This will be the first in a series of posts about the differences between our generation and that of our parents. After exploring all of these issues, I’ll wrap it all up with a piece developing a set of conclusions about the nature of the expectations my generation, and by obvious extension, I, have for the future.
Before I really get going, though, I want to point out that it’s my opinion that the differences in generations aren’t differences in emotions, needs, wants, or views of the world. Rather, generations express ideas very differently because the events that define generations hit in different stages of life for different groups of people.
The first idea that I want to discuss is the idea of loyalty as a key value. One of the many complaints that older people have about millennials is that we have little to no sense of loyalty. Businesses are befuddled by our penchant for job-hopping and seeming lack of investment in the company or our career advancement. Advertisers are at a loss to explain our cavalier attitude towards brand loyalty. Even churches are finding that millennials are abandoning formal religion in numbers that worry all but the most optimistic religious leaders.
Our generational forebears seem extremely troubled to see these trends, though I suspect that many readers will remember that around 2500 years ago, the great Socrates himself devoted at least some time to complaining about the state of youth. I would argue that the kids must have done a decent job considering the progress we’ve made as a species over the past few millennia.
As I said above, I don’t think that we millennials suffer from a complete lack of loyalty so much as a very different way of expressing it, a way that has been shaped largely by the world in which we were raised.
An important step to examining loyalty is to explain what I mean when I use the word “loyalty”. Very roughly, I would define loyalty as “a sense of trust in a [person/religious group/brand/company/entity] that will withstand a degree of disappointment and allow the object of said trust the opportunity to prove that it is worthy without substantial damage to the level of trust”.
Loyalty, then, is inherently dependent on the simpler concept of trust. And, rather then a deficiency of character, I think that it is a deficiency of trust that really makes millennials so reticent to give their unwavering loyalty to anything.
Today’s young people have less reason than any group of human beings in history to place unfounded trust in anything, much less everything, as is asked of us (I’m speaking from my experience as an American, but I think international readers would probably have similar tales to tell).
Our government has failed to keep our trust with Watergate, the Gulf of Tonkin, imaginary WMDs, and Congressional gridlock. Our unprecedented access to the dirty underbelly of the political world has left us extremely suspicious of the motives of everyone in Washington.
Our heroes have turned out to be as corrupt, venal, and flawed as us, if not more so. Look at Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds, who rose to the top of their respective sports on the back of a steady diet of PEDs. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky showed us that even our favorite politicians have ugly sides, too. The steady stream of Hollywood figures going in and out of rehab dulls a lot of the glitter of the silver screen. OJ Simpson killed his wife and got away with it, probably because he was famous.
Corporations and the jobs they offered used to be viewed as a sacrosanct relationship. An entire generation of Americans grew up with the idea that the first company you ever worked for ought to be the company you retire from. What happened to that? Regardless of the truth, corporate America lost track of the narrative. Companies stopped being identified with their employees or products and started being identified solely with the shareholders. Employees became disposable commodities, thrown away when they were no longer needed, like so much used toiler paper. While this was masked for a while as the dotcom bubble and then the housing bubble flooded the news with stories of economic utopia, the Great Recession cast an extremely ugly light on corporate America in general. Scandals like Enron and Bernie Madoff, or cases of wild corporate irresponsibility like the Lehman Bros. collapse certainly didn’t help our perception of the corporate world.
These disappointments are the cultural legacy that our generation has grown up living. The Greatest Generation was defined by WWII. The Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers were defined by the civil rights movement and Vietnam. Generation X was exposed to the start of this trust breakdown, but I think the economic situation of the 80s and the Cold War really dominated their environment.
Of course, it’s not just from the news that we learned not to trust anything. Day to day life demanded it of us.
