Getting Millennials Right. And Wrong.

The video above was shared with me by a colleague with whom I discussed this post, which I have been mulling over for about a month. The video is from a project by professor and 200 of his students at Kansas State University. A few weeks ago I attended a board meeting at which the president of a local university gave a presentation on “getting” generation Y, or . The board of directors is mostly comprised of individuals between the ages of 45-70 (and 90% male), I am by far the youngest person on the board being just outside that age range by a few years (and a gen X’er myself). As the presentation was announced there was a lot of murmuring, nodding of heads, and apparent agreement that this group definitely does not understand this new generation of young people, the generation that is beginning to and will fill the ranks of each of their companies. There is a lot of pressure on millennials. There are over 80 million baby boomers on the verge of retirement with only just over 40 million gen X’ers behind them. This reality is going to mean that the millennials, estimated at around 75 million, will need to step up and fill the very important talent and leadership void left by all the retiring boomers. What was presented by the university president made me very uncomfortable. This is because her presentation seemed to be incredibly general, and largely critical of this generation. She focused on broad, strange statements like:

  • Millennials do not read newspapers
  • They do not read books
  • They do not use libraries
  • They would rather communicate via instant message than in person
  • They cannot relate to older generations (????)
  • They do not understand the Cold War (????)
  • They grew up on video games
  • They like to be entertained (????)

I added the question marks above to emphasize my own bewilderment with those statements. All of these are actual points offered in the presentation. I was shocked as none of these statements is meaningful in creating an understanding of the millennial generation, or of anything. They seem to be observations made in the context of contrasting the observation against a different experience, as if that experience is qualitatively better, when in reality it is becoming increasingly irrelevant. With regards to the reading of books, magazines, and newspapers I believe it is true that everybody is reading the printed manifestations of these less and less, hence the ongoing demise of printing and publishing as industries. Excuse me as I speak from my own experience, that of a gen X’er, when I say that I cannot remember the last time I actually held a paper newspaper, and yet I subscribe to the RSS feeds and hit the websites of probably no less than 4-5 newspapers daily. Add to this the websites and blogs of magazines and that number jumps to 10-15 per day. I would consider myself a moderate user. The university president attempts to make the case that millennials do not read. I would counter that they read, and that they probably read more than previous generations. They’re not reading the formats that previous generations grew up with, they’re taking advantage of this new information technology called the “internet”. Yes, the internet offers exponential ways to entertain, but it is also an incredibly efficient connection to information and the world around us. Does that even need to be said anymore? The university president does not talk about how millennials are using technology like RSS feeds (I subscribe to over 200 sites presently via RSS), or how they strengthen their connections and networks with instant messaging, or how they have essentially grown up with incredible technologies as commonplace. I doubt that she actually knows what an RSS feed is, which is frightening because at some level this university president is informing the curriculum for her school, and determining how students are going to be activated through education at her institution. As I was listening to this presentation I could not help but think that the standard being communicated and on which this analysis of a generation was being made, was completely and totally baseless and irrelevant to reality, to modernity, and to the way things have changed. This is dangerous, and to paint a generation with critique based on experiences that pre-date the information age is useless to all of us, but especially to an entire generation that is connected to information in ways that were inconceivable a decade ago.

It might help for people like this university president to watch this video, also by Michael Wesch:

4 Responses to “Getting Millennials Right. And Wrong.”

  1. Says:

    John,

    I agree with your assessment of the information you heard from this university president. Having not heard the actual presentation I don’t know if she was trying to show the differences to her obviously older audience or was just railing against these new “whippersnappers”.

    When I give my Generational Differences program, I explain how Generation Y grew up, the environments and influences and juxtapose them to my Baby Boomer audience. It reminds them of how they think and how it needs to change to adapt to the new culture. I give credit where credit is due, since all this technology and social awareness didn’t start with Gen Y, they were just raised in it and have incorporated it deeper into their lives.

    I do see many older presenters (I’m 35 myself) try to defend the “old ways” (some old ways are valid), when in fact we need to show how the old ways have slowly metemorphisized into this new culture.

    Also, Baby boomers, were looked upon as lazy, odd wierdos by their parents just as they look at Gen Y as an odd new world emerging before their very eyes.

    It’s interesting to watch people judge others using the same judgements they themselves disliked as they grew up.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same… :)

    I’ll stop rambling. Great post!


  2. John Schneider Says:

    Craig,

    Thanks for the excellent comment. My perception of the presentation was that she was attempting to communicate to the audience what the generational differences are, and how they might understand these better to make stronger connections. Unfortunately, with such inaccurate, general, and biased observational statements I fear her efforts were beyond counterproductive, and perhaps my tone may sound as if I am railing against this.

    You are right to point out how the boomers were perceived when they were coming onto the scene, just as those of us in gen X. Generational differences are just that, they’re differences. These occur because of the different circumstances that influence a given generation, nothing more. I think we will all be pleasantly surprised with how millennials contribute to society and the world. We certainly are giving them a lot of material to work with.

    I am checking out the links you provided, thanks for doing so.

  3. Says:

    First, let’s not get caught up in tactics yet, the difference between consuming information through books or RSS feeds. Big deal. This difference, while real, is dangerous when it’s extrapolated into “they just don’t get it”. Both the university president and you are guilty of taking a tactical difference and rolling it up to a generalization about generations.

    Look, the common thread is this: every generation coming of age is hungry for knowledge. The question is how to we deliver it to them. Let’s just agree that how information is consumed today is different than it was for the boomers as it was for those born between the Great Wars. The radio-to-television-to-internet transition is obvious, real, and something we all can agree on. A change in delivery tactics can be easily dealt with. Let’s not blow this difference into something larger, something that gets in the way of learning.

    That said, classrooms have fundamentally changed. We need to recognize this change:

  4. John Schneider Says:

    I think your analysis is on the mark, and perhaps I allowed my frustration with the presentation by the university president to cloud my better judgment as I wrote this piece.

    Perhaps this is not so much an issue of how we “deliver” knowledge to a new generation, but how each new generation determines how best to find the information that it seeks.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Best,
    John

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