“Millennials are so difficult to deal with…”
If you’ve been on Facebook anytime in the past few weeks, you’d probably have seen this Simon Sinek video going around.
The topic is Millennials: Who we are, what we’re like, how difficult we are to deal with, and why.
It definitely struck a chord with people, despite being a full 15 minutes long. As Unilad put it,
“It’s not that often that a real, serious, honest video goes viral, but this one obviously resonated with millions of people when he explained we were ‘dealt a bad hand’ which has resulted in low self esteem, unrealistic expectations, higher suicide rates, unfulfillment, social media addictions, and superficial relationships.”
It’s got over 85 million views and over 2 million shares on that copy of the video alone.
(The 15 minute video is a segment of a longer, one-hour long video on Inside Quest.)
Who is this guy?
Simon Sinek was previously well-known in business circles as a speaker who talked about how to make workplaces better for everybody.
His TED talk “How great leaders inspire action” has 30 million views and is the 3rd most viewed TED talk of all time.
So he’s pretty legit.
Let’s quickly summarize what the Millennials video is about:
“Millennials are entitled, narcissistic, unfocused, lazy and difficult to manage.”
There are supposedly 4 parts to this problem:
1. “Millennials have unrealistic expectations and excessive self-esteem!”
The idea here is that Millennials are incredibly entitled because they got rewarded simply for existing. With participation trophies.
Does anybody wonder if “participation trophies” are a sort of inflated myth, like a modern bogeyman?
People sure love to bring them up, but the toxic effects of those mementos, if any, are definitely overstated.
Just check out this elaborate Instagram post by a father who seems to have been deeply offended by his sons getting participation trophies:
I have to wonder, did the kids spend any time obsessing over their trophies? Or was it just their dad?
I’m not the only one who thinks this way. As college professor Joseph Bentz points out, kids aren’t dumb about the value of these ‘trophies’:
Kids are smart about these things. I have never seen my kids or any of the other athletes interpret these medals or trophies as signs that they are all winners or that the loss of a game or championship is somehow not a failure. They understand failure. […] If they’re not as good as the other athletes, it certainly doesn’t take the withholding of a trophy to make that clear to them. They know. Their teammates will make it clear to them in many ways, and so will the coaches, and so will the spectators. It’s absurd to think that a trophy or lack of a trophy changes that. – Joseph Bentz, Quit Griping that “Everybody Gets a Trophy”
Now, let’s talk about unrealistic expectations.
Question: If Millennials have unrealistic expectations, who gave it to them?
It’s tempting to blame the parents (see the SMBC comic earlier on).
But I think we’re all to blame.
The problem is a systemic overexposure to lottery winners. We are presented with rare successes, and told that anybody can do it.
I mean, there are way too many blogposts and videos and inspirational memes that tell us how easy it was for some other person “just like us” to achieve resounding success with no effort.
We see it in marketing collateral everywhere. Just look at some of the promises on an average magazine cover:
- Get back in shape – results in 8 days
- Smash stress in 30 seconds or less
- Instant energy – jumper cables for your brain
- 5 fast (!) money secrets
So ridiculous expectations is something that is society-wide. There is a species-level obsession with getting-rich-quick, and people have been exploiting that for centuries if not millennia. (Hah.)
Tim Urban from WaitButWhy explores this phenomenon really well in his 2013 post, Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy. It has over 1.2 million shares.
So everyone is living with these inaccurate expectations. And these expectations get inflated by because technology allows it.
2. “Technology ruined millennials by getting them to put on a fake show!”
Facebook and Instagram have trained Millennials to live with filters – we’re good at showing people that life is amazing even when we’re depressed.
We actually explored this ourselves back in 2013 in a blogpost titled “WHY are people so annoying on social media?”
The realization is that the mechanics of social media itself changes the way people behave.
Millennials just happened to have grown up on social media (which, as many commenters observed, was built for us by their predecessors).
Sinek is totally right that social media is addictive.
In ancient times, elders actually complained that the youth spent all their time reading trashy novels:
The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge. Parents take care to feed their children with wholesome diet; and yet how unconcerned about the provision for the mind, whether they are furnished with salutary food, or with trash, chaff, or poison? – Reverend Enos Hitchcock, 1790
So we’ve always been bad at ‘peopling’. We’ve always been anti-social:
We’ve always experienced the illusion that other people have got their lives more put-together than we have:
I find a 2011 New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik particularly illuminating:
The odd thing is that this complaint […] is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart. – Adam Gopnik, The Information
Here’s a couple of other things to consider.
