Millennial-bashing is all the rage these days, and frankly, I’m over it.
From the board room to the classroom, from magazine covers to news reports, the rhetoric is always the same:
Millennials are lazy, entitled and narcissistic.
And there are a lot of theories about how Millennials came to be such a useless, impatient, self-obsessed generation, ranging from failed parenting strategies to participation trophies. Everyone’s got an “expert” opinion they’re spouting as gospel, but when you look closer at the flimsy research that’s often referenced, it’s easy to see that these sweeping generalizations are… well… kinda B.S.
Here’s the deal: I’m not interested in debating whether or not some Millennials fit this stereotype. Some do. (As do some Boomers and Xers for that matter.) Nor am I interested in debating the value of reducing an entire generation of 75 million people down to a few select words.
But I am interested in sharing with you some alternative perspectives that could paint a more nuanced picture of a generation whose reputation has been dragged through the mud. With well over 3,000 hours of coaching conversations under my belt, I’ve gathered an immense amount of qualitative data that suggests that there are some complex and complicated factors underpinning the most highly criticized surface-level patterns.
**DISCLAIMER: I want to preface this conversation by fully acknowledging the extreme diversity of the Millennial generation on every level– from race, to socio-economic status, to geographical location. In no way is my intention to pigeon hole America’s largest generation into a replacement list of labels, or assume that every Millennial operates from the experiences I describe below.**
That said, based on my 8 years in practice, some patterns have emerged that can give meaningful context to a fairly one-sided dialogue. Here is how I would re-frame the top 3 Millennial stereotypes:
Lazy → Stuck
Entitled → Underexposed
Narcissistic → Self-Conscious
First, let’s talk about being stuck.
Being stuck involves indecision and inaction, and is insanely frustrating. It’s easy to misinterpret a lack of movement as laziness, but a lot of the paralysis I see in my clients is really rooted in fear. Fears like:
-What if I pick a college/major/career path/job but wind up hating it?
-What if I put my heart and soul into something and it doesn’t work out?
-What if I put myself out there and I get rejected?
-What if I make a decision and then regret it?
Thinking about these kinds of questions can be so overwhelming that the easiest alternative is to put them on the back burner, and ultimately, stay stuck. Working through these fears is often a necessary precursor to taking action and moving forward. (This is precisely why coaching is a such a valuable tool in affecting positive change: coaching conversations create the space to address these fears first, so that action planning feels productive and reasonable instead of daunting and pointless.)
A primary part of the stuckness I see is specifically around future direction. There is a lot of fear around 1) having to choose a single path and being shackled to it forever, or 2) feeling pressured to choose a direction when a primary passion hasn’t surfaced yet, so it feels like throwing a dart without a target. Both of these experiences can lead to overwhelm, uncertainty and inaction.
A few thoughts on this:
Millennials are essentially the first generation to be encouraged and empowered to pursue a passion as opposed to a job for the sake of a job. This has been a blessing and a curse. What I’ve noticed is that Millennials are extremely ambitious when they feel like they are on path and in alignment with their passions. But if not, they’re more inclined to sit back and stay stuck instead of doing something just for right now. The most successful Millennials stay open to being multi-passionate and having a non-linear path (as in, whatever you’re studying/doing today does not have to predict your entire future).
I also find that the “work smarter, not harder” mantra has gotten a bit mangled. Theoretically it makes sense, but when taken literally, it sort of suggests that hard work might not be necessary at all if we can just find the perfect “hack.”
For example: this line of thinking motivated me several years ago to start seeing my clients online instead of trapesing all over LA. Subsequently, I was able to maximize my client hours and start seeing clients all over the country. Was I working smarter? Yes. But was I also working harder? YES. The myth that we can somehow hack our way out of hard work must be busted.
Lastly, I see a serious lack of life skills that enable emerging adults and young adults to progress into new phases of development. Things like budgeting, interviewing and networking to name a few. These things are rarely learned in a classroom, and are arguably more valuable than an Ivy league degree these days.
Next, let’s talk about underexposure as opposed to entitlement.
I have found underexposure to be the single most detrimental aspect of the Millennial experience (more on this in an upcoming blog). With the advent of social media and rapidly evolving technology, in many ways Millennials are actually exposed to more possibilities, options and pathways than ever! But the problem is that they are often only exposed to the finished product. To the success. To the fame. To the fortune.
It’s easy to misinterpret the desire to rise to the top quickly or have the best of the best as entitlement. But from my perspective, this mentality is really rooted in the fact that Millennials are frequently seeing all glory and no grind. The constant influx of information via technology and media does a stellar job of highlighting “overnight successes” and millionaire lifestyles without featuring any of the hustle it takes to create those circumstances. And, I’ve also found that while many parents of Millennials worked tirelessly to provide their kids with access to an exceptional quality of life, very few of those parents are communicating to their kids—in explicit detail—what it took to make that happen. Without exposure to both the glory and the grind, we can expect that future generations will also assume that success comes easily and will continue to perpetuate an air of entitlement.
Lastly, let’s talk about self-consciousness as opposed to narcissism.
Described as the “me me me” generation, Millennials are often criticized for being self-involved and needing constant reinforcement. It’s easy to misinterpret these behaviors as indicators of narcissism, but in my experience these traits are often an outward expression of deep self-consciousness.
Following in the footsteps of uber successful Boomers and Xers, many Millennials are plagued by a nagging fear that they will never be able to maintain the lifestyle they’re accustomed to or achieve a similar level of success. This fear is painful hard to talk about, particularly with those who need to hear it most: the parents/educators/employers who are relentlessly knocking this generation for being narcissistic. These fears are quickly mistaken for a lack of gratitude or used as a springboard to jump back into a conversation about laziness. But the truth is this nagging fear produces a tremendous amount of self-consciousness and self-judgement.
To complicate the situation, Millennials have grown up in a comparison culture. Once again, the never-ending stream of updates and humble-brags makes it practically impossible to stay in your own lane and go your own speed. Instead, many Millennials feel compelled to one-up their peers and turn every moment into an opportunity to prove their worthiness to the world. This hustle for worthiness provides temporary confidence at best, and perpetuates deep insecurities at worst.
This provides a bit of context for why so many Millennials need frequent reinforcement: they aren’t looking for trophies, they’re desperate for confirmation that they are enough.
On a final note, in many cases I think the need for consistent feedback is being misinterpreted as the need for positive reinforcement. Ongoing research suggests that Millennials prioritize development and mentorship above other factors that have satisfied previous generations. (Perhaps this is why so many Millennial are seeking out coaching!) Quarterly reviews at work or occasional personal development conversations with friends/family are not enough to fuel significant growth. In a rapidly evolving culture that demands constant innovation and reinvention, it’s really no surprise to see this growing (and appropriate) call for consistent feedback.
I sincerely hope this article offers some meaningful insights and sparks some important conversation in your world. What’s your take on these alternative perspectives? Let me know in the comments below!