I suddenly felt like I’d blasphemed. On television, no less. An earnest young co-panelist had just darkly described today’s 20-somethings as deprived of economic opportunity, calling the dream of, say, owning a home “farcical.” I suggested everybody not give up just yet. The last time things looked this bad, I argued, the prosperous ’80s soon followed. She grimaced as if I’d just said “let them eat cake.” Apparently, no amount of reasoned perspective was going to shake her gloomy attachment to the meme of the Hopeless Millennial.
Intergenerational politics makes great copy these days. We live in an era when attention is lavished on victims, and if millennials aren’t the world’s most tragic ones, they are certainly the ones we’re most likely to bump into at the Apple Store. We—parents, policy-makers, the press—spend a lot of time wringing our hands about the imperfect world we’ve unfairly handed them. The problem is, all this fretting has begun to brand this generation as helpless waifs, paralyzed by choice and stalled by an underdeveloped work ethic. If I were 20-something right now, that would be starting to get up my nose. In fact, I’d want a rebrand, stat.
For a start, the millennial brand is based on a false premise—namely, that humanity is circling the drain. I can’t explain this, other than to presume that everybody thinks nothing happened before the Internet. You see, the people of Earth actually go through these cycles of existential anxiety pretty regularly. The world that graduates faced in, say, 1980, wasn’t any rosier than the one they faced in 2010. The two experiences differ in detail (swap in global warming and dirty bombs for acid rain and Soviet warheads) but each was labelled a hopeless mess. It was just hype then, and it’s just link-bait now. Things may be different today, but by no objective measure are they generally worse.
The Hopeless Millennial stereotype isn’t a complete mirage, of course, but it’s also not the whole story. Leave out white middle-class, subtract wealth, a privileged education and hovering parents, take away the luxury of worrying about performance instead of subsistence, and today’s 20-something suddenly doesn’t much resemble the poster child for her brand anymore. For every arrested adolescent haunting a parental rec room in the hope of deferring adulthood, there are legions already out there getting it started, economic headwinds and all.
And in some cases, their dreams might be bigger than their parents’ ever were. An article in these pages last fall called entrepreneurs this generation’s “heroes,” citing the rapid growth in millennial ownership of startups as proof of this generation’s ambition. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was born in 1984. That he can come across as charmlessly arrogant has nothing to do with his age; that he has been a successful capitalist is indisputable. Forced to choose a way forward, I’d follow one of him over a hundred Gordon Geckos every time.
The fact is, we need these whippersnappers, and we need them participating in society and the economy, not sitting on the sidelines. On the strength of numbers alone—they comprise roughly a quarter of Canadians—they have the power to make the economic rules. The oldest ones are on the cusp of having some discretionary income, and of an age where one’s politics start to lose some of their strident edge. Just by engaging in the economy, they could save it. Just by engaging in the capitalist game, they could win it for us all.
But if the millennial brand is to be rehabilitated, the job has to start with the people who gave them the lousy one they have now. They are the first generation native to the modern world, and they’re still young enough to be optimistic about it. To me, it’s the height of age-denying boomerism to imagine this world can’t get along without adult supervision. I think we should show the millennials a little more respect, stop apologizing for (and to) them, and proceed on the assumption that’s exactly what the world is going to do.
Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award