Millennials are voicing strong dissatisfaction with the state of our society and the leadership of the older generations. They have some fair points, but they don’t have all the answers. How can we go forward together?
A Millennial in my family wrote to me after the election: “I personally find both the presidential candidates regressive … two candidates born in the 40’s fighting so hard to have power. It is pretty representative of what I would like to see change.” Also consider a recent Forbes post: How Millennials Will Save The World, Part I. The message I hear is: “Let’s get those old fogies out of the way, they have made a mess of things. Millennials have the right values, motivation, and ideas. When we are in charge, we will save the world.”
The 2016 political campaigns crystallized these thoughts and feelings, and the controversial election of Donald Trump energized them further. The details of his policy positions and prospective actions are murky, and as his approach to governing rolls out, we see that it is quite different from what we have known before: Trump provides a surprise or dramatic event nearly every day. This keeps the pot boiling.
The Millennials’ message is challenging. They reject the current generation of leaders, and they are very important to entrepreneurs and business leaders: as high-value, trend-setting customers; as today’s employees and tomorrow’s executives; and as family members. But I don’t feel we can just hand them the tiller and go along for the ride.
Such inter-generational angst is far from new. In his book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw writes about the clash in lifestyle and values between veterans from the Greatest Generation, who were often heads-down, pursuing the career opportunities and wanting to make up for time lost to the depression and the war, and their Boomer children who wanted an easier life*. My father, born in 1924, child of the depression, U.S. Marine in World War II, and hard-charging advertising man (think Don Draper) in the 1950s-1980s, is a good example of the Greatest Generation. I’m a Boomer. As a college sophomore, I approached my father to try out some ideas about a more just society that I had acquired from fellow students. He quickly became very angry and told me to shut up if I wanted him to keep paying for my fancy education. I dropped the subject and never came back to it. I don’t recommend this approach to building a relationship with Millennials.
Neil Howe and William Strauss have studied and written about the way in which successive generations interact and are different. Their work is widely considered insightful and influential. Their key premise is: generations do not evolve in a smooth, linear way from one to the next. Instead, successive generations develop distinctly different outlooks and behaviors as a result of the conditions in which they mature and the character of preceding generations. Howe and Strauss see this pattern going back to the Civil War and characterize each of the generations born since 1900 quite differently: the GI or “Greatest” Generation (born 1905-1925) that endured the depression and won World War II, the Silent Generation (1925-1945), Baby Boomers (1945-1965), Gen X (1965-1985), Millennials (1985-2005), and Adaptives (2005+).
Rising adults of each generation feel deep concern about the problems of the world, see exciting ways to make things better, and feel frustration and impatience with the outlook and actions of their elders. Older people with their experience and tempered idealism see the risks of dramatic change more clearly, they know better how to get things done, and they appreciate the inherent messiness of economies and governments. As Churchill put it, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Will Millennials save the world? Of course they will: they are the future, and soon there will be no one else to do the job. We need their intellect, energy, impatience, and new perspectives: Silicon Valley was not built by old folks, and Albert Einstein did his best work in his 20s. But older leaders are essential due to the knowledge, experience, and relationships they have built through their careers. And the world is on most dimensions a much better place than it was when I was a rising adult forty years ago. The preceding generations have accomplished a great deal.
As business leaders, our job is to listen (better than my father did, and better than I did as well), avoid easy stereotypes, give the rising Millennials opportunities to lead and try out their ideas, teach when there is receptivity to learn, work together, and effect the transfer of power that will inevitably occur over the next few decades. The Millennials in my life sometimes show impatience, lofty thinking, and high expectations. But they are sincere, aspire to do both well and good, and respect accomplishment. The oldest Millennials, born in early January, 1985, will be old enough to be inaugurated President in 2021. Perhaps one of them will stand for office and win. That could be every bit as exciting as the election we just finished.