What You Know About Millennials Is Wrong
10 lessons from what they really think about life and boomers
It recently struck me how quick we are to generalize about entire generations and spark polarized, often mean-spirited, viewpoints, instead of fostering more balanced, open-minded perspectives.
So, I decided to join the chorus of voices addressing Millennials and boomers in hopes of injecting some positivity into the conversation and providing takeaways that can help build essential bridges.
My thought was to interview Millennials who could overturn or broaden commonly-held conceptions about their generation by answering questions about typical topics (e.g., their own traits, views of boomers) as well as issues that they rarely, if ever, consider or discuss — namely, middle age and growing older.
I enlisted my 24-year-old son to round up nine Gen Y'ers for me to interview — folks who grew up in towns all over the country, attended college away from home, graduated and then moved to urban locales within the last two to five years. Most of their boomer parents are still alive and married (though not all still live together) and they're caring for one or more elders.
I boiled down the thoughtful and insightful comments I heard to 10 points that hold important lessons for both generations:
1. This is a confusing and tumultuous period for Millennials, but they’re dedicated to figuring things out by being productive and creative. The classic labels slapped on Millennials — lazy and entitled — don’t apply to those I interviewed. They are, of necessity, self-focused and striving to forge a useful path in life.
But they’re hardly narcissistic navel-gazers. Rather, they are exceedingly high-minded and diligent. They’re either working long hours in demanding fields or pursuing advanced degrees to build careers focused on social justice or humanitarian assistance.
Laura Shoaps, 25, who is from Lansing, Mich. and focusing on international human rights in law school, underscored the tendencies of her peers: “Given how things are now, we’re forced to be a lot more innovative and carve out positions for ourselves that might not have already existed.”
Lisa Holland, 28, a fashion buyer for Macy’s who was raised near Daytona Beach, Fla., addressed the accusation that hers is an "entitled" generation: “Many of us watched older people have an easier time of it. We may not have learned that things don’t come easily yet, but we are learning that.”
Eli Williams, 24, who grew up in Borger, Texas, was educated at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. and until recently worked as an oil derivatives trader in New York City, has seen firsthand the ways smalltown environments can limit young people’s understanding of their options and cap their drive. But we shouldn’t mistake this for laziness, he warned. “A lack of exposure to experiences can fuel a general lack of direction in the younger generation, which can be construed as laziness,” said Williams.
THE LESSON: Economic, technological and workforce shifts threw a huge curveball at Millennials and reduced the relevance of the direction boomers provided. We should understand the Millennials’ struggles, applaud their motivation and efforts to make their way and be willing to follow their example to sustain our own relevance.
2. They live in the moment, feel in control of their destiny and have a generally optimistic view of things. While Millennials regard the actions they’re taking now as important preparations for what lies ahead, they don't find it easy to wrap their heads around life’s later chapters.
Williams put it this way: “It’s hard for me to envision what my life is going to be like next year, so it’s pretty presumptuous of me to say what I’ll be like and what my life will be like at 50-plus.”
However, these Millennials believe that their choices, efforts and reactions dictate their course. So they feel empowered to chart it and cope with the ultimate outcomes.
Julie Wrobel, 25, a special education teacher from Baltimore, Md. who is pursuing an advanced degree at Columbia University Teachers College, shared her cohort’s positive view of things: “I’m getting my Ph.D. while working at the same time. I make my future. I don’t just sit around and wish something would happen. I know it takes hard work to get places.”
Said Amanda Hodge, 23, an assistant account executive with Edelman Public Relations, who was raised in Dallas, Texas: “I’m not fearful of middle age, though I have no idea what it will look like. I’m looking forward to it. I hope and expect that each different stage of my life brings some new adventures.”
Millennial optimism extends beyond this generation's immediate sphere to the world at large. “I think that, in general, we’re trending toward a better place for humanity to be able to focus on what’s important to itself and less on making the engine run,” Williams said.
Cyril Bennouna, 24, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in humanitarian assistance at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, feels similarly: “In terms of the whole pessimism with globalization, the super-saturation of information and entertainment and the fragmentation of media — I think it reflects a bit of paranoid discomfort with the speed with which things are moving. While I believe that there is a lot to be done, I’m pretty impressed with a lot that has been done and the direction that our super-creative elderly generation has pointed us in.”
THE LESSON: Boomers can find inspiration in the Millennials’ focus on the present, their belief in their own coping skills and their faith that putting one foot in front of the other can lead to meaningful achievements.
