What We Got Wrong About Millennials

Posted: June 15, 2018 by Brian Johnston

Millennials…am I right? That’s pretty much the collective sentiment expressed by most Americans when they consider this generation. The label, intended to be no more than a basic demographic, has morphed into either a slur or the butt of a joke depending upon to whom you are speaking. There’s no lack of descriptors applied to this generation, but let’s go with two of the most common and insulting: lazy and entitled. When we think of millennials, we have a stereotype at hand to wrap up a multitude of preconceptions into a neat little package that allows us to dismiss this generation as hopeless.

But are these preconceptions even accurate? Are these young adults really the unmotivated, entitled snowflakes we accuse them of being? Or are the labels just too easy? Is it possible WE are the ones still missing a significant part of the bigger picture that they have already figured out?

It is easy, maybe even typical, to presume that someone who sees life differently than you do is at the very least misguided, if not out-and-out wrong. This is especially common when it comes to vocational issues: This is the way I do it, this is the way my Dad did it, and this is the way his Dad did it as well. Who the hell are you to think there’s any other way?

I experienced this very phenomenon with my own father. Like many Baby Boomers, my dad was the consummate workaholic. When my sister and I would go to visit him on weekends, it was typical that Saturdays would be spent going with him on consultation calls for the various automated factories in the Fox Valley area that needed support. When I got older he called me out for not possessing the same work ethic he did, “45 hours a week? At that rate you should have a second full-time job…” My father quite literally worked until the day he died at 71 years of age, and I am willing to bet he’d have gone a hell of a lot sooner had he actually retired. To him, living and working were one in the same.

The last two years of his life, he lamented the lack of depth of our relationship—we talked often, but usually the talk revolved around my current work. I actually thought that was what he WANTED to talk about because, aside from fishing, working was the only thing he did. When I realized that he was looking for more from our conversations in his twilight years, I proffered a few tidbits.

During the recession, the branch of the company I worked for closed and I lost my job. Unable to find anything remotely comparable, I opted to go back to school. When I returned to the workforce full-time, I found myself with just short of $15,000 in credit card debt amassed over the duration of my unemployment. I followed that up by piling on another $17,500 of automotive debt to get a pair of modest used cars my wife and I needed desperately. I told my Pop about this and then told him about the simple austerity moves I made to turn this around as quickly as possible: paid everything with cash, double minimum payments to rein in the credit cards, sticking to our grocery list, and dining out just once a month.

While none of this impressed my father, the next detail got his attention. I told him that I had eliminated all of the credit card debt and all but $500 of our auto loans in just under 3 years’ time. More significantly, I hadn’t used a credit card in over 5 years. Instead of working to obtain more stuff, I was actually in the process of downsizing, which was liberating in so many ways. It seemed to me that there were two ways to wealth. The slow way is to earn more. The shorter route is to want less.

Dad’s eyes got really big. He took a long, slow pull off his Manhattan, and he said something I had never heard him say to me in over 42 years: I admire you. For all his financial success in life, he never lived a life that could be described as debt-free.

This is the core essence of what I think millennials have figured out. They have watched their parents closely. They have seen the dedication with which both Mom and Dad put in 40-50 hours a week at a company, only to have the company reward that dedication with a layoff the moment they become questionably cost-effective. They have seen the soul-crushing dread in their folks’ eyes when they trudge off day after day to an endeavor that leaves them just one notch above broke in indentured servitude. They watch the effect of stagnant wages, declining benefits, and non-existent pensions of their mothers and fathers with no hope of retirement and they say NOT FOR ME!!!

Millennials are inherently happier with less. They value experiences over acquisitions, eschewing ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ for personal benchmarks that are far more deeply satisfying to them. They don’t care as much about filling a home with stuff as they do about filling a life with living. They don’t assign divinity to the occupations of doctor, lawyer, or business executive, understanding that the world comes to a screeching halt much sooner without garbagemen than lawyers. They don’t feel the inherent need to go to college because that’s just what you do. They pursue their own personal goals because that is what will bring them personal fulfillment. If they work from the presumption that they are never going to be wealthy anyway, they might as well be satisfied.

And then the miracle happens. Passion mates with action and BOOM!!! Success finds them. Or maybe not. It’s virtually irrelevant because at the end of the day, they’ve lived the life THEY want on THEIR terms. That is textbook winning through the eyes of a millennial, and it’s hard to argue against them.

It’s no surprise those of us from the preceding generations tend to view all of this in a negative light. It represents a direct challenge to our entire world view. We interpret their lack of enthusiasm to become Charlie Lunchpail or Cindy Punchclock as laziness. We take their rejection of our lifestyle and spin it as entitlement. We take the very word MILLENNIAL and turn it into an insult. We don’t really have a choice. After all, if they aren’t wrong, then what the hell have we been doing all these years?

Brian Johnston
Author: Brian Johnston

Author, podcaster, optimist, guardian of The Proversation.

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1 Comment

  • Rachel Johnston Reply

    Really nice, article. A positive and inspiring view of the young. Once in awhile, they teach us something new. It really is their world, and ultimately, they and their children will be the keepers…and maybe they don’t have to be slaves to the grind to do it.

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