In The Secret Lives Of Tumblr Teens, Eslpeth Reeve observes that modern teenagers teenagers are remarkably insightful about social reality
3. “Millennials are impatient!”
Millennials have been trained to seek instant gratification, when the finer things in life – love, fulfilment, job satisfaction – all take time.
Most of this is really just a consequence of growing up with better technology.
As Sinek puts if, if you want to buy something, you can get it almost immediately from Amazon.
You can watch movies instantly on Netflix, even binge entire seasons of TV shows at one go without having to wait every week.
If you want to go on a date, there’s Tinder – no need to practice the tedious social skills of introducing yourself to new people.
Except job satisfaction and strength of relationships, there ain’t no app for that. That’s all about slow, meandering, messy and uncomfortable processes.
According to Sinek, the worst case scenario (which is already happening) is an increase in suicide rates, increase in accidental deaths due to drugs, more dropout of school, leaves of absence because of depression.
And the best case scenario? Entire population growing up and going through life and never really finding joy, deep, deep fulfilment. They just waft through life, “it’s fine”.
“You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die.” – Louis CK, in an interview with Conan O’ Brien
That said, not everybody is equally susceptible to the wiles of instant gratification.
We know this because there are still young people at the Olympics, who wake up at 5am every single day for years, even decades, putting in the hours towards achieving their goals.
So there’s definitely still hope.
4. “Millennials simply can’t survive the realities of the working world!”
This is where Sinek steers the conversation towards his area of expertise – corporate culture. If you’ve watched his earlier videos, you’ll recognize the themes that he’s talking about: trust, authority, leadership.
He says that corporations prioritize short term gains over the long term life of the young human beings in their care.
And again, he didn’t make up this point just to try and protect millennials – it’s a broader point that he makes about corporations in general.
“They’re getting all these young kids who work cheap and don’t stick around long enough to vest, and even if they do vest, they don’t have much equity to begin with. When you look at it that way, the perks seem pretty cheap.” – Dan Lyons, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble
Phew. What can millennials do? It’s tempting to fight back…
It turns out that a lot of the points people make about Millennials don’t really hold much water.
1. If millennials suck, it’s the fault of their parents’ generation (who did so much worse)
As a reddit comment pointed out,
“Yeah, cause it’s millennials fault that the last generation ruined the environment, crashed the economy, widened the gap between the rich and the poor… All after being given the easiest hand over from the last generation. Ever.”
2. Older people have been complaining about younger people for all of time
Young people have supposedly been ruining things for hundreds if not thousands of years.
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” – Quote often attributed to Socrates or Plato
So, as it turns out, every generation has been the Me generation.
3. If you want to get really scientific about it Millennials don’t even exist, technically speaking…
Adam Conover (of “Adam Ruins Everything” fame) made a very compelling case that Millennials don’t even exist – the concept was invented to introduce generational conflict, to be needlessly condescending.
Young people these days are obsessed with technology, have no inner lives, are impatient, immature, can’t handle the real world… every generation hears this.
You know what would actually be awesome? If we could rise above the noise and literally be better than any preceding generation.
Here’s a sincere question: could we be the first generation in human history to just stop taking the bait?
Can we stop wasting time and energy arguing with people about something as vague and overgeneralized as inter-generational conflict?
In my view, the way for youth to win the perennial argument with their elders isn’t to get more persuasive, or even to collect more data and evidence.
It’s to rise above it and to lead better lives.
If they’re going to call us entitled, let’s demonstrate that we’re not.
Let’s put in the hours and the years into building ourselves up, developing career capital, building our skill-sets.
If they call us narcissistic, let’s focus more on helping other people. Let’s volunteer more. (And, it turns out, we already volunteer quite a fair bit.)
Let’s take the trouble to build deep, meaningful relationships – with our peers, as well as with people outside of our tribes and in-groups.
Let’s develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, to engage with our issues head on rather than to seek distractions.
Let’s be better than our predecessors.
Despite everything, we still have more going for us than any preceding generation.
Its’ quite widely established that the present is still the best time to be alive.
Despite all of the challenges we’ve inherited, despite all the ways we’ve been misparented and miseducated… as Sinek himself said in a 2014 Salon article, “The good news is, we are our own best hope.”
So let’s get to work!