Let’s Cut Millennials a Break

In the Philippines, I interview Millennials every week. I see so many superb young people who are juggling school, jobs, helping provide for a wider family, and enduring daily commutes that would destroy most people.

If there is ever a truism in life, it is this: “Every generation trashes the succeeding generation, calls them spoiled and undisciplined, and laments the future of the world in their hands.”

My parents were born in 1914. They grew up and graduated high school during the Great Depression. I was born in 1963, the last of seven children at the tail end of the “Baby Boomer” generation.  Many of my childhood memories are recalling stories: I was told how “tough” my parents’ generation was, and how spoiled and babied the Baby Boomers were.

If I got into the car in the middle of winter and said I was “cold,” I got a lecture on how lucky I was to have a car with a heater, as in their day the Ford Model-T had only a hole in the floor to heat the car, solely from the heat generated by the engine!

If I ever said as a child I was “bored,” I got a lecture on how lucky I was to have any toys to play with, as during the Great Depression nobody had any money and they played with sticks they found in the forest. If I didn’t finish a meal, I got a lecture on how “nobody wasted food” in the 1930s and how lucky I was to be able to eat three square meals!

I can recall listening to this, wondering even as a small child if all this bluster was true, and, if us Baby Boomers were as wimpy as my parents’ generation made us out to be.

The world didn’t fall apart in our hands. My business career commenced in the mid-1980s, right in heart of the “Wall Street” phenomenon immortalized by the Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen classic. We worked like dogs — 60- and 70-hour weeks were the norm. Climbing the ladder was everything. Vacations were a luxury few of us took in full. The Baby Boomers ended up being hard workers. And perhaps a bit too focused on salary, advancement, and climbing the ladder. The 1980s became known as the “decade of greed.”

By the mid- to late 1990s I had climbed the ladder and was a senior manager in P&G. I can recall vividly one day a younger manager, perhaps 26 or 27, coming to see me and asking me for permission to take a “six-month sabbatical.” I asked for a more detailed explanation. And what I got was this:

“Jim, I am just so burned out. I have been working hard for three years now. My girlfriend just dumped me. I am about to break. So, I just want to take six months off, go to Argentina and learn how to paint.”

I recall this well because it was a defining moment in my career to that point. It was the first time I recognized a generational gap between myself, a Baby Boomer, and this employee, a “Gen Xer.” At lunch that day, I, along with a fellow colleague, also in his late 30s, shared our woes about the “next generation” and how wimpy they are. I had four kids. I had not taken a two-week vacation at a time in nearly 15 years. I wish I had the luxury of taking six months off to go paint in South America! And after a mere three years of working, this guy was burned out!

That was the last generational discussion like that I had. One lunch discussion.  I swore I would not be like my parents. We Baby Boomers had turned out just fine. And the Generation Xers would also turn out just fine. Because, for centuries now, every generation has trashed the one that follows. Has called it the “end of the world.” And things have been just fine, and progress has been made. All this generational talk is nothing more than bluster. Humanity always finds a way.

Which brings me to today.

If there is ever a topic that consistently stays in the news or in social media circles, it is all about trashing the current “Millennial” generation. There are talk show sequences being replayed on Facebook, news articles and commentaries, video clips of coaches complaining about “Everyone wins a trophy” culture and the like. And everyone says the same thing: Millennials feel entitled. They complain a lot. They don’t understand the realities of life such as “Everyone doesn’t win.” They don’t work hard. They are addicted to their smartphones and lack social skills. It’s a long list of woes against Millennials.

I was browsing through LinkedIn the other day and some HR practitioner posted a comment about how “she can’t find a Millennial who has worked in college and values work experience prior to starting their professional career.” And so many Gen Xers and Baby Boomers posted similar laments on the laziness of Millennials and their lack of work ethic. Her entire posting, which as of now has 900+ comments, is pretty much all about how pathetic Millennials are. They don’t “work hard” like “we did in college and struggle to work and achieve good grades.”

