Are Millenials Different?

In our office, one of our regular discussions is whether the latest generation of young people is different from previous generations, such as my generation, the Baby Boomers.  Typically Millenials are supposed to have the following characteristics:

1. They think they are “special”

2. They want “rewarding” work.

3. They are not willing to define themselves by their job and put in lots of extra hours.

4. They need safe spaces.

5. They want everything now.

OK, let me look at each one:

1.  They think they are “special”.  This comes from their parents and teachers telling them they are special snow flakes.  They also got prizes for participation in events, so everyone was a winner.  Well, what parent DOESN’T think their child is a special snowflake?  My parents thought the same of me, and my grandparents thought the same of my parents.  I suspect my maternal grandfather was not thought of as a “special snowflake” by his father, given he had to quit 3rd grade and go to work in a textile mill, but other than that, I suspect my other grandparents we considered special by their parents.  We find out soon enough when we go out in the world that we aren’t special,  Oh, but did we get participation prizes?  Well, yes, I got a few of them too, not many because I didn’t participate in anything in school.  No, the latest generation isn’t told they are more special than any other generation.

Maybe somewhere in the past people raised their children and told them from birth “you are mediocre, you are no different from anybody else, you will make no difference on this planet but to take up space and steal oxygen”, but I don’t think that’s happened in recent times.  I do have one story about participation prizes though.  A woman told me about a girl in her high school class that felt hurt, she didn’t have high grades, she played no sports, and wasn’t in any clubs.  She got no prizes.  She did have perfect attendance though.  So, the school came up with a Perfect Attendance Prize so she wouldn’t have to feel left out.  This happened in 1911.  The woman that told me the story was my grandmother.

2. They want “rewarding work”.  “Rewarding” has a different meaning to everybody.  If you grew up dirt poor like my mother’s father, working in the textile mill at 8 years old may have been “rewarding” because it enabled him to have a pair of shoes.  If you grow up middle class, you probably want a job that you enjoy going to work at every day, and feel like you make a difference.   Again, reality intrudes many times.  Many of us have worked jobs we’d rather not have, but we needed to eat.  That never changes.  Significantly, my maternal grandfather joined the Navy and became an electrician, so I think he was looking for “rewarding work” too, otherwise, he would have stayed in the textile mill in Hawkinsville, Georgia.

3.  They are not willing to put in the extra hours and so on…  My first job out of college was a soul sucking one for a Fortune 500 company.  My boss was a workaholic, and he never left before 8 or 9 pm.  At 5 PM the hourly people would clear out and a standoff happened as everyone waited for someone salaried to leave – none of us wanted to be the first out. You might be there until 6 or 7 at night just watching other cubicles.  I quit after two years, and so did the other young engineers hired around that time. The number one reason was the idiot (and he was an idiot) that we worked for and his lack of consideration for our time.

The older guys would have quit too, but it’s harder to find a job in your 40’s, so they couldn’t quit.  They didn’t like being pushed to work extra hours for no reason either.  Unlike the guy we all worked for, they had lives to, and wanted to live them.  So, how is the younger generation different?  It isn’t.

4. They need safe spaces.  Supposedly colleges have “safe spaces” where students can get away and play with blocks and Play Do, listen to soothing music, and hide from the world.  The first question that came to my mind was “how would they do that?”  In my day, at the University of Maryland there were various student lounges.  They were crowded and noisy, about as much of a lounge as as a bus station waiting room.  The Student Union was jammed, so was the library, and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) lounge where I hung out was a small room with worn out chairs and a table, and it was crowded, but it had a worn out couch where you could sometimes get a seat.  Granted, my time on college campuses is more limited now, but the times I have been through various campuses, they all look the same.  Every place that I saw that students could hang out in looked as inviting and “safe” as a bowling alley lunch counter at best.

If you built a “Safe Space”, how do you keep it from being crowded with noisy students?  How do you keep students from making obscene sculptures with the Play Do? Unless you are at some tiny liberal arts college in New England, I don’t think it’s possible.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect the Safe Space thing is a myth for the most part.

5. They want everything now.  Well, why should they be any different from anyone else?  Do you know how mad people get when they send me an e-mail and I don’t answer them that day?  People get mad when they call me on my cell phone and I don’t pick up.  Nobody ever asks me for a design to be completed in a couple months, they always want it the day after tomorrow.  Society has been speeding up for the past two centuries.  The steam engine allowed faster travel over the ocean and train travel.  A trip across the country that would take months was cut to a couple weeks, than a week, now hours.  The telegraph allowed instant messagest to be sent.  Lincoln had constant updates of the battlefied in the Civil War.

As time went forward we have gotten telephones, radio, television, satellite communications, the Internet…  We cook in microwaves.  We routinely fly coast to coast on jets.  All of this speeds up life, and people’s expectations.  It will only get worse.  My generation wanted things in a hurry compared to my father’s generation, and I bet his generation wanted things in a hurry compared to my grandparents’ generation.

True, there is always the newspaper article about the whiny students that have their feelings hurt.  There also are demonstrations where the students block various speakers they don’t agree with.  Doesn’t anybody remember students burning down ROTC buildings on campus during the Vietnam War?  Or, how they would routinely shut down classes on campuses through student strikes and riots during the Vietnam era?  When I was at the University of Maryland, a supervisor in the physical plant told me how students got into a telephone manhole and tore up the wires with a pick during the 60’s.  I’m not sure how that made any kind of political statement, it said these people who are now in their mid to late 60’s were a bunch of spoiled, destructive brats. I will bet good money that the student that swung that pick is now complaining about “young people today”. OK, but the Millenials are somehow worse than the Baby Boomers.

No, I personally don’t think this generation of young people is any worse than any other generation.  I think they are better than my generation, but that’s really just a matter of opinion.



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