In our most basic interactions, we were taught to be discerning with regards to the entities in which we put our faith. Most 20-somethings learned to sniff out an online scam before they could do algebra. We knew that the kid with the girlfriend from Canada was (pardon the expression) full of shit by the time we reached about 3rd grade. We learned to ignore credit card offers before we even got to college. Many unfortunate kids even learned not to trust the stability of family life through the crushing emotional pain of parental divorce and remarriage.
I think that I can safely say many millennials weren’t allowed to play outside alone or walk around town alone until they were in their tweens, or even teens. The specter of kidnapping loomed over every child’s head. Mandatory pamphlets on protecting yourself from child molesters made their appearance in every venue, from schools to Boy Scouts. And God forbid you even think about accepting food or candy from a “stranger”.
To people who grew up in the 30s and 40s, “Nazi” and “Jap” were the words mothers used to scare their children. Everyone born from about 1945 to 1985 remembers just how awful the “communists” were. The catch, though, is that these cultural bogeymen are discrete and have generally precise geographic meanings. In the search to find a suitably terrifying substitute after the end of the Cold War, US culture eventually settled on the idea of a “stranger” as the go-to scary word for a generation. Never mind that studies show most bad things that happen to kids are perpetrated by people they already know, the vague, nebulous “strangers” are the primary perceived threat to children today.
I personally think that this sudden lack of specificity in our cultural paranoia manifested itself as an indiscriminate suspicion of everything, reaching far beyond what our parents were attempting to accomplish. Coupled with the ugly pictures of authority figures we saw on the news and our increased exposure to every type of deception imaginable as technology infiltrated our lives to a degree unimaginable to our parents, it’s little wonder that our paradigm for trust is a radical departure from that of our parents.
Instead of expecting to trust an entity until proven wrong, millennials, in my experience, tend to demand that companies, churches, and authority figures prove themselves before we’re willing to seriously invest in them. We’re mostly generally unwilling to get attached to something until we’re sure of it (one of the reasons I think that the hookup culture is so prevalent on college campuses).
The reason that businesses don’t see the loyalty they want is because there’s no reason for us to see our job as anything other than what we do for money. Millennials, I think, tend to generally suspect that a company large enough to assign you an employee ID number also sees you as inherently replaceable. The obvious reaction to that feeling is to regard the employer as replaceable, too. Why would we invest the best of our youth in an organization that has no compunctions about kicking us out on the curb in favor of a better quarterly statement?
There is an absolutely riveting section of the award-winning documentary Detropia, in which a group of union officials from UAW have to tell their members that they must accept huge wage cuts in order for the factory in which they work to consider it worth the cost of staying in Detroit. The union send a counter-offer back to the company suggesting a wage structure somewhere in the middle. The company relocates the factory to Mexico without even sending a counter-counteroffer.
In today’s economy, when every position except for minimum wage service jobs can be sent to Mexico or China or India overnight, millennial workers have become just as ruthless as their employers. We’re always on the lookout for a better deal, a higher payoff, more vacation, and flexible hours, on the principle that turnabout is fair play.
Brand loyalty is suffering the fruits of the same mindset. For example, American automakers spent years selling us substandard cars on the principle that brand loyalty would keep money pouring in as they continually gave us a worse and worse product. The fact that people would eventually stop playing that game and go buy better cars for lower prices from the Japanese didn’t seem to register until well after it was painfully obvious to outside observers.
I’ve gone to great lengths now to paint a picture of why today’s young people don’t have the trust factor to display loyalty to the entities that have traditionally viewed such loyalty as their divine right. Let’s swing back towards optimism now and talk about how loyalty IS demonstrated by our generation.
After talking about all of these things that millennials just don’t trust or don’t have faith in anymore, what’s left for us to show loyalty to? The answer is simple, and two-part.
People. Real ones, not the manufactured personas of celebrities.
Now, as far as I can tell, until the relatively recent past, a person’s social and emotional nucleus was the immediate family. The spiritual center was a church. Their sense of self worth, especially for men, was based on their job. The same could be argued for women and motherhood. The entities that fill these needs have all been replaced or superseded, but millennials, at least those in my circles of acquaintances, still have all the same basic human psychological needs.