I was one of the outliers. In my comment, I asked her where the hell was she interviewing and who did she interview? Because in the Philippines, I interview Millennials every week. I see so many superb young people who are juggling school, jobs, helping provide for a wider family, and enduring daily commutes that would destroy most people. In these cases, I see Millennials who are actual courageous heroes.

My organization today has an average age of 29. It’s 99 percent Millennial. They are smart, resilient, battle-hardened and hardworking. You read some of these articles, and you look at this team, and you must wonder, “What the hell are these people talking about?”

Yes, I have met entitled Millennials. But the same is true for Baby Boomers.

Indeed, I have met Millennials who are untoughened, who quit easily. Who want the easy way out. But I have also met this genre from every other generation!

I have certainly met some Millennials who are so engrossed in their iPhone, to the point they can’t carry on a conversation or have no sense of social intelligence. No different from the guys I met reading books in the corner at a party 35 years ago! Every generation has a portion that are inept at social interaction.

One cannot generalize about any generation. Yes, there may be tendencies one way or the other, but to paint everyone with the same brush based on birth year is a quite superficial view of people and the world at large.

What all of us oldtimers ought to do is cut the Millennials a break. We go on and on about how easy they have it. Yes, in some ways their life is easier, just as ours was easier than our parents. Progress impacts us all. But, like anything, progress is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. With progress also comes hardships. And one big hardship Millennials must deal with is having their whole life in a social media world. I think, frankly, us oldtimers had it a lot easier in our youth.

Yes, we see Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, as all “great” but they’re not. Look at their life. I see kids regularly shamed on Facebook in front of millions of people for a careless, yet normal, teenage act. When I was 18 and I had too much to drink at a party, maybe 20 people saw me stumbling around, nobody took pictures and there was no social media to spread the word. I never had to worry about becoming a global laughingstock because I made a normal teenaged mistake. But today kids do have to worry. Everyone is a photographer and everyone is a journalist of sorts. A normal and good kid, making the same mistakes all of us Baby Boomers have made, can be destroyed by having a video uploaded on YouTube or pictures posted on Facebook. Let’s go back to our high school years: now imagine having to worry about the power of cameras in every room, at every party, no matter where you go. And then worry about those pictures going all over the world. Think of the stress and pressure. You can’t even be a normal teenager anymore doing dumb pranks!

On top of this, when I was a kid, all I ever heard about the “generation gap” was my parents harping about it. That was it and every kid must listen to their parents harp. But Millennials are attacked everywhere they turn. They are the first generation to have to endure their lives being played out in a social-media world where every person is both a photographer and a journalist, with their own “column” called Facebook. So not only do they take all the grief from their parents, but they must read all the postings and all the LinkedIn commentaries on how pathetic they are! To put this in simple terms, Millennials hear more sh*t about their generation than any generation in human history.

To be honest, I feel for Millennials. They are no different than any other generation. They have greatness in their ranks and they have some who are not so great. You can’t paint an entire generation with the same brush. They will be okay. They will make the world better. They will leave their mark like every generation that has come before them.

I think they will be tough as nails. They are the only generation to be inundated daily by the social-media world that envelops us, that hears constantly they are entitled, lazy, babies, wimps. And we want to help them? All we do is criticize with a lack of empathy and understanding. No wonder Millennials fight back and rail against the older generations!

No, this Millennial generation is going to survive all this, and my gosh, are they going to be tough. They are going to make major changes to this world. For the better. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as they say. We have put this generation through the wringer. They take more stress, more crap, than any of us did.

I think all of us Baby Boomers and Gen Xers need to take a step back. Let’s relax all the rhetoric on Millennials. Cut them a break. Help them instead of criticize. Support instead of cut down.

In simple terms: Let’s stop being old farts. Let’s take out our old Who CDs, put them in, and sing along with The Kids Are Alright. Sing and dance like we used to. Just for one song!

Because, you know what? The kids are alright.