Millennials. What image does that word conjure up for you? Do you think of a flighty, selfish, soft bunch who have lost the ability to concentrate thanks to their reliance on social media? Teenagers communicating in emoticons and students Googling their way to grades?
Do you think of a crowd of spoiled teens, boomerang college kids and feckless, wandering twenty-somethings who really should have had worked out what they wanted to be when they grow up? A generation demanding so much, and yet lacking motivation to actually roll up their sleeves and get started? Floating around the world with a sense of entitlement but little in the way of a tangible plan.
Of course, they’re not all bad. Even their greatest detractors would admit that they have a vague idea about making the world a better place. But cat videos and naff memes are a constant distraction from that sense of higher purpose. Pretty stupid, huh?
But on the other hand, maybe the millennium issue is more of an image problem than something fundamentally wrong. Despite the bad rap, millennials are the most stressed out group in the labour market right now. Employee anxiety is a growing problem, with millennials prone to taking too much on themselves and burning out. A new ‘millennium bug’ for us to worry about.
So which is it to be? A generation of feckless people, stupid enough to think that the world owes them a favour, or a hard working bunch who give so much that they risk their own health? Are millennials really as stupid as everyone seems to think we are?
Millennials at Work - Lazy, or Ahead of the Curve?
Millennials - by the most accepted calculation - were born between 1980 and 2000, and in the US as of 2015, they are the largest generational segment of the workforce. By 2020, one in three adult Americans will be millennials, and 75 percent of the workforce will be millennials in the next ten years. These millennials expect to hold a single role for no more than 3 years, with job hopping being an accepted way of life.
That might explain why more than half of hiring managers surveyed said they struggled to hire and retain millennial employees.
So what is behind this apparent flightiness? Is it simply that we have been so used to life handing us everything on a plate that we are unable to commit for anything and really knuckle down? Are we too stupid to concentrate on one thing for more than a few months? Or maybe the opposite?
Millennials started hitting the workforce in the late 1990s, when the world was abuzz about the millennium. The tech bubble was yet to burst and things looked pretty rosy. For a while. Then the economic landscape shifted on a global scale, and we found ourselves in the early years of our careers, rudderless and redundant, and living through the worst recession in a generation. Job hopping became a necessity, not a choice.
Perhaps millennials are not workshy, maybe they just live in a reality which demands flexibility above all else. We had the rug pulled from underneath our feet, and we learned as a result to dance on a moving carpet. Is it possible, that millennials, far from being stupid in our attitudes to work, are actually a step ahead of the game? Maybe we got the lay of the land right in our early years in the workforce, and are now more focused on working in a way that benefits us rather than swearing allegiance to a faceless corporation?
Millennials and Relationships - Totally Connected, and Yet Totally Alone
It’s also easy to level the ‘stupid’ label at millennials when you see a group of young adults seeming to be completely absorbed by their phones, ignoring each other. We are connected globally but struggle to converse with the people who are sitting right next to us. How dumb can you get?
It’s true that millennials are the most connected generation yet to hit adulthood (although Generation Z are coming up fast, so watch out!), and yet loneliness and social isolation are very real problems. Millennials struggle to trust others, with only 19 percent agreeing with the statement, “most people can be trusted”, in comparison to up to 40 percent of other, older generations. When you consider that millennials are less inclined to trust others than the generations who lived through the Second World War, the Cold War and Vietnam, that is saying something.
But is this a sign that millennials are stupid, or just that we are products of our environment? Would we be smart to have placed our faith in politicians, banks and global conglomerate companies? Or did we just question the status quo more than the generation before?
Perhaps we lost our faith in established institutions because they failed us. Perhaps it will be millennials who try to disrupt the way the world is organised, restoring some trust through businesses that operate on a marketplace model, driving through the shared economy until trust is restored in the human beings we are connected to virtually or in person. We are not simply sticking two fingers up at the old order, we are proposing and embracing something different, too. And that does not sound so stupid to me.
If history is written by the victors, you can be sure that the broad brush stroke approximations of generational differences are written by the people least likely to understand the nature of the people they’re describing. But that’s how all good stereotypes are formed.
Of course there are millennials who are stupid. There are millennials who are feckless and selfish, who dodge responsibility and who hide behind ’generational shift’ as the reason they can’t fulfil their ambitions, or achieve what they want out of life.
But there are also a whole load of millennials whose ideas and attitudes will reshape the world we live in, through technology, cultural change and activism. We will reject much of what came before - sometimes because we have a better idea, and sometimes because we want to make our mark. Most of all, we will be different to the generations before us, and difference looks pretty stupid from above, so it’s hardly surprising that the boomers who are telling millennials who they are, and where they have gone wrong, might have us down as dumb asses.
And then, doubtless, there will come a day, when over a warm milk before bed, well on into our dotage, we will start to share our accumulated wisdom about where the generations that come after us have got it all wrong. So watch out, Generation Z. We will have an opinion on you. But we will try very hard to be kinder than the boomers voicing their view on us.