THE BLOG
01/13/2015 05:56 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

Why What You Read About Millennials Seems Contradictory

In the movies of my youth, the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. One thing you knew, the good guys and the bad guys were not going to work together. They weren't human beings; they were good guys and bad guys.

So much of what I read and hear about the Millennials puts them into the white hat or black hat categories. Researchers have called them entitled, self-absorbed, naïve, and unprepared, or creative, optimistic, caring, open-minded, and productive.

Many authors and speakers describe Millennials as a remarkable, almost heroic generation that will solve our problems through teamwork and technology. These experts imply that if the old guys running our hierarchical, innovation-quashing organizations would get out of their way, the Millennials would amaze us. Some bestselling books on Millennials are so optimistic that readers wondered in online reviews if the writers had actually met a millennial. Other reviewers reckoned the author must be in love with his grandkids and believe they could do no wrong.

We wonder if the experts are talking about the same generation when we read other books worried about the Millennials. For example, a good friend, Nancy, asked me if I am as worried about our kids' generation as she is now that she's been reading Generation Me by Dr. Jean Twenge (who may be the most widely-quoted critic of the Millennials). Twenge's back cover copy says it all: the Millennials indicate a "profound shift in the American character... The collision of this generation's entitled self-focus in today's competitive marketplace will create one of the most daunting challenges of the new century." (Although in interviews she regularly clarifies that it's not the Millennials she sees as the problem, but problems in the culture that shaped them.) I told her that I'm not nearly as worried as Dr. Twenge, and that there's a whole sub-genre of books worrying about the Millennials, such as Mark Bauerlein's widely quoted The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future/or Don't Trust Anyone under 30.

Here's what I told Nancy to help her make sense of these contradictory opinions. These three reasons may help you have a better and more realistic grasp of Millennials:

1. Experts draw different conclusions about Millennials because it's impossible to make generalizations that apply equally to 84 million people.

2. One generation can't help but see other generations through its values and perspectives. One of my favorite researchers, Christian Smith, suggests that many Baby Boomers project their values onto Millennials, expecting them to fulfill the ideals of their youth. For example, after the surprisingly large Millennial turnout for the 2008 presidential election, Smith saw Boomer commentators project their political ideas onto that generation as they claimed Millennials were going to transform politics because they were so much more politically active and socially engaged than previous generations at their age. But Smith's research found high levels of political engagement in only a fraction of the Millennials. 69 percent told his research team that they are not political in any way.1 By the 2012 presidential election, Millennials were still strongly Democratic with the same sized turnout, but voting in smaller numbers during the midterms (more in line with historic levels for their age group). That means some Millennials are more politically engaged, especially in Presidential election cycles, but the data does not support the Boomer idealization of the optimistic "political generation" that will live out the ideals many of them feel they failed to deliver on. Millennials aren't nearly as optimistic that they can turn things around as the "they will save us" researchers believe or as entitled and irresponsible as the "ain't it awful" side claims.

3. Millennials are paradoxical. They often seek to balance competing values so their responses appear contradictory. For example, they seek work-life balance because they prioritize family, but they also want a high income. They prioritize meaningful work, but not as high as a comfortable lifestyle. They seek honesty and regular feedback from their managers, but half don't want to become managers because they would have to give difficult feedback. Research on Millennials is often contradictory because Millennials often want contradictory things, just like we all do. I predict that some of the contradictions will resolve themselves as the Millennials get older and are forced to make tradeoffs, but I don't think most contradictions will. Millennials have been taught to see the back story, that every upside has a down side, so they often want to balance two contradictory things to get its upside while minimizing its downside. They want both.

Understanding these three reasons the experts put out contradictory interpretations of the Millennials will help you read more critically the river of information about the Millennials that comes out each week. That would be a great thing because I contend we can't move forward until we can get beyond the hats. The bottom line is that Millennials are not the white-hatted saviors who will rescue our society nor the black-hatted villains who are ruining it. They are human beings trying to sort out real and paradoxical challenges facing us all. Seems like a perfectly good reason to put the hats aside, quit talking in either/or language, and start inviting them to help us balance the paradoxes.

1Davidson, H., Christoffersen, K., Smith, C., & Herzog, P. Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Oxford University Press, 2011. Kindle location 4139.

Haydn Shaw is the author of Sticking Points: How to Get Four Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart. He blogs about generations, leadership, change management, and teams at mygenerationalcoach.com.