Genenerational Differences; or, How To Deal With Millennials(?)

I was at a dinner party with a few friends a week or so ago, and we started talking about millennials. In that and other discussions on the subject, I have noticed some trends with I think we ought to discuss.

We live in a world obsessed with subcultures. However, our culture at large does itself a great disservice when it attempts to group people up and say ‘this type of people” do “this type of thing.” This is not to say that certain types of people do not exist, or that certain types of people do not have a tendency to do things a certain type of way, but without a proper perspective, blanket statements like those are just unhelpful. It implies a sort of sociological caste system that ultimately does a rather large amount of damage, both in how we end up viewing ourselves and how we end up viewing each other, usually with no small measure of pride in either case.

One of the things that came up in my conversation, and one that gets brought up frequently in Internet circles discussing the issue of “millennials” is entitlement. I have read a good number of articles and watched several angry YouTube rants claiming that the current generation is the most entitled generation that has ever existed. All millennials believe that they are owed the world and they are all insufferable pricks.

However this really is a matter of perspective. Don’t believe me? Let’s try grouping people together by age into two groups. One group is 50 and older, the other is 49 and younger. I can hear the cries already: “Hold on, Ben; that’s too broad. Someone in their late forties should never be lumped in with someone in their teens.”

Now you begin to see the danger in this sort of thing. Though, for the sake of the illustration, let’s stick with it.

I am 23 years old, which places me in the second grouping of people. For the record, I can totally understand where the first group is coming from when they look at my group and say that we are the “most entitled” group. Most were born with more opportunities and options than those that came before them. And I think some do take this for granted. When this happens the second group feels as though younger people are just ungrateful. Those young’uns didn’t have to grow up in the Depression. Their parents did the hard work of dragging their family out of poverty. You get it.

But notice that I can also flip the argument around and call the 50+ group the “most entitled”. I remember telling a friend not long after starting a job in food service, “I used to love old people.” I said that in jest of course, but the truth is, across most jobs I have held the most difficult customers I have worked with are in that older group of people. The reason is that as customers, the 50+ group feel as though they are owed a certain way of doing things.

I’ve been yelled at because a store I worked for stopped carrying a certain item. As if that was something I could control. The 50+ club loves to talk about the good old days, and how we need to “get back to the old way of doing things.” Isn’t that entitlement? Assuming that your way is the correct way simply because it is the one that you grew up with? That seems kind of selfish considering the youngest of that group only has, on average, 30 years left—and thats if they’re lucky. Wouldn’t it make more logical sense to tailor things to the group that still has another 60 to 90 years to make an impact?

We could, of course, further split the line by age again—perhaps make it so that there are four “generations” represented by the groupings—but we’d run into the same sorts of problems. Some thirty-five-year-olds have specifically avoided starting a family; some raced to it as soon as they could. There are seventy-year-olds who are vehemently opposed to the concept of retirement; some began collecting their retirement as soon as they were able to because they’d earned it.

Can you see how unhelpful such a mentality of lumping people together by age or generation is? It is of course not wrong to try to study millennials or any other other generation. I am not blind to or ignorant of the fact that millennials do operate, generally, in different ways than Generation X or the Baby Boomers, or The Greatest Generation. And some of the studies done have been quite positive. But I think that knowing what generation someone belongs does not tell you everything you need to know about them, but is rather a starting point to understanding them.

Every study done on generational differences is based around one goal: Success. How to have successful relationships with said generation, how to successfully employee said generation, how to successfully motivate said generation. In order to have successful interactions with different generations there are two things we must all do:

First and foremost, take some damn responsibility. In any relationship we must be willing to carry more weight, and when it comes to inter-generational relationships, there is plenty to go around. Blaming any single generation for several generations' worth of cultural decay is just silly.

Secondly, we have to stop using generations as derogatory terms. I’ve heard people say countless times “I hate millennials”. Really? All of us? I have even heard millennials say it. I’ve also heard, and probably at some point said something unsavory about older generations. This kind of divisive discourse is just unhelpful. The minute we start down this track we have already lost. We have become unsuccessful.

In closing I will say this. If you truly want to have successful and meaningful interactions with someone from a different generation. Sit down with them. Share your stories with them, and have them share with you. Go into that conversation knowing that you have much to learn from them, no matter what the date on their birth certificate is.