Making a Millennial

Authored by Duncan Field, Manager, Research & Executive Projects

The word ‘Millennial’ is perhaps the most divisive word within my peer-group. Many people resent being labelled, whether they are a millennial or a baby boomer. For many people my age, childhood and adolescence were used to reinforce the idea that we get to develop our own identity, and that our own agency determined our future. These ideas are present in many platitudes, like ‘you can do anything you put your mind to’ or ‘the world is your oyster’. Despite being uninspiring, these phrases emphasize the childhood principle that I am an individual, with individual goals, aspirations, and traits. What does a wide-reaching label do if not reduce that individuality?

Besides this personal objection, there is a more fundamental problem with the term millennial. One of this generation’s most important characteristics is diversity. In fact millennials are the most diverse generation in history. The grand irony of attempting to apply a simple label to a generation which demonstrates historic levels of diversity is hard to ignore. It means that our attempts to categorize will be limited to high-level descriptions which are broad enough to capture a diverse population.

This irony is one of the reasons why millennials are less likely to identify with their generational label than any other demographic. It presumes to describe a diverse group in homogeneous terms, which can feel like a deliberate attempt to reduce personal agency and identity. Whether this is an appropriate response is up to you, but knowing about this conflict can inform our leadership development strategies.

Another factor contributing to resistance to the term millennial is the baggage that it comes with. When you think about who and what a millennial is, what do you think of?

Is it a positive thought?

Often the labels applied to millennials have negative connotations. Maybe you’ve heard that millennials are:

  • Lazy
  • Entitled
  • Self-absorbed
  • Disloyal

All of these are huge red flags for employers. Leadership development is an investment, and wise organizations carefully manage their investments. If this selection of traits makes up a substantial part of our view of millennials, we are less likely to commit to thorough development because they will influence our opinion of candidates we don’t really know. The mistake is avoiding millennial talent in our organizations because of these traits. The cost is missed insights and talents that would otherwise further our mission.

Part of my vision for this blog is to dispel myths about millennials and generation Z. I think it’s important for us to clarify who the next generation of ministry leaders really are. Before we can really examine these myths, we have to understand the social and cultural context in which millennials have lived.

Nothing New Under the Sun

In an effort to give full context to the current discussion about millennials, there is one simple truth we all need to recognize – people have been lamenting the qualities of the younger generation since time immemorial. This is not to downplay current generational differences, which do exist, nor to discredit concerns about those who are coming next. Instead, we need to look at the ever changing relationship between generations to grasp what challenges are constant, and which are unique to our present era.

There is a quote, often wrongly attributed to Socrates, that perfectly illustrates the idea that things have always been at least a little like this. It actually belongs to Kenneth John Freeman, who in 1907 published his dissertation on generational challenges in ancient times as part of his Cambridge education. These are his words, published over a hundred years ago, describing attitudes present in millennia past:

The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise …

…Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves, of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against Hellenic tastes, such as crossing their legs. They tyrannised over the paidagogoi and schoolmasters.

Does any of this sound familiar? Freeman certainly gets at the ideas of laziness, entitlement, self-absorption, and disloyalty. It’s entirely possible that this time, with this generation, the difference is more significant, and the youth and young adults are categorically more entitled. I don’t deny that possibility. What we can’t do is assume that our impression of millennials is true based on anecdotal evidence alone. We need to consider where millennials came from, and the world in which they grew up.

Millennials are generally categorized as those people born between roughly 1980 and 2000. While these dates are often fluid, the general idea is that they came of age around the turn of the millennium, and grew up in the digital age.

The oldest millennials were beginning their careers when the great recession hit in 2008. Those who followed saw the fallout of the economic downturn as they entered high school, college, and university. Long tenured parents and grandparents were laid off, budgets were cut, and jobs disappeared.

Millennials are the first generation of ‘digital natives’. They learned how to Google in grade school, posted embarrassing (in hindsight) status updates on MSN messenger, and founded some of the most important websites and mobile apps in the world.

Higher education is more important than ever for this generation. In 2012, it was found that the only group who experienced higher salaries than the previous generation were those with bachelor degrees. Those who completed high school only actually saw a reduced annual income when compared to adjusted earnings from previous generations. More people are getting degrees in order to gain access to a smaller pool of jobs. The modern job market can feel like a Hobbesian war of all against all, where applicants are reduced to a collection of key words, compatibility percentages, and grades.

When we conceptualize what a millennial is, how much do these context clues inform our opinions? Are the value-judgements we make based on evidence?

Let’s take the common narrative that millennials are self-absorbed. Social media is a big factor in this perception, as it seems this generation spends more time refining their online identity than any other.

While there are many other social media platforms that millennials can use to indulge in self-promotion, with Facebook the difference between age groups is not as large as we would expect. Perhaps it is the case that the level of use is different among millennial users, but on the surface Facebook usage is more a sign of the times than a generational marker. Are millennials more self-absorbed than other generations?

We will explore these and other questions – about laziness, disloyalty, and entitlement – in the future. For now, we need to take a look at our own beliefs, and how they are impacting our organization’s present and future mission and leadership structure. Examining the narrative surrounding  millennials is important because they are going to earn leadership roles in our ministries. They are going to build their own ministries, which will interact with our own. In fact both of these things are already happening, so on what basis are we judging the characteristics of our employees, our mentees, and our peers? As we begin to serve this generation, how well do we understand their needs, strengths, and flaws?

Marketer or Mentor: Pick One

The truth is that the millennial label is an excellent resource in specific contexts. For marketers,  It captures high level characteristics that are broad enough to apply to a large population, but specific enough to illustrate purchasing and general behavioral trends. The label is good at answering questions like:

  • Iphone or Android?
  • Cable subscription or Netflix?
  • In-store or Online purchasing?

Is this the level of specificity you want to rely on in your hiring, development, and succession planning? There is a reason why seemingly every article about millennials is at most one or two steps removed from marketing or a marketing agency. It makes money – but does it make leaders? The sort of questions that leaders are required to ask of others are much deeper, and illustrate characteristics at an individual level. We are not selling subscriptions, we are making character judgments to see who will further our mission.

What is helpful for marketing is not always helpful in a development context. The marketing relationship is often singular, transactional, and impersonal. A good leader/worker relationship is the opposite of these by necessity. The relationship is fluid, long-term, and relational to the core. If we want to go further and develop a truly developmental mentor/mentee relationship, this difference is especially important. The leader who relies on broad characteristics to determine what they know of millennials is less likely to take a risk on a young leader, whose perspective may help solve a long-standing problem. They may be less likely to take a suggestion from a young leader who wants to contribute above his or her current level of responsibility. This hesitance, if informed by broad traits best left to the advertising world, can limit our effectiveness. It impacts our organizations. It impacts our young leaders. It impacts our mission.

I want to have a conversation about the real challenges of inter-generational thinking. There are real differences between young ministry leaders and existing leadership, as there was between existing leaders and those who came before them. The important thing to remember is that these differences are rarely distinct enough to allow us to compartmentalize and develop talent. When we rely on broad strokes best left to marketers, we limit our ability to empathize with young leaders when differences and challenges do appear. We can only truly challenge and develop others when we understand both (a) who they are, and (b) the obstacles that they are facing. Both of those requirements are impaired when we rely on assumptions to any significant degree.

As we explore the real differences and challenges present in the inter-generational ministry, take some time to examine where your impression of millennials came from. Often it is the implicit and unconscious beliefs that drive our behaviour, so we need to become more aware of our assumptions.

This critical self-awareness is both the hardest and most important part of developing talent, and is often the part we overlook.

When we look at millennials, what do we see?

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