Simon Sinek is a self-described optimist and a multiply-published author who speaks quite a bit about leadership. Mr. Sinek went to Brandeis and got a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology, so it is safe to say that he is not an expert in child development, pedagogy, or alcoholism, but he seems to have no trouble speaking at length about what’s “wrong with” Millennials, as he does in his 3.5M+ view YouTube video, “On Millennials in the Workplace.”
I take exception to quite a few of his characterizations in this video, and am compelled to respond as someone who believes the evidence does not support the accusations hurled at “Generation Y” or the Millennial generation, and that that dearth of evidence mirrors and reinforces my personal experience, having taught many of these students and having watched many of them thrive because of their unique generational characteristics, not in spite of them.
Unlike Mr. Sinek, I am an academic, and I’m not using that term haughtily here; but it does infer that one has to pass a higher bar for me to accept something as “true” than to see it a few times or to hear others say it repeatedly. In the course of researching my first book, Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, I had to immerse myself in quite a bit of challenging research and a significant review of literature that gave me a far deeper appreciation for the variables that influence the development of a child and the growth of that child into an adults. From this position – one of research married with experience within the field of education, and therefore the growth of children into adults – I can speak to some of the fallacies and misperceptions Sinek levies in his video. But first, let’s talk about who we’re talking about.
Millennials, born after 1982 and up through roughly 2000, give or take, are among the most egalitarian, social justice-minded people ever born in the history of our species, surpassed perhaps only by the incoming Generation Z. They believe in animal rights, support equal rights for queer people and ethnic minorities, eliminating hate speech, drawing attention to rape culture, fighting patriarchy and sociopolitical oppression… 80 million Americans fall into this generational definition, the largest generation in America. Thanks to the Great Recession and the policies of Boomers and Xers, Millennials carry a trillion dollars in student loan debt, despite being told that education is critical and their schools being flagrantly irrelevant and antiquated in so many jurisdictions. 63% of working-age Millennials have a Bachelor’s degree but 48% of those graduates don’t need their degrees for the jobs they’re able to get. 64% of Millennials would rather be happy and have a job they love than make more money and be bored, a shocking turnaround from two generations prior. Half of them believe Social Security will fail, and over 90% of them believe that profit alone cannot define a business’s success.
80% of Millennials prefer immediate feedback over incremental review, 56% won’t work at a company that has punitive anti-technology policies, 71% ignore policies that do exist because they’re punitive, 69% believe on-site presence is not necessarily critical to job performance, but Millennials are staying longer at their jobs and are measurably more loyal to employers than Generation X people did despite the common perception they’re staying at a job for less time.
35% of Millennials start their own small businesses in addition to working a more traditional job. 54% want to do so.
84% of Millennials want to make a substantive difference in the world more than they want professional recognition. Working in international diplomacy is the fourth most ideal job for the Millennial generation that is so often excoriated for being disconnected and disinterested in public service. Millennials value “community,” “family,” and “creativity” to degrees never before seen in prior surveys of generations. Their task-switching abilities – which previous generations erroneously called “multitasking” – are extraordinary in no small part due to their use of task-switching resources and technologies, giving them a neurobiological plasticity and flexibility that other generations simply lack.
This is reflected in their academic performance. As Howe and Strauss wrote in Millennials Rising, citing student performance data as well as professional educator evaluation data, “Millennials are … a generation of positive trends in educational achievement.”
Millennials are the most diverse generation in history (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000) and exponentially more ethnically and racially tolerant than any generation before them. They’re also more responsible with physical relationships, are more interested in avoiding or delaying sex, and are vastly less violent than preceding generations (Howe & Strauss, 1999).
While it’s true that empirical evidence does show that Millennials tend to score higher on traditional mechanisms measuring narcissism and lower on empathy, it’s also true that some of those traditional mechanisms stem from a time prior to the advent of digital technologies, and may not account for an increase in individual agency. We know that priorities within the hierarchies of needs change based on age; it may be that new control mechanisms and better studies are required, because despite seeming to show more narcissism in Millennials, we do not see the usual correlations in decreased giving, charity, volunteerism, optimism, altruism, or willingness to assist others in need that one would have previously expected.
