By Tracy Saville
The now infamous “me” generation or Millennials: who are they, how do they compare with their senior leader mentors, and why must both young and old stop griping about what’s wrong with the other and get down to doing some serious work.
According to the United States Census Bureau (2010 U.S. Census Survey), the numbers of seniors over 65 still working will nearly double by 2018 (from 6.5 to 11.1 mil.). Their ranks represent 42% of “leader” positions in management, professional and related occupations. Overall, the numbers of seniors over 65, or hedging toward that age, have dramatically increased and this is expected to double by 2050, representing 20% of our total population in the United States by the time someone 45 today is 85.
In less than ten years, we will have a convergence of mature leaders and a potential for emerging leadership development that could very well be the greatest “generation” ever – the new generation of collaboration and innovation, where indeed we are finally learning from past mistakes and embracing the new frontiers of Internet and technology–creates near seamless playgrounds to solve problems. Old rules and new rules together, a leadership culture that blends the best of all: A perfect storm for transforming our lives, our cities, and the world we live in.
Millennials are the generation we have no choice but to look to as the source to succeed our current leaders and managers in every part of our private and public labor force, and to solve the greatest barriers and challenges we have as a society. They will also face problems not yet realized, of curse, born by the excesses and mistakes their parents made, and those who came before us. Lazy, lacking in direction and focus, not interested in hard work – we’ve heard all these remarks about 18-35 year-olds and more, falling out of the mouths of people who should know better.
And yet it is these deeply embedded beliefs and mischaracterizations held by each generation about the other, that could, if not recognized in the acculturation process of leadership succession – what we bestow between each other – disable what ought be an Aquarian age of greater self-awareness, environmental sustainability, and human advancement.
Our sons and daughters could refuse to see our insight as valuable while we refuse to accept they may see things we never could because they are Internet-fed, post-9/11 human beings raised as a protected class. Yet the world really is now literally volatile and unpredictable for them and it’s unfair to judge their sense of acceptance of an impermanent world as less than alright. Their reality is unlike any before; they are unique, and know they are expected to have really strong shoulders.
When we hear the phrase “learning from our mistakes”, or consider the role of the historical value each generation has in living into the promise of that sentiment, it is as my step-grandfather and former State Senator Albert Rodda said in his essay “History: Does it Have Meaning?” what John Huizinga believed: “History is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past.” (1) Generations are the accounting, and it is what gets swept underneath the rug we ought to worry about.
The goal of every generation ought to be transparent and truthful about their part in the past and their perspectives on the future; yet what is the truth? Whose truth? And doesn’t accounting go both ways? If one generation shuts their eyes to the values of another, how do the best of that generation’s virtues survive?
Perhaps it will be the Millennials who break this rug sweeping malaise? Their stats bear out this possibility.
Born between 1980 and 2000, some 78 million strong and maturing in this, and the next decade, Millennials are racing into the potential leadership pool. Studies seem to suggest that Millennials singularly possess unique post-Internet qualities of creative problem solving and innovation thinking driving their professional aptitudes and abilities. Uniquely, Millennials also seem to possess high levels of belief in out-of-the box problem solving, and that their parents have been too external in their approaches to creating meaning, that they don’t have the answers. Millennials also possess great entrepreneurial drive and abilities of a start-up culture who also has the staying power to be disciplined, as well as Internet-created technical sophistication having been raised in an immersed Internet culture.
Millennials also present certain unique challenges to the workforce and employers for these same reasons. They are competing for leader real estate while also seeking to find their way in a complex, uncertain, and ambiguous world. They sometimes know as little truth about their elder peers and mentors, or human behavior, as we seem to know about them.
And what of their “elders” – the maturing leader force?
The 2010 Census (2), as well as many books published this decade on generational issues, suggest that while older people need to keep working longer than prior generations, Millennials don’t recognize retirement or generational lines of divide. Retirement is a word they will not know in their lifetimes.
They also tend to think in terms of a lifetime of experiences rather than a life divided by family and career, or one track to some future outcome where it will all become “worth it”. Right now is valuable to them because they have been raised in a world where it may be all there is. They understand the power of now.
And so says the Millennial – right now is when I shall lead, and they are, in great numbers. The benefits of engaging Millennials in leadership are many, but fundamentally go to advantaging all people served by their technological sophistication and by the collaborative and creative capital possible when we know how to engage Millennials and leverage older generations at the same time. Effectively leveraging mature experience, capturing and passing on critical historical knowledge and narrative, and engaging mission-driven entrepreneurial and technological innovation: these are the cornerstones of the successful future of emerging leader programs. In any city, in every sector, it could very well be the way into a transformed city and culture. It isn’t out with the old, in with the new: it’s creating a new resource out of the combined best skills and aptitudes of both.
Understanding how technology and social networks can be used to significantly transform our broken landscape of government and social sector infrastructure, for example, is one possible Millennial contribution. Theirs is a perspective not driven by the “I”, but by the “We”. Hardwired for service and leaping into the “building” of things and “solving” of things by virtue of their immediate access to information in ways older generations have not adapted to – this is the new wave of leaders.
The key questions are: Are Millennials getting the self-mastery training and opportunity through mentorships and apprenticeships to self-discover their critical thinking and emotional intelligence capacity in the education system we built for them? Is either their record-level abandonment and crisis-issues or alternatively protected sensibilities a boon or bane to their success? Are they getting the nuances of experience and the good stuff of seasoned leadership and management?
Finally, if older generations see Millennials contrarily as people who want to cut corners instead of paying their dues, as people who speak their own short-hand languages and have hidden, misunderstood ways of doing things in a socially networked life (a society which generations before them have opted out of mostly), what does that say for the respect between the current and successive leadership relationship? If we don’t plan to teach both sides of that equation how to engage and leverage each other, won’t we all suffer as a result?
Can’t the future be different from the past after all?
Rodda, Albert. History: Does It Have a meaning?” Course Syllabus Supplement – Western Civilization, Sacramento Community College, 1966
 Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/states/asrh/SC-EST2009-01.html> and http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb11-ff08.html