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Evan Shapiro Headshot

What's the Matter With Kids Today?

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There is a perception among many in my cohort and among my elders that the generation currently coming of age -- aka Millennials -- are an entitled bunch of slacker know-it-alls who expect to get medals for just showing up. For numerous GenXers and Boomers, this disdain goes beyond stereotype and into specific, vehement bias against the entire generation.

Many of my friends in the media industry, whose staff and customer bases are comprised of large percentages of Millennials, cannot contain or conceal their utter contempt for what they see as a universal presumptuousness among the 20-30 years olds with whom they are forced to deal. It's not unusual to hear things like "Even the nice ones are impossible" or "They all come in expecting to be treated as equals. What's with that?"

This summer, Susan Goldstein wrote a strikingly patronizing piece for Business Insider, called "3 Reasons Millennials Aren't Ready For Real Careers" in which she not only reinforced these stereotypes, but offered a condescending list of "solutions" on how to "fix" Millennials, saying "they don't even realize it's a problem" and "what can we do to help these young folks?" Those poor kids! : (

Does this sound like something you may have said? Do you feel that Millennials are a horde of overindulged, bubblewrapped brats who expect more than they deserve?

Well, guess what? The problem isn't them, it's you.

First off, no group can be simply defined by a set of cherry picked characteristics -- certainly not one as large as an entire GENERATION. In his excellent new book, Hooked Up, Jack Myers writes,"it's misguided to consider Millennials as a single cohesive generation."

Second, by writing off all Millennials as over-protected, underachieving, self-entitled group-thinkers, you are certainly not alone, but you are egregiously and simply factually wrong. Even worse, you alienate and discount the very people you most need.

Millennials, the generation born between 1982 and 2004 (give or take -- everyone has their own range for this), number approximately 90 million strong in the U.S. That's 29 percent of the U.S. Population, 37.5 percent of the American Workforce and -- in media terms -- 60 percent of the 18-49 demographic advertisers, media conglomerates, retailers and even politicians hold so dear. If you have a basic problem with Millennials, good luck hiring a staff, selling shit or getting pretty much anything done for the next 50 or so years.

Look, I understand it isn't always (or often) easy to understand a group that speaks in texts, tweets, posts and MEMEs (!!!!, = talk to the hand). I also recognize that managing Millennials is complex ("it's complicated"). But that doesn't mean it's their fault.

When I hear otherwise smart and informed Boomers and Xers sweepingly disparage Millennials, I cannot help but think of a former Massachusetts governor who derided 47 percent of the country as "victims" or "takers." Like that ex-Politician-slash-CEO, who blamed his election loss on bribes accepted by students, single women, minorities and (yes) Millennials, Boomers and Xers who knock the next generation as a monolith, demonstrate a remarkable lack of self-awareness and accountability.

The reasons "grown-ups" have such a tough time with Millennials are not new. Every generation in power has issues ceding that power to the next. Boomers were called hippies and dropouts. GenXers were labeled slackers. What I find remarkable is how these two generations conveniently and hypocritically overlook their own youthful dalliances when judging this new cohort. In fact, by comparison, Millennials are far more respectful, self-aware and serious than the previous two groups.

Don't believe me?

According to a new survey on social activism among Millennials by TAG and TBWA, 69 percent of Americans in their twenties regard themselves as activists, 68 percent said they would seek employment from companies that support causes they care about and 80 percent say they would be more likely to purchase from a company that supports their causes. The Higher Education Research Institute Annual Survey of Incoming College Freshman found that 87.9 percent of 2011 college freshman "frequently" performed volunteer work and 53.5 percent volunteered weekly. A 2012 Pew Foundation study showed that 22 percent of Millennials viewed having a career that benefitted society as one of the most important things in their life -- 57 percent higher than those older than 35. And, despite predictions to the contrary, those under 30 once again showed up in droves on Election Day, in greater percentages than their counterparts (other than senior citizens), and once again provide the decisive margin of victory.

They also do more each day than most other generations combined. Myer's research for Hooked Up shows Millennials in college spend 22.5 hours of "engaged, non-school hours" and 37 total "engaged" hours each day, including school. As the first truly digitally native generation on earth, they have found a way to spend more hours every day than there are actual hours in the day. Yes, to your chagrin, 50 percent of them update Facebook daily, but they also have a significantly higher capacity for multi-tasking than their elders, because they've been trained since birth to do so. Getting into college is exponentially more competitive and complex than a generation ago. It's not enough to just have good grades and scores. School, work, volunteering, social lives, sports, outside activities, social networking -- these days by the time the average Millennial graduates from college, they've already had a career (or two) more than we did at the same age. And they aren't whiners either -- the Pew Study found that despite being hardest hit by the recession, their "optimism remains notably unshaken." Where some see naïveté, I see resilience.

Yes, as has been noted by many, Millennials are far more comfortable speaking up to their "superiors" than those who came before. True, they are significantly less loyal to their employers than Boomers and Xers. But before you roll your eyes, it's important to understand that the reasons for these behaviors, by looking in the mirror.