Despite being “just as good” as prior generations and being optimistic and hopeful, when controlled for the impacts of the Great Recession, Millennials as a generation are making 20% less, have been left a disastrously eradicated housing market and economy, a planet teetering on the edge of ecological collapse, global sociopolitical tensions created by values and circumstances they find repugnant, and have dimmer prospects for advancement and success than generations prior through no fault of their own. In short, Millennials have been pretty screwed, pretty badly, and still manage to want to stamp out bigotry, uplift people, and make the world a better place.
Let’s start there, instead of the usual exhausted narrative about them being lazy (they’re not), privileged (they’re not), and unwilling (they’re not).
Time to tackle Sinek’s video. While he lands on an acceptable overarching point – “balance is important” – he spends fifteen minutes demonizing technology and Millennials far more than he endeavors to point out the absurdity of outmoded corporate environments.
It is absolutely true that Millennials are altruistic, and care about making the world a better place. While they may not always have, in their younger years or in their initial indoctrinations into a particular field or topic, the language or concept to articulate precisely what a “positive impact” may be, they’re also deeply involved in levels of academics at which previous generations stagger, and show a particular robustness in understanding patterns, trends, and complex problems. It’s not a bad thing to want to “make a different” or “have an impact,” as Sinek seems to scoff at as being nebulous or unimportant in his opening. (Fortunately he’ll back off this a bit later, but we’re taking him as he goes.) The dismissive attitude that is frequently levied against Millennials that is rooted in seeking specific quantification in an historic way is an example of the amplification of generational misapprehension and misunderstanding of subsequent generations. Older generations have the advantage of more robust networks of experience upon which to draw, and too often use this as punishing invective instead of entertaining innovation when it crosses the desk. The same phenomenon exists between Adults and Children, which I’ve written about extensively, but I find the Boomer-Millennial divide to mirror this: “Well, what does impact look like? How will you positively change X variable, which we’ve identified as the true measure of success?” I’m not saying that experts can’t be experts – to the contrary, I rail against that kind of anti-expert rhetoric – but a Millennial who comes to the table wanting to make things better by speaking about the outcome is engaging in backward design, and allowing an organic, messy, convoluted design process to evolve in nontraditional ways is innovation in and of itself, and I consider it the responsibility of anyone in a position of “management” or “authority” to take the time to allow fruitful failure or unexpected success by allowing Millennials to use their substantial gifts to try things. This generation will repeatedly try and fail in remarkable ways with remarkable diligence and endurance, provided they have the intrinsic motivation any Ed Psych 101 student knows is more powerful than whatever extrinsic motivator you put on the table. Creating conditions of relevance is the responsibility of the teacher, not the student; so, too, is it the project leader’s or institution’s responsibility to create those same conditions for their employees.
I digress here to call out silly distractions like “they want free food and beanbags.” Come on, Simon.
If you’re being serious, then Millennials acclimating to nontraditional ergonomics and seeking to create comfortable and familiar environments that disengage from traditional oppressive structures of form and instead individualize workspaces and environments is not only a good thing, but has been shown by countless designers and researchers to be beneficial to creativity, productivity, and outcomes… so yeah, beanbags might be just what the office needs. If you’re being snarky, then you’re only underscoring the dismissive, haughty attitude that Millennials rightly perceive in those who speak about the instead of to them.
I am indignant on the behalf of Millennials in the same way I’m indignant on behalf of children when older laypeople snark at them. If you’re going to be academic, be academic, and if you’re not, then don’t expect to be taken any more seriously than a beanbag punchline. (Also, ensuring your workers have food when the economy that your generation left them is a flaming dumpster fire might not be such a bad idea, yanno? But let’s get back to it.)
Sinek identifies here his four domains of complaint about Millenials: Parenting, technology, patience, and environment.
