money out of the economy to repay these debts, or write them off with more explosive consequences than the tiny ripple that was 2008.
And let’s not even talk about sovereign debt as this is now a crippling and pervasive phenomenon. The ‘pay yourself first’ mentality has extended across the globe, with inter-government debts maxed out and hanging on a precipice that must be carefully balanced to avoid global economic disaster. We have handed out credit to literally every one and every thing, and that economic gravy train has hit a wall. Debt won’t be an economy-driving spending tool for our children as it was for us; it will only be a gigantic, enduring burden.
My hope is that we find constructive ways to redistribute our wealth before and upon our passing. We should feel morally obligated to Make America Great Again of our own initiative, which extends beyond voting in lunatics who will be unable to rewind the clock. We have rested the global economy on a house of cards in preservation of a privileged lifestyle. And we have left your kids a heap of problems to solve. Expensive problems. We partied on the dime of future generations, which in my mind is the most shameful example of not only entitlement but greed that any generation could ever lay claim to.
So where does that leave a Millennial?
New generations aren’t haphazard formations; they are a reflection of the misadventures of their creators. It’s an evolutionary reflex. In plainer terms, that means when we pick on something about a Millennial, we are in actuality revealing clues about where we screwed up. Sadly, we’re far too blinded by our self-righteousness to see the irony of our bitching.
Subconsciously, Millennials like any generation will study us and organically adapt. And what do they see?
Our generation is dying with regrets, consistently citing that we shouldn’t have focused so much on material things, but rather we should have done work we enjoyed, cared more for our health and nurtured important relationships better. When our time comes to an end we admit having achieved a lot, although in many ways we had it wrong.
They know that our values and ways are not leading to outcomes for them that are either possible or desirable, so the biggest thing on their mind is change. They will build entirely new models and valuations for prosperity and fulfillment.
We need to lead differently.
Fulfillment for them will demand being happier at work. A job is no longer a means to an end since there’s no pot of gold waiting in the distance. Without an assured destination, the journey becomes the highlight, so if work is now an omni-present component of their life they will expect more from us as leaders in order to stick around.
This demographic is much more in tune with the components of job satisfaction that extend beyond compensation packages that can no longer provide much for them beyond meeting monthly expenses. Showing up and putting your time in delivers very little benefit these days, so this alleged lack of commitment is just an expression of profound uncertainty about what all this is all supposed to be for.
No, it’s not literally about bean bags and free food specifically. Demonstrate some insight for pity sakes. These are the more primitive expressions of what the new cohort thinks will make them happy; these wants will mature as they do. Our role is to help them figure out what it is and then deliver it in 21st century organizations — not criticize them for valuing different things out of necessity.
What will matter is a more robust life — with hobbies, experiences, relationships and attention to all forms of health (spiritual, physical, emotional, mental). Moments will become precious…and yes, will continue to be captured on our phones. Within work, time will become invaluable; productivity and agility will be a bigger thing both for the sake of not only recapturing some of the personal time that we enjoyed in the past but also for marketplace responsiveness.
As I said, those annoyances will continue to be clues for us as leaders. Most employees and not just Millennials regularly check phones not because they are distracted, but because we have conditioned them to, under the guise of expectations of working harder, as seems to be our mantra. Here’s the kicker – they are being as productive as we are disrespectful, because most meetings are poorly run and deliver marginal ROI for every hour of time invested. We want them to focus, but they are trying to tell us we’re wasting time…and we choose not to listen. That’s for another post.
As objective leaders, we will also see that ‘making an impact’ is not as lofty an ambition as creating world peace, but instead maximizing the use of our systems and processes to free up our energy to cause outcomes (PS this is exactly why I left a high-paying job a few years ago). Yes, Simon, there should be an app for many of the things we currently spend a lot of wasted time doing on the job.
Still, many Millennials do want to leave a positive mark on society – to make it better than what they inherited. I see a dark and tragic irony that we snicker at them for this given all that we have endangered in the days ahead.
They’ll be ok.
They always are. Every generation claims the following one (uh, the one they created) to be inferior and you don’t seem to be any different. Every new medium has allegedly been an assault on our social abilities; this goes back to newspapers (check Getty for archived images), while television was labeled ‘the drug of the nation’. Our fear of smartphones destroying our brains will also pass in time. So will our other concerns about the tragedy that is this generation.
Forty years ago our transition to a tech-based society and economy began in earnest. And you know what – our 20 and 30-somethings have been the ones to start the more forward-thinking ventures. They have routinely shunned pensions and embraced risk to explore new frontiers and ultimately found companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Salesforce and Tesla. Several of these have the largest market cap in our current economy, while many beyond these have significant potential. This crowd looks for startup unicorns, not cash cows to milk for eternity as we stand pat with our business practices, letting our global competitors pass us by.
Our kids will invent not with marginal line extensions upon which we built careers, but with driverless cars, AI and an entirely new, virtual reality that stands to become the next generation operating and communication platform. They will climb bigger mountains than did any past generation. They will compete more than they will try to protect. They will make America a new kind of great using their own voice.
And considering where we are, our best hope for Millennials to succeed is that they don’t follow in our footsteps, which makes cloning ourselves arguably the worst development objective we can deploy as leaders. We’re not the model, but rather closer to the model T – outdated relics that the younger set are patiently waiting to move on, as much as they are hanging on our every word.
They will be leading us shortly, embracing their own values and priorities which will leave the tables turned for those of us who plan to continue to work. Looking backward for a template only makes us appear backwards. Let’s instead prepare them by first embracing the future as they see it…and then impart our wisdom to help them do different instead of endlessly prodding them to do more as our one-trick pony for mentoring.
Theirs is a new normal, clearly one we don’t understand; so how can we help them thrive within it?
No, they aren’t perfect by any stretch (believe me I’m not blind), but let’s allow Millennials to be who they are; and let’s challenge ourselves to help them evolve into superior versions of their current likeness. That kind of legacy just might make up for the things we chose to ignore.
March 2017: This Gen Xer has written a book on why he thinks boomers have ruined America
March 2017: The Boston Globe highlights some economic realities of millennials and asserts they have every right to complain.