01/03/2014 04:28 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2014

Millennials Meet World. Who Wins?

The forward edge of the Millennials are moving into their 30s, and the outlines of a generation are starting to fill in.

They hint of global legions of men and women breaking from the past in ways we haven't seen since the children of the '60s turned their backs and their numbers on the well-starched values of the '50s.

By all accounts, it's a generation of optimism and promise -- less materialistic; shed of the "isms" that divide and exclude; connected to the planet; eager to reach out to those in need; with values electronically linked across borders and cultures.

But as their advance members move into positions that allow them to change the world, it remains to be seen what happens when the world pushes back.

Sometimes those counter-offensives are frontal assaults on guiding assumptions: "you can't go wrong in real estate because house prices never go down." But more often they are slyly incremental; a concession here, an adjustment there, a reflection of what John Lennon was talking about when he said: "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

It's fair to say that 40 years ago, the history-warping generation now bunching up at the finish line had different plans for the decades to come. The idealists who brought down two presidencies and (depending on your line of sight) either ended or prolonged a war wound up markedly different than they started out.

Who could have predicted McMansions? That "greed is good" would be a mantra. That saving the earth would peak at separating the recyclables. That O.J. Simpson and Trayvon Martin could so easily rip the stitches from slow-healing racial wounds. That a generation that watched almost 50,000 die for no apparent reason in Vietnam could be so easily swindled into another elective war. That an institution of moral authority would shuttle pedophiles in a decades-long game of where's the pea.

No doubt, the Boomers are also a generation of incredible accomplishments -- medicine, information technology, equality and rock and roll among them. And, not for nothing, we have so far managed to keep from blowing ourselves up. Still, the pile up of excesses and moral failures were clearly not on the generation's agenda.

Jon Stewart apologized in his classic William & Mary commencement speech for the failure to hand over a better world. "So sorry," he said. "Somewhere between the gold rush of easy internet profits and an arrogant sense of endless empire, we heard kind of a pinging noise, and uh, then the damn thing just died on us."

Now it's the Millennials turn. By the end of the decade, they'll be almost half the workforce and moving en masse into positions of strategy and policy.

Will this be the generation that comes to grips with climate change? How will society adjust to an age where minorities become the majority? How will it handle -- both fiscally and emotionally -- the estimated 73 percent of the population that, by 2020, will be moving into their entitlement years; demanding like that giant flesh-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors: "Feeeeeeed me."

What happens when a generation said to be far less conspicuous in its consumption confronts human nature? The personal growth and fulfillment at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs occupies the floor just above esteem -- defined by status, achievement and reputation. There is ample evidence that, for Boomers, the divide between status and personal fulfillment collapsed and became one: Consumo, ergo sum.

Hopes that we can rebuild the divide between what we have and who we are is complicated by hard wiring. We're programmed to be happier looking down than looking up. In every ancient village, someone collected the rents; someone cleaned up after the pigs. Can one generation banish the uniquely human response when someone else buys a bigger house, drives a nicer car, gets a bigger job? Can one generation learn to ignore the hectoring voice that says, "They're leaving you behind?"

Maybe the Millennials will be an improved version of the generation that spawned them. Maybe they will make a better world; live more balanced lives and find spiritual happiness in the difference between having what you want and wanting what you have.

Then again, maybe they're just young.