For a long time now, baby boomers have lived with some broad generalizations about what makes millennials tick. The story goes that they are social-media obsessed, impatient and narcissistic people who lack the stick-to-itiveness to cross a finish line. They want to have fun, travel and rain on our parade because they know better.
After working on a project that allowed me to probe the experiences and aspirations of 29 millennials, I now challenge these views. As with all generalizations, we can always find some case that supports the story, but the overall take is misguided. Just like my children’s view of me — yes, I like a clean house, my work completed, and a happy volunteer for the dog walk, but no, that is not the only thing I think about. The baby-boomer view on millennials is incomplete.
“At My Pace: Twenty Somethings Finding Their Way” is a result of this project where men and women in their 20s wrote candid pieces that revealed their comings of age and the lessons they have absorbed along the way. I also administered a survey so that I could profile the group’s attitudes and preferences. I am going to knock down just a few of our stereotypes:
Misguided Stereotype #1: I just want to have fun
In story after story, contributors share a longing to improve the world. Purposeful living drives them — whether it is teaching in underserved communities, using a law degree to advocate for immigration and sex worker rights, or using yoga and meditation as a way to heal. This group was not as focused on “me” as we typically think. Even contributors who were doing more mainstream work were searching for ways to extend its effect. My survey findings support purpose as far more important than fun.
Misguided Stereotype #2: They lack stick-to-itiveness
It is true that these contributors have done a fair bit of wandering, but often it is because they are in search of the path that will combine meaning with an ability to support themselves. Finding paying work that matches their interests is the most commonly identified challenge, and they wander to see how close they can get. Many 20-somethings still need to pay back student loans, so some pragmatism drives them. Bottom line: They can be restless wanderers but not because they lack the ability to make a commitment.
Misguided Steretotype #3: Strong managers and more education can right the ship
Because many of us come with a fix-it mentality in terms of how to help our 20-somethings find their groove, we frequently veer to what helped us — good managers and more education. I am of the generation that still believes that there is gold in those hills, and I owe a significant debt of gratitude to a few managers who patiently invested in me.
Yet this group’s experiences tell a different story. They believe they can learn at least as much from their peers as their managers. They hold that peers understand them better, and that managers are not very available and are often self-serving. As for education, while this group is college-educated, they maintain that their best source of learning is life itself (9.2 rating on a scale of 1 to 10) where academic courses only rate 6.6. They prefer to place themselves in challenging environments and figure out how to make the lemonade.
Interestingly, many do anticipate further schooling because they believe advanced degrees are necessary to hold the positions they seek. Education is viewed as a means to an end.
Despite the turbulence of their 20s decade, this group sports a very positive outlook on the future. They are resilient and have found a way to stay emotionally healthy. Whether it is their families, religion, community or a creative well inside, they have discovered how to stay anchored and embrace an uncertain world. They are looking forward to planting a stake, and will no doubt lead the world quite differently.
My hope? That with an open mind, we can abandon our old stereotypes and seek a real understanding, making “generation gap” a phrase that stays in the ’60s when it was created. We are 50 years past that iconic year 1968, when many baby-boomers flexed their own muscle and rebelled against the world around them. Maybe we can use that memory to add some empathy to our view of millennials who are finding their way.