Sinek has a cultural anthropology background, and so I’ll grant him expertise in speaking, to an extent, about parenting in this context. That said, he fundamentally misunderstands the concept of “special,” when he calls out as part of the (unarticulated in this video) “special snowflake” meme. Originating around the film Fight Club for all intents and purposes, “special snowflake” is a derogatory term used by previous generations to suggest that individuals are not unique and special, and deserve no recognition as such, instead choosing to suggest, implicitly or overtly, that people must earn any acknowledgement of their individuality through toil.
This is, in a word, nonsense.
The sovereignty of individual identity and agency is critical not only to progressive pedagogy but to understanding children, let alone developing interpersonal prosocial relationships. Understanding that each individual has their own perspective, cognition, identity, and sovereignty of person is a critical concept in interpersonal relationships. Homogenizing individuals into groups, classes, or blocs is a form of erasure, blotting out individual humans on the altar of a broader humanity, and while it is not invalid to be concerned with or about broader humanity, one cannot exclusively relate to groups. Interpersonal relationship is critical – as Sinek will go on to say himself – and yet he indicts individuality here as somehow bogus, suggesting that there is nothing intrinsically special about any one person. Yes, there is, Simon: Every individual is unique and must be approached and conceived as such, lest overgeneralization, stereotype, and assumption usurp the individual person’s sovereignty and, therefore, ability, leading to – in Sinek’s context – a less fulfilled, less understood, and potentially less “productive” partner or associate. Again, this broad-sweeping überlanguage that speaks over Millennials instead of to them, and speaks about Millennials instead of with them, is a disturbing artifact of generational paternalism, though certainly not unique to Millennials as any person will tell you about the generation of their parents.
Individuality and individualism are fundamental values that people in America will often hold up as rightly American. To denigrate individualism and individuality with snark belies a particularly craven perspective not only of Millennials, but of one’s fellow human. Demanding that one be addressed as one’s sovereign self instead of being oversimplified into or coopted by a demographic or statistic is an act of dignity and self-worth, nothing less, and to dismiss it is to undermine human dignity and sovereignty. I resent the language Sinek uses in this passage, as it objectifies the Millennial into a “nail that sticks out of a board” or an “undeserving stander in a crowd of sitters.” Compliance is not a desirable characteristic in children or in adults. But don’t take my word for it.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers in 2016 described autonomous and independent soft-skills as critical to success in the contemporary workplace: Leadership, in which an individual progressively thinks and self-organizes. The ability to recover from failure, the mechanisms for which will vary wildly from person to person based on a variety of neurocognitive and psychosocial factors. Clear communication. Affability. Adaptability. Passion. Many of the top qualities NACE identified require a deep sense of individuality and self-awareness that cannot be achieved through imposed homogeneity.
It is not improper for Millennials – as many of us of older generations who are members of historically suspect classifications, such as females, people of color, or queer people – to demand individual sovereignty and agency in the face of institutions or movements that have denied them. To the contrary, each generation in its turn has celebrated civil rights victories. The generation that grew up in the late 19th century won suffrage for women in the early 20th and every subsequent generation has continued to demand equality for women, slowly eroding sexism. (And let us not kid ourselves: women today continue to be globally oppressed, objectified, and materially harmed, including being denied individual sovereignty and agency.) The Silent Generation won voting rights for people of color in America and every subsequent generation has been building up to address ever-more-apparent, ever-more-repulsive racism, culminating in but presumably not ending with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and Millennials are at the forefront of recognizing that there is a great deal of work still to be done. More and more, individuals fight more strongly against being denied their uniqueness on the altar of statistical simplicity or expedient demography, and as social scientists and pedagogues of any generation, we pro-child, pro-individual radicals join the Millennials, or more accurately laud them joining us in that effort. From personalized learning to the rights of the individual – the good of the one outweighing the good of the many as Kirk may have told Spock – social progress eschews forcibly grouping people into what Vidal rightly called ghettos of social order.
