The Mindset of the Millenial: Disruptive & Committed for the Long Run

05/28/2015 04:33 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

My course at Northwestern Law School just ended. And, as always, I learned far more from the students than they did from me. The class, comprised entirely of millennials, explored the mindset, social expectations and advocacy proclivities of that generation (born between 1980 and early 2000s). Both in the context of their class participation and their assigned work, the differences in their thinking and social behavior proved startling to me, a Baby Boomer. My takeaway: This definitely is the generation that will change how we think and how our largest institutions behave.

Who are they?

Millennials are the largest demographic in the U.S., representing one-third of the country's total population. Numbering just over 75 million, Millennials overtook Boomers this year. Given their size, the choices millennials make will impact America materially and, likely, global culture for the foreseeable future.

What Makes Them Tick?Millennials came of age during a period of serial crises--from 9/11 and the Enron Era to the Financial Crisis, Great Recession and BP-- and they clearly define their character. Distrust in traditional authority structures and large institutions shaped their world view as manifest by their social activism orientation. Defined by cohesion, collaboration and tolerance, millennials are more concerned about advancing group welfare than advancing individual success. As leaders, they focus on harmony and creating compatibility.

Millennials don't simply approve of business using their influence to promote socially responsible practices; they consider it table stakes. What's more, they regard social activism and private regulation as a perpetual cycle in which the world gradually becomes a better place through daily effort. This contrasts to Baby Boomers' process of fostering change as quickly as possible through large-scale activist events. Given that seven-of-10 millennials consider themselves social activists, Corporate Social Responsibility does seem to be their 'new' religion.

How they operate

Millennials' formative years witnessed the massive proliferation of consumer technology, and their relationship with it defines them. They are intensely connected and highly social and, typically, own a smartphone and use social media - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Google - multiple times daily. Seventy-three percent of millennials believe tweeting or posting information online about social or environmental issues prove to be the most effective mode of advocacy. So where activism once meant protests, civil disobedience and sit-ins, such direct action now means a Facebook campaign powered by hashtag posts on Twitter.


Millennials already have reshaped public advocacy in dramatic and influential terms (and will continue to do so) as they expect far more from the institutions that govern our society. They stand steadfastly committed to this long game. They are 'journey-focused' and incorporate social responsibility into their lives as a matter of daily ritual. They have little patience for "gray" because they are "black and white" minded, particularly on issues of business and society. Reflecting the dominant influence of the court of public opinion on institutional success and durability, making nice with millennials isn't an optional sport.