It’s become a national pastime, of sorts, to find a fitting description of Millennials.
The typical summary of today’s youngest working generation is that most of us are achievement-oriented droids, exclusively focused on themselves and their careers, politically detached, uninterested in delving into the search for deeper inner perspective or developing their character.
In 2014, the essayist William Deresiewicz amped up this narrative with his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. In it, Deresiewicz recounts his time teaching undergraduates at Yale, alleging that, having spent their lives getting ready to attend elite colleges, students are clueless as what to do once they enter higher education. As a result, Deresiewicz finds them to be privileged — “entitled little shit[s]”
In his last book, The Road to Character, journalist David Brooks is equally persuaded that the young lack an interest in creating a framework for character and virtue. They are, he believes, “morally inarticulate.”
Others have differing hypothesis. The Case Foundation published a report titled, Millennials: The Rise of the Everyday Changemaker. Nuveen, the global investment manager, believes Millennials are “revolutionary rebel rousers”. While, Fareed Zakaria of CNN argued, “millennials are simply adapting to the world of today.”
All these portrayals are incomplete, if not, incorrect. For starters, the notion that the youth today is overly-self-centered isn’t true — more Millennials commit to volunteering and public service than preceding generations. Teach for America and the five largest non-profits have received record applications over the past five years from individuals born from 1981–1996. Among age bracket, the numbers who volunteer for programs like PeaceCorp and AmeriCorp have also jumped significantly.
Nor, is there any evidence that today’s youth lack an interest in discovering their moral compass. According the US News, philosophy and mindfulness classness have never been more popular. While Millennials are moving away from religion and partisan politics, they are discovering their values through spirituality, local collaboration, and more decentralized social justice initiatives.
Moreover, today’s young align their worldly ambitions with an aspiration to do good. Granted, there are many examples virtual signaling, but Millennials are striving for their products consumed and investments to be more “socially conscious.” Millennials aggressively trying to find work that “aligns with their values.”
Further, any older adult understands the years of our adolescents are the start and not the end of one’s process for cultivating a value framework. And contrary to widespread belief, the selfie-generation tends to shed their narcissistic tendencies as they age.
What is true is that after centuries of the young being overly-rebellious, audacious, and dare-devilish, the problem today is that Millennials are not recalcitrant enough. They aren’t willing to challenge conventional professional paths, norms, or push boundaries. Rather, a clear majority of millennials cling to a tried and true way of life.
Deviating from previous patterns of youthful ambiguity, Millennials have developed a certainty complex — seekers of risk averse environments with a fervent desire to create an illusion of certitude spurning spontaneity.
The state of entrepreneurship is a prime example of my generation shying away from risk. Young people very well have claimed the mentality of an entrepreneur (as one can see in any Silicon Valley job description). But when it comes to the more falsifiable measure of entrepreneurship as an activity, older generations are doing the heavy lifting. According to the Kaffman Foundation, the average age for a successful startup-founder is roughly 40 years old.
The percentage of Millennial entrepreneurs is well below the rate for other age groups. (Also, worth noting that the numbers of new entrepreneurs in the age 20–35 group is lower than its peak in 1996). As John Lettieri, head of the Economic Innovation Group notes, “Millennials are on track to be the least entrepreneurial generation in recent history.”
More noticeable troubling, despite the abundance of international photos on social media and the glut of Millennial dating profiles citing a passion for being on the open road, 20–35 years old lack the nomadic spirit their parents and grandparents had.
A substantial part of America was built on the young picking up and striking out for more promising territory. Ohio itself was settled partly by early youthful New Englanders who quit their rocky farms for more tillable land in the Midwest. Some of these adolescent population shifts helped reshape the country: the 1930s migration from the Dust Bowl to California, largely by people younger than 25; the Great Migration of blacks in their 20s and 30s to the North and West, which occurred in phases between 1910 and 1960. Even today’s booming regions such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Denver have been fueled by young braniacs moving to strike digital gold.
However, as a whole, Millennials have grown less likely to migrate for professional reasons. As recently as the early 1990s, 15 percent of people age 20–34 moved across state lines each year, but today the rate is half that. A fascinating Bloomberg report uncovers that fewer Millennials moved in 2017 than in any year in at least a half-century. Today. More Millennials are more likely to live in the same neighborhood that they grew up in than any preceding demographic cohort.
Data aside, Millennials certainty complex can be seen in the way we go about our daily lives. Long gone are the days where we shoot from the hip or fly by the seat of our pants (insert your spontaneity phrase of choice). Even in our indulgence of spirituality, Millennials reject letting the “universe’s energy” direct them.
Every facet of Millennial life requires certainty: the time it’ll take to get to a place, the quality of the restaurant, what movies we watch, a potential date, every detail of a vacation, any online purchase. There is even an app that rates the quality of apps.
My generation now largely has their happiness, utilization of spare time, and avenue to connect with others depend on a set of algorithms and groupthink rather organically discovering what suits them.
This mentality is hazardous. There is an argument to make these bits of information have made us more efficient, but even if that is true, there is a larger perilous fallacy that the ability to gather information previously unknown to past generations equates to a sense of certainty.
Every Millennial knows that even an ample amount of data about a potential date can still result in an extremely awkward engagement, a well-researched vacation can be disappointing due to unforeseen circumstances and following the herd can still lead to disastrous consequences (i.e. drinking pumpkin spice lattes).
The trepidation of the unknown for Millennials is understandable. After college, many entered a bleak job market saddled with excessive debt that naturally squashed an appetite for risk-taking. Those who lacked a college degree faced even dire circumstances. Employers refuse to provide more training and still have failed to adjust their hiring process for the new world. Oligopolies, often aided by government lobbying, pummel start-ups who endanger their market share. The ability to purchase housing or save for retirement vanished for the clear majority. Technology made us less connected, not more. And the process (as well as our generation’s attitude) to secure a long-term partner changed for the worse.
Yet, other generation faced a litany of hurdles as well. There were global conflicts, tough economic times, food shortages, along with counter-effective public policy. The past was filled with corporations who didn’t play by the rules and were indifferent to their employees. And there were domestic political conflicts that purposefully blocked equality and opportunity for many. Chaos stifling creativity and adventure is an excuse Millennials can only use so many times.
In On Liberty, the famous British philosopher John Stuart Mill surmised, “There is no such thing as absolutely certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life.”
Today’s youthful certainty complex does little to provide us with psychological and economic security we seek. There is enough evidence to show that Millennials attachment to certitude fails to provide us with the assurances sufficient for a healthy existence. Like narcissism and bad fashion trends, I hope this is just a phase we eventually grow out of.