Another snark of Sinek’s that frosted my proverbial cupcakes was the suggestion that Millennials were told “you can have anything that you want just because you want it.” Point me to one legitimate parenting book, one organized class or school of parenting thought of my generation, show me one identifiable source of authority or note that ever said that that was a legitimate parenting skill. There’s a fundamental and not-at-all semantic difference between telling children that their aspirations matter and their potential is significant, and telling children there’s no investment to be made to achieve. The latter it not at all what is said, and I challenge Sinek to find any source that says otherwise. Name one person you know who was ever told that wanting was all that was needed. Name one person of our generation who said that to their kids. Name one. No way. It’s one thing to indict a generation of parents for going a little too far in promoting an idea of boundlessness without addressing the real structural violence and imposed social mores of generational and institutional stricture, and quite another to say that parents raised kids telling them they never had to do anything to have everything. That’s beyond hyperbole; it’s just not accurate, and I’ve found zero sources to suggest that there is any truth to Sinek’s assertion in this instance.
I was honestly surprised to hear someone who studied anthropology at Brandeis speak in such nonacademic terms on a subject already too overpopulated with lay opinion and inaccuracy. I don’t have time for non-empiricists when it comes to children and our future generation. Anecdote and opinion does not authority make, and while I’m guilty of editorializing and opining frequently and sometimes forgetting my platform, this isn’t one of those instances. I’m an academic putting my work in writing here, not having a Diet Dr. Pepper at the Four P’s around the corner. This is a serious subject and a video that has 3.5M views on YouTube alone and who knows how many Facebook posts, reposts, and likes, I’m going to hold Sinek to at least a modicum of academic standard and demand production of a source, or discard this assertion as groundless.
I consider that kind of inaccurate over-broad picture-painting to be haughty and bullying.
On the subject of schooling, if you’re read even a fraction of my work, you know that Sinek hits on something important in discussing the problems Millennials faced in schools. They perceive school as boring, antiquated, uninteresting, out of touch, irrelevant, impersonal… and they’re right. They’re absolutely right, and serious educators know that and are working tirelessly to change it. The institution of the school in America is dangerously out of date, and the fact that schools in America are affording opportunities and situations better than, say, an isolationist religion-only extremist enclave of indoctrination in a third-world country, that doesn’t let them off the hook in my book, and certainly doesn’t give the traditional Reform voice credence when it says “our schools are doing just great and everybody should leave them alone.” However, this post is about Millennials, and I won’t digress – this time – into things you can read about throughout this blog and my published works and offered oratory. Suffice it to say, Millennials were victims of poor schooling models, but so have the members of every generation that came before them, in the view of many of we radicals and revolutionaries. Sinek’s lament about grade inflation and unearned accolades underscores the massive flaws that exist throughout traditional assessment systems, which have recently been a particularly passionate topic for me, and upon which I’ll be speaking at length at the 2017 International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Antonio, Texas this summer.
Sinek also references (presumably) the research of Alfie Kohn, specifically Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. He’s absolutely correct that there are serious problems with artificial incentives, though one must take care not to conflate erroneous reward-based structures and the invalidity of eliminating unhealthy competition. As a career music educator, I’ve always been ambivalent on the subject, and take great care not to make the research say something it does not, and while the state of the literature certainly does indict the artificial and inflationary homogenization of aptitude and achievement to which Sinek alludes, it also seriously questions the validity of engendering competition among children, as underscored by some of the remarkable successes of Responsive Classroom and similar frameworks that eschew competition in favor of appropriate mechanisms of recognition, and the promotion of individuality within a free collaborative environment. Millennials respond well in these circumstances, and while I have no evidence, I sometimes wonder if that isn’t partially because they’re annoyed by nonsense trappings of recognition precisely because they experienced them. (That’d make for interesting graduate work for a Master’s student; I wish I were still teaching at The George Washington University or else I’d pitch it as an idea to a grad assistant…)
I will say that there’s nothing wrong with telling people that “just” showing up matters, and there’s a hypocrisy evident in the false narrative raised by critics of Millennials in saying they “just want credit for showing up” but then call them “apathetic.” There’s something important about showing up to a rally, to a protest, to stand the line against a greater power. In such a case, showing up may be the only thing that truly does matter, and yet another bloviating oversimplification does nothing for anyone.
