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Booting Up

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This is the fifth in a series of 12 posts expounding on the 2011 forecasts in the annual trends report from Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR and an internationally respected trendspotter.

Watch out in 2011 for the return of skin-thickening boot camps to toughen up kids and employees for the rigors of the 21st century. This new brand of take-it-square training is going to catch on like tinder in a world that just might be gentling its young people out of competitiveness. We might have educated our kids, stimulated them, taught them to care and share, and protected them from bad things, but we now have a generation, called millennials (at Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, the agency I run, we consider them to be currently 18 to 25 years old), that is smart, plugged-in and tech-savvy--but oversensitive.

Former Wall Street Journal columnist Ron Alsop calls them trophy kids, and many corporate recruiters consider them case studies in entitlement. In the workplace, this can make for a cross-generational melee: conflicts between millennials who believe the office should be egalitarian, casual and quick to reward, and boomer-managers whose buttons get pushed by their young employees' expectations of a gimme-ocracy. Another thing unwitting work cultures have had to face is not just the millennial employee but also his or her helicopter parents.

In 2007, I told "60 Minutes" that millennials could be incorrigible. "You can't really ask them to live and breathe the company," I told Morley Safer, "because they're living and breathing themselves--and that keeps them very busy." Today, my POV is that they reflect the best and worst of all generations. Boot camps could harness their genuine passion for good and for getting businesses to clean up their act to help make them all-around strong.

While there's plenty of advice out there for corporate cultures wishing to recruit and retain this group with their needs in mind, I see a flip side: emotional resilience-conditioning workouts that will begin to prevail, tasked with toughening up young people to face that rough road called reality.

Mindful of what New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has said he has wanted to tell his daughters (in a twist on how his parents used to get him to eat his dinner), "Finish your homework--people in China and India are starving for your job," there isn't just a lot of competition for jobs in the U.S. economy, but there's also an achievement gap that has widened, and stuck, among Caucasian, Hispanic and African-American groups, who fall far behind Asian Americans' generally very good school results.

In California's 2007 achievement gap report, Asian students ranked above Caucasian students in English-language arts and math proficiency by 4.3 and 13.9 percent percentage points, respectively, and performed at more than double the proficiency of Hispanics and African Americans. Two years later, these inequalities hadn't changed. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg touted a narrowed gap between these groups in 2010, but Asian students led the pack. Michael J. Petrilli, from the education think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said, "On achievement, the story in New York City is of some modest progress, but not the miracle that the mayor and the chancellor would like to claim."

Some of the shape-up responsibility for this problem, which schools already shoulder, points to parenting. An ethic of old-fashioned, hard-assed knuckling down, less evident in today's society, often makes a more adept and resilient student than a culture of parental indulgence. If these millennials aren't tough enough to finish, much less excel in, school--and thus help sustain American competitiveness--the ramifications are extreme. Already in California, anxiety over marshaling a globally competitive science and engineering workforce for 2020 is over the top, and there are predictions of a giant shortfall of college degree-holding workers in general by 2025 if nothing changes.

So, like it or not, overprotection is bad preparation for an übercompetitive world. We know that American (or Australian or European) educators and parents aren't about to subject kids to conditions that prevail in emerging economies, let alone emulate the Spartans who left infants out on hillsides to weed out the weak. The NYU Child Study Center says, "The best-adjusted children, particularly in terms of social competence, had parents with an authoritative, moderate parenting style." If you've got a kid at home, consider trying out a bit of "authoritative." (Or consult Ph.D.s Sam Goldstein and Robert Brooks in Raising a Self-Disciplined Child: Help Your Child to Become More Responsible, Confident and Resilient--where they describe disciplinary and parenting styles that foster self-discipline and resilience.)

Still, I see toughening boot camps as a cresting wave next year, with new curricula that are to thick skin what weight training is to fit muscle. It will be fascinating to watch this evolve--and to see what regulatory mechanisms might be established for entrepreneurs who can innovate tougher-character training without straying into abuse. There are pots of gold waiting for such organizations.

Emerging clues for just who will lead in this realm hark back to some of what's been shown to work with millennials: the success-breeds-success style. Stan Smith, a national director for human resources at accounting giant Deloitte, considers millennials to be team-oriented, not challenge-averse, and picky about who should lead them. They're not anti-establishmentarian. And Pew Research has found something that might surprise about this tattooed and body-pierced cohort: Millennials are as likely as older Americans to think that it's because of American business success that our country is strong.

But with their generation more socially group-needy, one rule for the excelling boot camp strategy might be reciprocity. Says one boot-camp mentor blogger: "The exercise of trying to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of (bootcampers) and their performance also helps me examine my own strengths and weaknesses and how my actions may be perceived by others.... When I [maintain connections and communicate] right I cultivate reciprocal good will from my bootcampers, and having the right working relationships with future experts across the code base is incredibly useful in a company that moves as fast as ours and leaves very little documentation in its wake."

What cannot be doubted is that millennials are rising faster than sea levels, with just as unforeseeable consequences. If they just can't or won't see the experience of the older generation as special or valuable, it's going to be through booting up that the values of hard work--including respecting, learning from experience and admitting when you're wrong--are going to grow tender plants into tough stuff.

Previously:
"Mad as Hell--and Only Getting Madder"
"Talk to the Hands"
"Net Gain"
"Public Mycasting System"

On Monday:
"Yes, We Can...Reinvent Ourselves"