(MORE: Boomers: Hug a Millennial Today)
3. They consider midlife to be a more stable time and most regard it as a dynamic period, allowing for a greater pursuit of fulfilling interests and activities. “I see midlife as a point of fiscal and professional stability,” said Williams. “For my parents, it was a time to finally pursue what they’d been wanting to pursue for a long while because of their ability to free themselves of constraints.” His mother moved back to Colorado to care for her parents.
"My dad, who recently retired from a career in finance, just started to live his life,” said Cat Rivera, 23, a Macy’s merchandise planner for jewelry from Norwalk, Conn. “He took up yoga and also has a radio show.”
Hodge said: “My aunt and uncle built a ranch house and a farm in midlife. My mom, who stayed home with us when we were in school, started teaching in the last few years and also does volunteer work. I have a lot of relatives and family friends who are doing a lot of travel now, too.”
Cara Robins, 23, a manager of brands and talents for a social media firm who's formerly of Boca Raton, Fla., said midlife "is not a slowing down period in my mind."
Robins noted that her father is an opthomologist who loves his work and wants to continue doing it. "He also participates in acting workshops and audits college classes at a local college. My mother has been making art for 20 years and shows her wood sculptures in galleries. I see my father at 62 and think that’s young. As my parents hit new ages, my view completely changes and this shapes my sense of what I’ll be doing at that stage,” said Robins.
THE LESSON: Caught up in their own vitality and struggles to define themselves professionally, Millennials have a limited grasp of the broad range of difficulties that can strike in later stages of life. By not sheltering younger generations from the possibility of ongoing shifts, boomers can help them be better prepared for them. But we also shouldn’t let the things we do to establish security take over our lives. We can discover and delve into many enriching pursuits at all stages.
4. They don’t think middle age is necessarily a happier stage of life. “I think happiness is really dependent on what you do with the moment at hand and the way you balance that against your investment in the future,” said Bennouna. “So, I wouldn’t say that middle age is happy compared to youth, but I also wouldn’t say that it’s sad. I would say that it really depends on the people and that you could probably guess most people’s future happiness based on the way that they live their youth.”
Robins put it this way: “There are challenges as you grow older. My parents lost three out of four of their parents about seven years ago. Those kinds of things happen at that age or older, but I think that when you’re going on with your life and focused on doing what you’ve wanted to do then, overall, you’re happy.”
Shoaps said that she works out now to impact her future health. “At this point, the thing that I’m most thinking about is taking care of my body from a physical and mental standpoint, to be able to be in good shape and still have sharp mental faculties as I grow older.”
THE LESSON: Boomers need to recognize that happiness is a choice and that we can maximize it by focusing on what is positive in our lives and being proactive about doing things that we enjoy.
5. Millennials generally feel that boomers have, and show, greater wisdom — but not necessarily in all areas of life. “You grow up telling your parents that they’re wrong and not believing what they’re saying, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve turned to them or people in their age group more often,” said Rivera. “I think they have a better scope or idea about how things turn out and have seen things play out. So whether they act mature or not, they have seen things in a bigger timeframe than I have and they have wisdom just from having had more experiences.”
Shoaps feels that boomers display greater emotional wisdom than those who are younger. “It seems like people in that generation don’t sweat the small stuff as much because they’ve been around longer. They’ve seen more things and they know when there’s cause to be stressed out about something,” she said.
Bennouna doesn't buy that entirely. “The kind of rashness with which I’ve seen some authoritative figures in my life behave kind of guards against taking certain kinds of wisdom for granted in older age,” he said.
Williams highlighted the professional wisdom of his boomer colleagues. “When I was trading, I interacted with a man who was in his late 50s all day, every day," he said. "I felt it was really valuable for me to spend a lot of time with people who had the professional wisdom I didn’t have. That accelerated my own professional growth.”
However, Rivera told me that some of her older colleagues are resisting open-plan offices intended to foster the exchange of creative ideas between the age groups and are having a hard time taking direction from Millennials.
“Now, there are people taking charge of employees who are twice their age. It used to be that you put in your years and you got to move up," she said. "Now it’s whoever has the passion and the ideas. So we’re surpassing them and it’s becoming a battle.”
THE LESSON: Boomers should keep taking steps to foster their own emotional, intellectual and professional growth while mentoring Millennials, showing respect for their ideas and being open to learning from them.