I see no substantive evidence that Millennials are prone to the fragile disintegration Sinek highlights. This strikes me as a distillation of the generational lament, rather than an empirical observation of Millennial behavior writ large. How many Millennials do you know who are so isolated, fragile, and devoid of identity and network that they shatter at the mere suggestion of imperfection? I know a total of zero such people, and while here I descend in the anecdotal just as Sinek does, my suspicion of his position drives me to the research: As of 2014, Millennials were 27% more likely to keep their commitments in the new year. They are more honest about their skills than the prior two generations. They were 16% more interested in personal improvement than the generation prior. Not only can Millennials “tolerate” critique, they’re more likely to be honest with themselves about their need for it.
The profound arrogance of my generation and the Boomer generation in lambasting Millennials as “fragile” is not just maddening; it’s just wrong.
In the latter part of the video, Sinek seems to suggest that modern parents are imbeciles compared to their older counterparts, and that softness, kindness, empathy, and security in knowing one’s uniqueness and value are negative characteristics to be “toughened up.” The concept of “grit” is troubling to me at times, because too often we see “boot-strapping” types trying to artificially “toughen up” their kids instead of nurturing their sensitivity, leaving adult-ness for adult-hood. Empathy is vastly undervalued by these individuals, and belies a particularly sinister perspective on humanity. I read recently that J.C. Watts, a Republican congressman and a Rand Paul proxy, said, “people are fundamentally bad.” This is unsurprising given the monotheistic position that morality must extend from an external authority rather than from an intrinsic human condition. I, of course, reject this paternalistic depressive view of humanity that the far right historically espouses, as any honest right politician will tell you: The right believes humans must be saved from themselves, that they are inherently wrong, intrinsically erroneous, devoid of merit and altruism, and that only external forces – God, patriotism, parental authority – will right the ship. I regard this as a particularly craven, myopic, and uninformed position on the state of humanity, relying upon isolated anecdote instead of the state of the literature and the totality of our experiences once controlled for the variables of totalitarianism and local social ill. Parents who seek to engender “hardness” in children fail to understand childhood writ large, and place children in peril through acts of neglect, mistreatment, and harm if not abuse. It is one thing for a child to fall down, experience hurt, and learn that hurts are a part of the human condition, and varying responses to varying types of hurt are important. It is one thing for a child to experience sadness or pain or anger, and be shown the antecedent-consequent relationships when it comes to the way the child reacts to those experiences. It is an entirely different thing to actively seek to create harm, in order to accelerate these natural processes on the altar of getting children to “grow up.” One of the worst hallmarks of chattel mentality directed toward children is attempting to harden them artificially instead of nurturing their child-ness, which is a direct benefit of no longer having to fight bears, club attackers, and live in a state of primordial hypervigilance.
I’d be darned pleased if parents and board presidents alike would stop trying to reintroduce people into the raging wilderness.
Where Sinek hits the nail on the head is in his conclusion, finally eschewing some of the – in my evaluation – falsity he started with, and getting to the real issue: children have changed, and so the adults into which they grew are different than previously. Social structures and corporate structures, however, have not adapted to them. As I write in Insurrection, the preservation of institution at the expense of people is hugely problematic. Sinek is precisely right that the organizational environment is the problem, not the Millennial. When an organization cannot capitalize upon the qualities, talents, and skills of its constituent members, that is a fault of the organization, not said membership.
I am infuriated by Sinek’s proposition that Millennials engaging in social media is analogous to alcoholics drinking, and am flabbergasted by his egregiously inaccurate representation of alcoholism in this context. Clearly, Sinek doesn’t know much about this topic, and not only does a terrible injustice to the benefits many Millennials have gained from integration into wider networks through technology, but goes a terrible injustice to mental illness, addiction, and alcoholism. I cannot abide it without comment: Alcoholism is a disease, and alcoholics do not choose to have that disease. Addictions are not at all the same as habits or trends, and I find the suggestion that giving kids access to social media to be tantamount to giving kids alcohol or cigarettes deeply irresponsible. There are no benefits to abusing alcohol. There are no benefits to cigarette smoking. None. There are no redeeming qualities to cigarette smoking. Cigarettes in particular are the result of corporate collusion to maximize profit while destroying the health of consumers. One can make the argument that there are technologies that seek to maximize profit without regard to health, but one cannot rightly, seriously, or academically indict the whole of social networking as being as intentional or destructive as cigarette smoking.
