Millennials. They’re easy to make fun of–precious snowflakes who’ve always been given a medal just for showing up. They’re brittle and self-absorbed narcissists who wile away their days sending selfies to one another on social media rather than doing productive things like building railroads and tilling fields or something.
Here’s the thing; all of the above “common knowledge” is actually utter nonsense. Take this from a guy who was told in the late 80s-early 90s that as a member of Generation X, he was a slacker completely uncommitted to anything. If you believed the predominant narrative back then, I, along with tens of millions of my fellow Gen-X’ers, grew up as latchkey kids, our minds poisoned by drivel pumped out by MTV. The world was going to hell in a handbasket because I and my generational cohorts were destined to let society collapse while we were glued to the couch mesmerized by this week’s episode of Real World.
Never mind the fact that as an 18-year-old, I entered the Air Force Academy fully committed to become a warrior dedicated to protecting the world from the evils of Communism. On the day I set foot on the Terrazzo, Ronald Reagan was still president and the Berlin Wall still stood and would for another year and a half.
I dressed like a typical Gen-X’er, watched MTV and used the buzz phrases popular at the time, but not surprisingly, I didn’t think in lockstep with tens of millions of strangers. I was no slacker and neither were the vast majority of the people my age that I knew personally.
I was an 18-year-old though. I derived my entire worldview up to that point from information that had been filtered through other peoples’ experiences—parents, teachers, friends, and media personalities. I possessed some highly developed notions about how the world worked. The fact that those thoughts were entirely theoretical wouldn’t stop me from providing a highly emotional argument in their defense should they be challenged from some old codger from the Baby Boomer generation. What do those guys know anyway?
When I hear people complaining about Millennials, I usually find that their anger is misplaced. The generational stereotype provides an easy bogeyman, but it’s ridiculous to think that tens of millions of people share an identical thought process simply because they were born between two arbitrary dates.
What they’re really complaining about, these codgers, is youth, offering the same these-kids-don’t-know-how-good-they-have-it argument that has persisted since time immemorial. (I’m sure at one point a group of elder cavemen sat around bemoaning the fact that their offspring were soft because, unlike when they were young, their kids had access to fire—“Back in our day, we ate our saber tooth tiger COLD, the way it was MEANT to be eaten!”)
The answer to the “problem” of youth doesn’t lie in lumping all of the young people into a catchall category and then griping that 80 million people are irredeemably flawed. The answer lies in providing effective mentoring and leadership.
It’s not them. It’s you.
It’s you who needs create an environment in which the newbies coming up in the organization hone the skills they’ll need to in order to fill your shoes later just like every generation has done before you.
Up next: three tips for being that mentor.
About the author:
Lt Col Jeff Orr serves as a veteran F-16 instructor pilot for the US Air Force. An expert on high-stress training environments, elite performance, mindset management, and the development of unstoppable organizational cultures, Orr shares his many insights on panels, stages, and in workshops. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.