Today, almost everyone I know in the millennial cohort puts all their trust and loyalty into a small number of very strong friendships, and refuses to rely on the outside world to give him/her anything.
Your closest friends tend to be your emotional confidantes, your social circle, your support group, your business partners, your traveling companions, your spiritual outlets, and the base for your sense of self-worth. Anything else is just noise from the outside.
One of the intense positive effects of this focus on friendship is that millennials use technology to keep in touch with their inner circle of friends across states, countries, and even the globe. With Facebook, I talked yesterday to a friend in Turkey, then got a group message this morning from an acquaintance in Chile.
This is also one of the key drivers of the increase in the speed that information spreads. People tend to trust the judgment of friends and family members, and these days, friends are spread across continents, social groups, and income brackets, bound more by mutual trust and understanding than anything else – after all, class, racial, religious, and national prejudices rely on loyalty to the institution in question to persist.
I think these friendships are key drivers in pulling us out of our comfort zones and into physical, intellectual, and social situations our parents would never would have considered. It’s an intensely meaningful and fulfilling experience. Unfortunately, while this incredible richness of possibility is opened by these deep connections, it tends to take the shine off of the more mundane parts of life.
We’ll happily spend a month’s rent to visit a friend living in Europe long before we’ll put down the money to buy a new car. We’d rather take a group of school buddies and spend $1000 volunteer for a summer in a developing country than we would spend that month making $2000 at a job we have no reason to like. We’ll happily turn down opportunities for overtime pay if the alternative is missing that concert with our friends.
In the world of jobs, I think that this loyalty to friends above all else manifests itself in a mindset that the job is just a utilitarian concern based on acquiring money to finance the real meat of life, where millennials interact with their friends and families. Unless the job offers 1) people coworkers that the employee cares about, or 2) a set of positive experiences that build trust over time, I would expect a millennial employee to care no more about the identity of their employer than whether their tap water comes from an aquifer, reservoir, or river. There has to be a reason for us to be loyal to a concept as abstract as a company.
This is, I think, why startups and small businesses appeal so much to millennial workers. In a startup, you’re not a number, you don’t get lost in the shuffle. There’s a real and probably meaningful connection with the people that you work with. If you’re the new sales guy/gal and you have a desk in the same room as the CEO, you’re going to be a lot more trusting of that executive’s motives, since you can ask for clarifications and explanation whenever you need to. Startups and small companies are also sized so that a worker’s contribution to the development of the whole can be measured as a meaningful part of the whole. That, in and of itself, is special enough that the pride of accomplishment over time is likely to lead to investment by a millennial who can see the success of the business as part of his or her own legacy (and legacy is a powerful positive idea).
This principle can, of course be applied to larger companies, though it seems that it would be tough to implement in a lot of situations. The more friends at work, the more excited an employee will be about sticking around. You already know that I think millennials are unlikely to immediately see their new coworkers as worthy of their trust and loyalty, but there’s an easy fix to that. Team-based work, activities during work breaks, office parties, and happy hour excursions after work all serve the function of turning coworkers into friends. As we get more invested in the people in an office, we’ll be more and more likely to stick it out if we hit a rough spot.
A company that values openness and communication will probably fare much better than one that keeps its millennial employees in the dark most of the time. Like I said above, we’ve spent our entire lives being taught how to be suspicious of everything and everyone; we’ll probably know if you’re giving us the run-around, and you’ll lose us.
At the end of the day though, the average millennial will happily abandon a job that doesn’t offer them an experience they consider meaningful for something other than the money.
My next post will delve into the sorts of things that millennials (and our friends!) do to find meaning in life and why it’s so foreign to our chronological antecedents.
Look out for Millennials: Our Path to Maximum Fulfillment – Social Consciousness as the New Morality, coming soon.