On a Sunday in late November, I settled into my favorite lounge chair to watch 60 Minutes, a ritual that for me dates back more than 30 years. A wizened and familiar figure began his report.
In a characteristically smooth and ironic tone, Morley Safer narrated a segment entitled, "The Millennials Are Coming." Safer’s story was about the 80 million Americans born between 1980 and 1995, referred to as either Generation Y or Millennials, and their alledged tenuous adaptation to the workplace. I watched the report develop, at first feeling professional curiosity to learn new insights about this young generation, but my reaction quickly morphed into raw indignation.
Here was another major news organization, under the pretense of objective journalism, castigating and denigrating an entire generation — the sons and daughters of Boomers.
A representative Safer observation:
Faced with new employees who want to roll into work with their iPods and flip flops around noon, but still be CEO by Friday, companies are realizing that the era of the buttoned down exec happy to have a job is as dead as the three-Martini lunch.
This flip of a journalistic middle finger at a young generation is not new. Boomers were often criticized during their ascendance into adulthood, when the young, determined and idealistic were hell-bent on changing the nation’s social realities. (As well documented by Professor Leonard Steinhorn, that determination eventually helped the nation become far more socially and economically inclusive for women, for racial minorities and for people thought as odd when compared to the narrow strictures of 1950’s value consensus.)
Millennials are arriving at adulthood today in a time that demands new precepts about what it means to be loyal to an employer, what it means to pursue slavishly a career without life balance, and what an appropriate employee reward and motivational structure should become.
(They need) basic training, like how to eat with a knife and fork, or indeed how to work. Today, fewer and fewer middle class kids hold summer jobs because mowing lawns does not get you into Harvard.
So who's to blame for the narcissistic praise hounds now taking over the office? Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow covers trends in the workplace and points the finger at the man who once was America’s favorite next door neighbor: Mister Rogers.
Mr. Rogers? This newly reviled evil doer is strikingly similar to a past mythic monster. For decades, critics have blamed alleged Boomer narcissism on Dr. Benjamin Spock and his advice book, Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, which has sold 50 million copies over 50 years.
One young blogger, Mike Connery, summed up the social and economic context besetting this generation.
That disapproval reveals a shocking lack of recognition on the part of Safer and 60 Minutes to today's work environment. Why should Millennials be loyal to a company when the corporate world no longer responds in kind by providing the security it did for our parents’ generation? Fewer and fewer employers provide health care, without which there can be no financial or personal security. We watched as thousands of our parents’ generation lost their retirement funds to corporate accounting scandals. Why would we ever give our loyalty to such a dishonest and miserly master.
In 1996, I contributed to a New York Times bestselling book entitled The Downsizing of America, which addressed massive exportation of American jobs overseas. The jobs being exported, more often than not, were Boomer jobs. This was also when the leading edge of Millennials began entering high school. Many of the generation were college students when the stock market collapsed in 2001, fomented by corporate corruption and management malfeasance.
Another subtext of the 60 Minutes report is an apparent protracted dependency of Millennials on their parents:
Today more than half of college seniors move home after graduation. It's a safety net, or safety diaper, that allows many kids to quickly opt out of a job they don't like.
Again, Mike Connery hits the economic nail on the head:
Thanks to mismanagement of the economy, government subsidies to corporate lenders, and a steady rise in tuition prices (far outpacing inflation), most people graduate college with at least $20,000 in debt, a burden that most Boomers did not have when they finished college (indeed, one could still reasonably expect to do well without a college degree back when Boomers were young). Of course our habits and views are different, we face an entirely different economic reality than our parents did. That's not narcissistic, or the result of over-coddling, it is a rational response to our economic situation.
What Mike didn’t address is something I’ve noticed from observing Millennials and their Boomer parents. The generations get along unusually well. And that’s partly because the two cohorts share many of their deepest values: gender equality, privacy, pluralism, tolerance, self-expression, rapid adaptation to change, environmental awareness and egalitarian institutions.
The nation does not need substantial and significant news organizations such as CBS fanning the flames of intergenerational divisiveness and antipathy. In fact, to arrive at sustainable solutions, the challenges we’re facing will require true intergenerational cooperation.
Boomers are not heading out to pasture quite yet, and our nation cannot afford to lose their wisdom and work ethic. The U.S. Census Bureau is projecting a 10 million U. S. worker shortfall in just a couple of years. And harmony in the workplace in service of productivity will demand new levels of awareness, maturity and tolerance.
But when the time finally comes, I believe Boomers will hand the torch to a generation that can help the nation progress and thrive in a time of growing religious fundamentalism, terrorism, overpopulation and environmental degradation.
They will use their exceptional skills at teamwork to bring force and decisiveness to resolving the largest issues of our time. They will marshal their technological prowess to usher American institutions toward fuller inclusiveness and meritocracy, while capitalizing on the benefits of globalization. They will keep their eyes on the prize, which is to build lives that are not only productive, but meaningful.
In a context suggested by generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe, Millennials are destined to become a heroic generation, well prepared for their time in history and motivated to address the unprecedented challenges.
The message for business is simple. Expect the best from this generation; build message strategies around their assets; and plan for them to tell you what is of value and what is not.
Footnote: Safer neglected to address in his report that American heroes fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan are disproportionately represented by members of the Millennial Generation. Lest we forget.