Millennials: they are either going to destroy your workplace, or save the world. They are a subspecies of human so vastly different than any other species of human that they are worthy of millions of articles published over the course of many years.
They are so unique and different that we must discuss them as though they are museum pieces, frozen in time, and not real human beings who grow, mature, and confront the great questions of adulthood, questions like:
- How do I pay off this college debt?
- Who will I be in 30 years, when I pay off this home?
- Why has my kid decided to start pooping under the table?
I remember the first time I ever heard the term "millennial". It was in early 2006. I was on the 30-member management team of the large government agency I worked for. I was 24 years old, and the next youngest member of the management team was in his early forties.
We were in a workshop on how to co-exist with different generations in the workplace.
Basically, a workshop on how to deal with people like me.
And my stereotypical helicopter parents.
And my stereotypical coddled millennial upbringing.
And my stereotypical millennial refusal to grow up.
In that room I stopped being a real person, and became the stereotype.
At that point in my life I had lived on my own since I was 17, and had helped support two parents through addiction issues. I was a parent myself, having adopted my wife's daughter after we got married. I was also the parent to our 6 month-old son. In addition to my career I was also a full-time student, working on my masters degree online.
I had been a full-time student, full-time dad, and full-time worker for years.
Yet in that discussion I ceased to be who I actually was, and instead became a caricature - a caricature that wore flip-flops and a hoodie, instead of the slacks and tie I normally wore. A caricature who refused to grow up, instead of a real human being who learned some of the harsh realities of adulthood at a very young age.
A caricature that has remained frozen in time, despite more than a decade passing.
The enormous amount of discussion on Millennials, who are usually defined as those born between 1981 and 2000, never seems to acknowledge that there is a portion of that group (like me) who are entering their mid-thirties, and have taken on the trappings of being a "real grown-up".
And caring for parents.
Instead, millennials remain forever unchanged - at least according to nearly every article I ever read.
Of course, that might be because we live in a world that needs filler, all the time. We have to talk about something, so we might as well continue to talk about millennials, in exactly the same way. (And I will concede that it's better than talking about "Generation Z", because as a parent of a high school sophomore, I find it immoral to openly discuss how brands can better reach children.)
Here's the reality:
- Millennials are aging. That might make them a less sexy topic, but if you are going to devote so much ink, airtime, and digital space to a subject, at least talk about it the right way.
- Millennials are different, but a generation being different than their parents and grandparents is nothing new. Before millennials spent too much time on their phone, baby boomers spent too much time watching TV, and before that kids born in the Great Depression were having their souls corrupted by rock n' roll on the radio in the 50's. Society has complained about rotten generations all the way back to Socrates (and probably before that).
- We need to stop attributing stage-of-life differences to fundamental generational differences. Having worked extensively with nonprofits, I have seen multiple articles about how different millennials are than baby boomers when it comes to donating their money. Of course they are. Some baby boomers actually have money, while, from a stage-of-life perspective, millennials are somewhere between surviving on ramen to feeding a growing number of small children.
The point is, if we are going to continue writing and talking about millennials, let's talk about them like they are real human beings, capable of nuance.
And capable of aging.