(MORE: Why You Need a ‘Reverse Mentor’ at Work)
6. Some Millennials are impressed by boomers’ tech savvy, but most are not. The Millennials I interviewed regard technology as one of the most significant sources of misunderstanding between the generations.
“A lot of boomers are good about using modern technology to interact with the environment around them, but a lot aren’t,” Williams said. “Many people in the rural area I’m from have sticky beliefs and inertia when it comes to changing habits.”
Wrobel described how older teachers at work struggle to keep up with new technological advances. “There’s so much technology going into the classroom. Some of the teachers in their late 40s and early 50s don’t even know how to begin to tackle it and some seem to have given up,” she said.
THE LESSON: It’s vital for boomers to keep sharpening their technological skills to maximize their professional opportunities and keep communication with younger family members and friends flowing.
7. The Millennials' parents are the chief role models regarding their views on the second half of life and how it will play out. The interviewees frequently cited the value of their parents’ guidance. They stay in touch, visit and frequently seek out their advice on a variety of fronts.
Their parents’ professional lives and their work ethic are also hugely influential, whether they inspire their Millennial children to embrace a similar approach or a very different one.
“We saw our dad go to work, but be miserable at what he was doing with the reasoning that he was making money and making life comfortable. That molded the way that my brothers and I looked at our careers,” said Rivera. “I decided to do something that I really love to do, that I can see myself growing in and continuing to do for a really long time.”
Parents also shape their adult kids’ views regarding their role in caring for elder family members. Many of my interviewees are presently observing the ways their parents are tending to their parents. Virtually all of them told me that they'll be there to care for their parents in later life.
“People’s lives at the beginning and end kind of converge in terms of dependence on other people,” said Steven Recio, 25, a software engineer raised in Vero Beach, Fla. “You grow up dependent on your parents, then you become independent and then your parents become dependent on you. I think that if someone has taken care of you in the past and they need your help then it’s your duty to reciprocate.”
Added Holland: “I would expect my family to take care of me, too.”
THE LESSON: Boomers need to be aware that they are serving as examples to Millennials at all times and watch their steps accordingly. Boomers should remind Millennials that they are there for them and express love, encouragement and interest in what they are doing without insisting on any specific type of interaction or dictating what they should do with their lives.
8. Most of the Millennials said they think family life will be their top priority in middle age. “I want to have a grip on the goals that I set for myself earlier in life, which include devoting myself to nurturing relationships with my girlfriend or future wife and children,” said Williams. “So focusing on that is going to be really important to me and, at that point in life, I think that’s probably going to be what I focus on the most.”
Holland concurred: "My priorities are relationship and family first and foremost; work and career follow after.”
But not all the interviewees were committed to the idea of marriage or having children.
“While I think it’d be wonderful to have a family, right now what I’m seeing is my career and my career as a metonym for doing good, a proxy for changing the way things operate,” said Bennouna. “If I wanted to have a family, I’d really want to be able to give them everything that I could give, and I’m not positive that things will shake out that way.”
THE LESSON: The many new forms that boomers have given family life over the last few decades have not diminished its perceived value for Millennials and have provided them with a sharper, more realistic sense of the sacrifice and commitment required. As a result of the Millennials’ faith in family, many boomers will likely have another go at rearing youngsters; they should prepare themselves to take on new responsibilities and learn some smart grandparenting strategies.
9. They view their friends as a vital support system and make an effort to strike a work-life balance that prioritizes them. Wrobel described her friends and family as a critical safety net that will catch and uplift her when disappointments or rough patches occur.
“I feel that if you are extremely supported by family and friends, no matter what happens to you, it will be easier to get back up and keep going," she said. "So this kind of support system is not something to neglect in any stage of life.”
THE LESSON: Boomers should follow the Millennials’ lead and continue to develop new friends while nourishing the relationships they already have. Isolation and its risks to well-being increase with age.
(MORE: The Joys of New Friends)
10. Most of the Millennials feel that boomers get them. “I think boomers understand that Millennials do a lot of the same stuff that they did as kids, but in a different way — it’s just a new flavor of the same thing,” Recio said.
“I’ve noticed a tremendous adaptability within the parents of my friends,” said Bennouna. “I’ve been really impressed by their ability to keep up with the times and be tapped into very small changes in a culture that a lot of people would say is an unprecedented youth culture. I feel confident saying that they probably understand us better than their parents understood them.”
THE LESSON: Millennials give boomers far more credit than we think they do. We should make sure that we’re doing all we can to keep earning the faith they have in us and keep growing with them.