We gave them the Nickelodeon Kids Bill Of Rights -- telling them very early that they had the right to "be treated equally, regardless of age or size" and the right to make mistakes "without someone treating them like a jerk-head." We fed them a steady diet of Rug Rats, Hey Arnold and Family Guy, which generally show grown ups to be the lunk-heads we often are. We stupidly taught them that their opinions mattered, even if they aren't the oldest people in the room.

And guess what? Increasingly this is true. As the most connected people in most organizations, they are often the most informed -- especially when it comes to cultural and consumer trends. Is this always the case? No. But as Myers writes:

"employers who recognize these individuals and seek their counsel, contributions and ideas will be well rewarded. On the other hand, employers who fail to empower [them] will find themselves rapidly becoming irrelevant."

And, if you want to know why this generation does not have an inborn sense of loyalty to their employers, look around. They watched their parents spend lifetimes at the beck and call of 'the job', only to be summarily shit-canned when the going got tough, or their hair got gray. How could we expect them to feel differently? The "Bain"-ing of America over the past two decades has been enormously instructive to those now shaping their careers. Many companies have proven enormously disloyal to their employees. While my and previous generations grew up believing that 'the company' was a part of our lives and families, Millennials have learned self-reliance and self-satisfaction are far more intrinsic to long-term happiness. They expect their employers to provide income, opportunity and growth, but unlike many of their elders, they do NOT rely on them for their personal identity or their sense of self-worth.

And, by the way, good for them. You may not like that they've found a way to survive without your company. But don't resent it, respect it. (Maybe even learn from it.)

Conversely, though, as a whole (now, I'm generalizing), this generation is far closer with and more respectful of their parents and other elders than the previous two. Taken further, when compared to supposedly progressive Boomers and Xers, Millennials are a quantum leap ahead in inclusiveness and open-mindedness -- far more open to new cultures, ideas and ways of life (new immigrants, same-sex marriage, differences of religions and race) than any generation in history. They see themselves as responsible to the greater global community much more than those who immediately preceded them. Yes, they see the world differently than you do -- and they should.

In fact, there are some, me included, who see this current generation as the 'Next Greatest Generation.'

In their books Generations and The Fourth Turning, historian William Strauss and demographer Neil Howe, chart the biographies of Anglo-American generations from 1433 to present day. It's kind of awesome. They identify four basic generational archetypes -- Hero, Artist, Prophet and Nomad -- which cycle, one after another, through history, corresponding to major generational events or evolutions, which they call turnings. Their theory is that each generation fits into one of the four archetypes, molded by the events and circumstances of their childhoods and suited for the challenges and needs presented to them as they reach adulthood.

"A Hero Generation grows up as increasingly protected children and comes of age as the heroic young team workers of a crisis."

The first Hero Generation was the Arthurian Generation, who saved the Kingdom, ended a civil war and plotted out a course for the New World. The last was The Greatest (aka GI) Generation, who were the beneficiaries of enormous technological advances, suffered through the depression, saved the world from the fascist scourge and built the most powerful economies, societies and geopolitical forces the world has ever known. In general, both were raised as incredibly privileged and protected, compared to those before, and both faced unexpected crises of unimaginable scale, forcing them rise to the challenge to save the world and reshape society for the future. Millennials, according to Strauss and Howe are the next Hero Generation.

Now, it may seem overly simplistic to categorize every generation into one of four buckets. In fact, there have been many who criticize the Stauss-Howe theory as naïve and lacking in empirical data. However, the patterns they discern are quite powerful, and despite having written Turning in 1997, they did eerily predict many aspects of the current global eco-political crises.

Regardless, it's hard to ignore the similarities between the GI and Millennial Generations. Both were raised amidst enormous technological advances, both had very (some would say overly) protective parents and both have been forced to deal with stunning economic and geopolitical crises not of their own making. The 'Greatest Generation' experienced the first foreign attack on U.S. soil since the Revolution. Millennials had their peaceful youth demolished by 9/11. Without hesitation -- or whining -- the GIs marched into battle, fought off despots on two continents, came back and built the America we now know. Millennials volunteered for battle on two fronts and now face the task of rebuilding our economy and our culture from the ashes of the great recession, the war on terror and the faltering of American exceptionalism. The GIs not only accepted new technology, they made it extension of their beings -- crossing oceans, building skyscrapers, and landing on the moon. Millennials see technology as an expression of self as natural as breathing, as necessary as speech. They use it to reach across the world, to build communities and to open new worlds. It is hard to argue with Strauss-Howe that, given the circumstances, both demonstrate a sometime implausible even annoying "can-do optimism and collective confidence."

It remains to be seen if these Millennials are the heroes that the GIs were. We don't yet know if they are up to the task of saving the world from itself. But before you shit on them for "not understanding their place," know this...

These 'kids' didn't create the hot mess the world is in, we did. Yet, no generation has ever been better prepared to take on the challenges we face -- they've been training for this since birth. Regardless, whether you like it or not, they're all you've got.

Yes, this Generation believes they can do anything. Personally, I think (and hope) they're right.