You want to understand Millennials and Gen Z?

Recently, two articles jumped out at me. One by Farhad Manjoo, “Corporate America Chases the Mythical Millennial,” and the other by David Brooks, “Inside Student Radicalism.”

Brooks compared the incessant rush for “excellence” as rewarding the “meritocracy,” where college students are “stressed and exhausted,” with “a moral life that is more vehement, more strenuous than anything being offered by their elders.” The basic clash college students (e.g., Millennials) now experience is the clash of results and process, between production and purpose. Brooks concludes: “There is a vacuum at the heart of things here. The meritocracy has become amoral. We ask students to work harder and harder while providing them with less and less of an idea of how they might find a purpose in all that work.”

Manjoo asserts that “Millennials aren’t real” and that the rest of us must “break out of the stereotype.” He cites Laszlo Block, head of human resources at Google, “Every single human being wants the same thing in the workplace — we want to be treated with respect, we want to have a sense of meaning and agency and impact, and we want our boss to just leave us alone so we can get our work done.”

In my own research and experience, I am convinced that Millennials and Gen Z represent labels for young people who as a whole have been under the pressures of growing up in a wildly changing culture without the benefit of committed and supportive adults to help them along the way. Today’s young people are the recipients of ever increasing greater expectations while receiving less social capital to help navigate them than any in history. That, of course, is an ambitious statement, but there is data aplenty – from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege – that point in the same direction. Over the last several decades systems and organizations originally designed to be a source of encouragement and empowerment for the young (like education and youth sports) became more and more focused on the system and those in charge than about the needs and experience of kids. Gen X-ers at least grew up in a world where there the value of human connected still was paramount. They enjoyed vestiges of days when a teacher or coach would gladly spend extra time with a student during lunch or after school “just to talk.” Millennials, however, grew up having to find a way to earn their way to a listening ear. For Gen Z it has become so commonplace few rarely even see it. Teachers are overwhelmed and underpaid, coaches have to produce or lose their jobs, youth group staff need to produce numbers or they are gone. Even for parents, the last line of defense against a culture that cares only about performance, conformity and image, are now more lonely and isolated, stressed and insecure, and their kids feel it. In the midst of this, we blame the kids!

If there’s one place I depart from Google’s Laszlo, I do not believe that Millennials want to “left alone,” even when they say or think they do. yes, feeling micromanaged is anathema to them, even though appropriate leadership or even asking questions are often received as such. Since young people have been told their whole lives that they are responsible to produce, from high school into adulthood they would rather be given the opportunity to try, and to risk, then to feel like they aren’t trustworthy or able. Today’s young want to be taken seriously, and deserve their voices to be heard. Yet, because they know what it has been like growing up constantly being evaluated and compared, they do, and desperately need, an older advocate to stand and walk beside them. 

You really want to understand Millennials? First, don’t think “Millennials,” think “person.” Second, toss out the profane labels and descriptors that separate you from them, like “entitled” (“a trophy for every kid”) or “disrespectful,” or worse. Look into their eyes. Learn their story. Say their name. Be a student of their perspective. Honor their gifts and calling. And, above all, treat them with respect.

Previous generations were welcomed because they were part of us; they were worth the effort to equip and include them. Today kids grow up having to perform their way into blessing. This is where David Brooks and Farhad Manjoo get it right: Millennials long to be empowered and they are hungry to be valued. Funny, they are just like us.