Devices do not create dopamine kicks. Behaviors tied to antecedent-consequent extrinsic motivators do, and that motivation will have varying effects on varying individuals. To say “an iPad is as addictive as alcohol” is to fundamentally misunderstand technology, addition, neurobiology, psychology, and human behavior. It’s not a semantic sleight-of-hand or interesting quirky anecdote to make such a statement; it’s dangerous, inaccurate, ascientific hokum. That kind of gross, unsophisticated, sweeping oversimplification is dangerously simpleminded and is part of the Luddite-like false narrative that the wholesale elimination of technology is good for kids and adults. Sinek himself scuttles his argument by jibing about posting a picture of his food on Instagram: clearly he knows that one can have innocuous if not prosocial interactions in the social media realm, and to suggest to the contrary is not only observably false, but in my experience and professional assessment as an educational technologist, potentially destructive to the countless number of people who have found ways to supplement executive function and organizational deficits through technology.
Moreover, it’s troubling to me that Sinek seems to believe that anybody who drinks a lot is “an alcoholic.” There are a variety of permutations of alcohol abuse, from bingeing to compulsive drinking to social habit to addictive personality behaviors to, yes, alcoholism, but the etiology of the behavior differs in each of those instances. This is one of the things that frosts my cupcakes about those who foray into making declarations about groups of people without a more robust social science, pedagogical, or research background than the average layperson brings to the table: Sinek hasn’t controlled for all variables, but is levying proclamations at and about an entire generation of young people. I find that disappointing and not especially thoughtful.
There is a profound benefit to integrating people of diverse and disparate cultures and experiences through social media, and just because Sinek cannot seem to capitalize upon these advantages and strike better balances does not mean the wholesale elimination of technologies is wise or warranted. Indeed, removing technology from my work in any situation – one on one, small group, large group, or otherwise – will impede my ability to complete tasks and respond effectively as a collaborator and leader. My memory is not what it should be, and my ability to lose track of time at the drop of a hat is legendary. I will go down a rabbit hole for hours if I do not create a structure for myself, in the way that works for me, to ensure that I fulfill my obligations and strike a better work-life balance than I would be capable of otherwise. To deny me my technology is to disable my ability to be my best, and it is no one’s right to deny me that identity or agency. While certainly this is inclusive of balance and some people have more difficulty with balance, again, to make blanket statements about 80 Million people in such generalized, disparaging ways strikes me as deeply irresponsible.
Social media in the hands of Millennials saves young queer lives, reveals truths about law enforcement and our government, empowers people of color who organize and expose historic structural violence in ways never before seen in this country, unites families and friends across distances untraversed in the history of our species with rapidity unknown before our time, and can be a powerful force for good in individual lives and for people collectively. Social media in the hands of Millennials is changing global sociopolitical history by affording outlets and voices to those who would otherwise be ignored, silenced, and erased. Sinek utterly fails to acknowledge the prosocial goods and benefits that can come from the healthful, balanced use of technology to meaningfully enhance lives, and while it is a common overbroad charge levied against technology generally and Millennials specifically, the ubiquity of this argument does not make it compelling. This is a tired narrative, no matter how it is presented by a well-spoken person on a stage.
Sinek’s disparaging of Millennials and their social media in such an overbroad way amounts to an ornery codger shouting “get off my lawn.”
There is an obvious – or what should be obvious – difference between all members of a generation and certain members of a generation. It is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy to say “some Millennials in X situation or with Y technology exhibit addictive behaviors, therefore all Millennials exhibit addictive behaviors.” One doesn’t have to bother researching a counterpoint to his supposition that Millennials are addicted to social media, as it is unsubstantiated, devoid of empirical evidence as well as failing even a basic logical test.
