The first few articles I published several years ago were all about Millennials.
Like a teenager trying to differentiate him or herself from parents, I thought it was our generational “uniqueness” that was worth appealing to, that was worth carrying the flag for.
I bought into a false narrative. The myth of the millennial.
As I was launching my business, people who had my ear encouraged me to make more use of my millennial-ness.
To use it for branding.
To use it for placement.
To use it for niche-making.
To use it to help the office grumps play nice with the juniors.
And yet, the more I wrote using the word “Millennials” the dirtier I felt.
I tried. I couldn’t buy into it.
Generational cohorting makes good headline porn. It does what we seem to love to do today: create an atmosphere that pits a large swath of a population against each other based on (generally) faulty assumptions.
(I would distinguish generation cohort theory, the academic study of generations, from what I’m calling generational cohorting, flawed perceptions about shared behaviors and attitudes of a large group of people born within a certain time span.)
Generational cohorting is a knee-jerk reaction to the increased complexity and diversity of the 21st century.
Millennials aren’t changing the way we work.
Boomers are not imploding our societies.
Gen-X’ers…well, who knows where they fall. We seem to have forgotten about them.
No generational cohort made an intentional choice to create the complex system that is impacting how they make decisions.
Millennials didn’t all gather and agree to value autonomy in the workplace. Nor did Boomers huddle together and conspire to agree to work for one company their whole lives, and love to have bosses.
No gigantic swath of the population can be broken down into neat boxes, much to our chagrin.
And while we’ve accepted the myths created by generational cohorting, it doesn’t mean we should.
The narrative of the millennial has led us to believe that Millennials love to take risks, strike out on their own, that they love to say, “fuck you!” to The Man and make their own rules.
And yet, “Millennials” seem to be risk averse (perhaps due to the imprint left by the Great Recession), and are the least entrepreneurial of all the generations currently alive.
In fact, the rate at which young people (age 20–34 for purposes of our discussion) are starting businesses has decreased between 1996 and 2014 by 9.6%.
The largest growing sector of the population starting businesses are people over the age of 55.
And yet, we see Zuckerberg and Spiegel becoming billionaires and we’re quick to hail the entire generational swath as hopeful and aspiring innovators. The data seems to suggest that Millennials, or young people, like other young people before them, are just trying to survive and navigate the ambiguity present to them.
Buying into the myth of generational cohorting creates an illusion as to how people born within a certain time band should behave and when we start to believe the illusion en masse the expectation of how we should behave becomes the norm rather than the exception. It’s like living in a reality superimposed by an illusion.
We should not be proud to be Millennials, Boomers, or Gen X-ers.
You should rather acknowledge the complex, contradictory, controversial human being you are.
It was in the early 1930’s that generational labels started. The traditionalists, or the silent generation, as they’re also referred to, were being observed in an attempt to measure the impact social events would have on people. Society was reeling from the effects of the First World War and trying to survive the Great Depression.
Then World War II struck and the same notion of wanting to understand the implications of such a cataclysmic event led to the study of what became known as the Baby Boomers.
Observations attempting to follow the journey of the traditionalists and the boomers were motivated by the curiosity of how massive social events would impact human development.
It wasn’t until Neil Howe and William Strauss coined the term “Millennial” that generational cohorting would devolve from an attempt to capture complex social phenomena to the lucrative business of converting an age old developmental discrepancy into a problem to be solved by consultants, advisors, coaches and the sorts.
Few things infuriate me more today than the boom of Millennial “experts” selling their services to organizations who seem perplexed by the generational “divide” inside their offices.
“How to retain your top talent?”
“What are you missing about your Millennial employees?”
“3 steps to providing an attractive Millennial-friendly environment”
Most attempts at extolling the differences between millennials and boomers fail to unmask the cultural differences as youth vs non-youth. Instead they opt for an approach that makes our youth seem radically different from previous labor forces.
The phenomena we see “Millennials” struggling with are not generation specific. They are modernity specific.
The over-abundance of comfort.
The shift from surviving to thriving (as a result of an over-abundance of comfort).
The impact of technology on our notions of work.
The new status-quo has necessarily unraveled us into a chaos that brings up questions of what it means to be human.
Boomers, gen-x’ers, millennials are not dazed and confused. We, people, are disoriented because it is a disorienting time.
Anybody you’ve paid to tell you otherwise should give you your money back.
And what happens when there’s a profit to be made from furthering the myth of generational cohorting?
The implicit moral hazard preventing an “expert” from solving your “problem.”
To solve your organization’s so-called generational challenges would leave that expert out of work.
So where do they look? What happens when the well dries up?
You turn around to look at what’s coming.
“Don’t get caught behind. Learn about how Gen-Z will change the marketplace.”
“Thought Millennials were hard. Watch out, here comes Gen-Z.”
Instead of addressing the actual conflicts keeping us from enhancing our connection to each other, we end up chasing the tail of a monster that isn’t there.
I’m sad and frustrated and unnerved by how much of our agency we continue to surrender to what other people tell us to think, not taking it upon ourselves to do our homework, to question, to challenge.
Instead we seem to welcome the continuous creation of neat little filters, like generational cohorting, through which we can distill our reality, somehow liberating us from having to do the work ourselves.
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Originally published at medium.com