Mythbusting the millennial mythos

Yesterday, I ranted a bit about the intellectual lassitude of people who talk about the unique attributes of millennials.  Let’s put some of these to the test.

First, a background on where the idea of generations comes from.  Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe created the Strauss-Howe generational theory — that every 20 or so years, there is a new generation.  They further posit that there are four generational patterns in rotation: prophets, nomads, heroes, and artists.  So, for example, according to them, the Silent Generation are prophets, the idealists that helped create the post-war establishments that Baby Boomers, as nomads, rebelled against.  Gen Xers are the heroes, who grow up increasingly protected, but mature into self-reliance.  Millennials are artists, who “grow up overprotected by adults preoccupied with the crisis, come of age as the sensitive young adults of a post-crisis world.”

Of course, it won’t surprise you if you read yesterday’s post that I am switching these around.  According to Strauss and Howe, Silent Generation members are artists, Baby Boomers are prophets, Gen Xers are nomads, and Millennials are prophets.  

In the end, the whole thing reads like the Chinese zodiac readings on a restaurant placemat: vague enough to apply to anything or to nothing.  The generational theory is non-falsifiable.  There are no hypotheses to test.  And thus, there is no science behind it and thus belief in the system is as valid as Roswell or Bigfoot.

In fact, the writing often (to me) smacks of what is called a Jacques statement in cold reading (aka faking that you are psychic).  The Jacques statement is named for the character who gives the Seven Ages of Man speech in “As You Like It”; it means tailoring your prediction to the age of the subject.  Take a look at the very very different things that happen to each generation as they get older:

  • Prophet: “tend to be remembered for their coming-of-age passion and their principled elder stewardship”
  • Nomad: “tend to be remembered for their rising-adult years of hell-raising and for their midlife years of hands-on, get-it-done leadership”
  • Hero: “tend to be remembered for their collective coming-of-age triumphs and their hubristic elder achievements”
  • Artist: “tend to be remembered for their quiet years of rising adulthood and their midlife years of flexible, consensus-building leadership”

Thus, other than the artist, everything rebels when they are young.  And everyone matures when they get older.  These are the alleged “differences” among the generations.

Additionally, in the generational dynamics world, the future is already written.  By definition, a baby born today is a hero and their child will be a prophet.  I don’t have a scientific basis for this, but I find this level of determinism unsettling, especially when there isn’t a compelling reason to believe in it.

So those are the underpinnings of the theory, such as they are.  Now let’s look at some of the more commonly asserted attributes of Millennials.  In order to be a truly Millennial trait, it would have to be something that does not happen to every generation that is this age (because then you can target all 20-somethings similarly across time without generational embroidery or Jacques statements) and something that does not continue over time (because that’s a trend and not a generational commonality.

Take, for example, the technological savvy of the Millennial generation.  All of the data do point toward greater use of social media, greater use of the Internet, greater mobile use, etc.  But this trend seems to be going in one direction: up.  Not only are all age groups showing greater adaptation among all age groups, but there is no sign that the 15 and under set (the to-be-named generation after the Millennials) will not be even more digitally native than Millennials.  For me, then, the statement “Millennials are the most tech savvy generation” has the same meaning as “the youngest adults are Millennials” — something that will eventually be supplanted (perhaps by the Singularity).

Other general trends that you may have heard of as uniquely Millennial:

  • Millennials are the most educated generation.  Same thing as with technology: why would this trend stop with Millennials?
  • Millennials prefer cities to suburbs.  Actually, a 25-30-year-old today is less likely to live in a city today than one in 2000.  This is something that is unique to young people, not to Millennials. 
  • Millennials job hop.  FiveThirtyEight myth busted this one for me here.   Young worker job switching is actually down from both one and two decades ago.
  • Millennials want to see the impacts of their gifts.  Do you think this is not common among other age groups?
  • Millennials want a trophy for every little thing they do.  IBM did a good study of generations in the workplace here.  It found that Millennials were only slightly more likely than Gen Xers to want recognition from their boss and less likely than Baby Boomers to want their views solicited by their boss.  Gen Xers, not Millennials, were the most likely to think that everyone on a team should be recognized.
  • Millennials are uniquely socially conscious.  That same study found that Millennials were less likely than their Gen X and Boomer counterparts to want to leave a job to follow their heart or save the world.  Oxford Economics found the same thing here; only a fifth of Millennials said making a difference is important to their job satisfaction.

So this debunks some of the more common attributes that Millennials are commonly cited to have.  

But this would be all academic if there were a good way to create messages that worked for Millennials generally.  Unfortunately, there isn’t, because of significant intra-generational differences.  We’ll discuss that tomorrow.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments.

Mythbusting the millennial mythos

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