I think Sinek thinks he’s cute in some of these statements, but there are a great many people who are going to use this widely-shared video as justification for disparaging, belittling, and limiting Millennials, and I cannot abide this kind of insult hurled at the feet of so many of the most talented, empathetic, creative, diligent, insightful, intelligent, and impressive young people I’ve ever met. As an educational technologist, I cannot abide the generalized negativity Sinek hurls at technology and collaborative platforms, as we in this field know from decades of experience across generations that there is genuine power and good to be found in the thoughtful, intentional, well-designed and integrated use of these technologies. If he had said that he advocated for more balance and stopped there, this would have been a different matter, but Sinek’s position throughout entire portions the video is that Millennials need to put their technology down.
No, they don’t. Detractors of Millennials need to do a great deal more listening and far less insulting, lest the lawn-protecting fuddy-duddies of my generation – which happens to be Sinek’s generation, too – create further disenfranchisement and disillusion for a generation we’ve already treated poorly.
We’ve managed to foul up their economy, their housing prospects, their educational funding, their credit, their air, their water, their food supply, their news media, their infrastructure, their education system, their government, their representation, their marketplace, and in far, far, far too many instances, their health, their safety, their bodies, their families, and worse. For every whine, lament, and complaint about Millennials, I would like to see people of my generation and the one that came before mine be accountable for the decisions they made that tossed away a safer, better, more prosperous world for Millennials, causing them to be the first generation in the history of our species to inherit a situation worse off than the one that came before.
Another variable for which Sinek fails to control in his extemporaneous diatribe is the artificiality of the nuclear family construct of the mid-Twentieth Century. The extended associations, personal interactions, mentoring, and support that Sinek (rightly) describes as important used to be provided by a wider, less centralized extended family network, a condition in which we lived for thousands upon thousands of years before America, as an example, isolated families into “mom-dad-kids in fenced-in-yard.” This is a complex development with a huge number of factors involved, and it is improper to suggest that it is the fault of Millennials that they are relying upon a new, technology-integrated if not technology-rooted way of relating interpersonally. The world has changed, and lamenting it as “all for the worse” is beyond conservative; it’s a Luddite mentality.
Sinek also seems to suggest that it’s a “bad thing” that Millennials want to see immediate changes at a large scale. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with saying, if we can make this happen fully or more quickly, we can do more and do better for more people?
I share the impatience of Millennials in my work – public school revolution – because the historic incrementalism of many of the great voices of reform, like Diane Ravitch, will have us creep toward betterness while children languish in suffering situations. By contrast, I believe that a wholesale shift – revolution, not reform – is precisely the kind of fruitful disruption we need to make things better for the most kids, most quickly. It is precisely the innovative, creative, impatient mindset of Millennials that refutes Sinek’s “it takes a long time to climb a mountain” analogy. Millennials want to know if we can implement a ski lift, or get a helicopter, or maybe tear the mountain down if it doesn’t need to be there. While I recognize he’s making a point through illustration, so am I: It is not a foregone conclusion that the way mountains have been scaled in the past is the way they will be in the future, or in the immediate situation right in front of any given Millennial. In fact, their abilities to innovate, create, and disrupt are among their best characteristics, and I think we do a grave injustice to them and a grave disservice to ourselves to ask them to slow down when they may well have a proverbial rocket pack at their disposal if we empower them instead of seek to correct them.
The inherent dissatisfaction of Millennials stems from any variety of factors, but it is not a vice. It is, in my estimation, a tremendous virtue that the generation at hand is unwilling to tolerate the extant without justification, that it questions constantly, and that it is, by comparison, impatient with older things and older people. Systems and structures that deny Millennials (or post-Millennials or children) individual agency and identity deserve to be questioned and decimated and reconstructed, and if we heed the virtuous impatience of this generation, they will show us better, positively-disruptive alternatives to extant traditional methods that we may be incapable of seeing or generating ourselves.
The world belongs to the next generation, and the “real world” changes for the better because of those who make it, not because of those who try to keep it the same. Sinek is right that the traditional corporate environment doesn’t work, just as I’m certain I’m right that the traditional scholastic environment doesn’t work. But the solution is not to demand that the very technologies that liberate and empower and enhance the lives of incoming generations be stifled or eliminated; it is a far better use of our energy to adapt ourselves to the new realities of powerful innovative thinkers like the Millennials.
I. Katherine Benziger outlined Carl Jung’s falsification of type phenomenon, in which the brain experiences stress – and therefore, the body experiences stress – when it is forced to operate in a modality that differs from its developed preferences. For someone like me, being forced to sit in a lecture hall, facing the same way, silently and still, for a protracted period of time while I am talked at is a sure-fire way to raise my anxiety and frustration levels. To demand that I comply with this modality because it’s “the real world” is not only counterproductive – I’m not going to learn this way no matter how much you wish it were so – but it’s also inhumane, especially in the case of doing this to a child, and virtually ensures an ineffective learning situation. It is not the fault of the learner when a false or improper modality is forced upon that learner, and we do that all the time in schools, institutions, and corporations in America. We insist that people “do what they’re told” and “do what they have to do” because “this is the real world.”
If our capacity for design and organization is so limited that we cannot even conceive adjustments to extant structures, let alone wholesale reinvention, we have no one to blame but ourselves for our failures, and certainly ought not blame people who will consistently and clearly tell us that what we’re doing doesn’t work for them. Of course students in schools will be depressed if you force them to do something that doesn’t work for them in the slightest. Of course students will feel isolated and frustrated and hurt if they are clobbered into corners when they use platforms and resources that are met with withering disapproval by authority figures. It seems to logically follow that the more we demonize things that come naturally to Millennials instead of seeking to understand and prosocially integrate them, the worse off we’ll make the problems we see.
When Sinek says that the worst outcome is suicide, he’s right, and failing to conceive an individual, that individual’s needs, and to empower that individual with authenticity, agency, and identity is a sure fire way to make things worse for any individual, especially if predisposed to depression. When Sinek says that the “best” outcome is blasé mediocrity, I say, absolutely not. That’s the best you can hope for in the system as it exists, when that system utterly fails to account for the individual Millennial and that individual’s needs, preferences, and uniqueness. The solution is not to change the Millennial: The genie is out of the bottle. The world has changed. Our kids are growing up digital natives, to use the outmoded term, and there’s no going back, nor should we want to. Let’s go forward with the best aspects of an integrated world and redesign systems to account for those new realities.
It is absurd to say “put your technology away” then ask a student a question that involves precise figures, names, or dates. The sum total of human knowledge is online, and we’re going to pretend it doesn’t exist? The same absurdity exists in any corporate environment: Why would you not want access to a massive repository of data when making decisions? Kenneth Matos of the Families and Work institute suggests that Boomers and Gen X-ers would be far better off looking at their own resistances to change, rather than pointing a finger at Millennials, and I concur with that assessment.
The little anecdote that Sinek gives at the end of his quasi-sermon underscores his bias against those who don’t use technology and who don’t relate the same way he does. He says that “the way” that “we” develop relationships is through personal inquiry and verbal relationships. Again, he makes massive assumptions. Some people are deeply put-off by being inquired about in their personal lives when relating in, say, a corporate environment. Some people are not at all comfortable having a personal conversation verbally in that fashion, and are able to be far more interpersonal using, for example, a technological method. I do not say that everyone can do this or that nobody prefers the former, but that’s my point: saying “this is how a person should be” is almost invariably an overreach. Homogenization grossly oversimplifies complex individuals in complex relationships, and promotes misperception and misconception, yielding no improvement in the situations Sinek laments. Ascribing blame to technology and its use, associated with age or not, is to conflate an object and a behavior. Telling people to liberate themselves from their technologies implies they are enslaving in the first place, which is a values and judgement position, not a position rooted in evidence, and most certainly implies that all people relate to, with, and through technology in the same way, which I believe is patently absurd and observably inaccurate.
If Sinek’s concern is prosocial relationships, he should focus on those, instead of the mechanisms and modalities of those relationships, lest he miss his own point entirely.
It is intellectually lazy to grossly overgeneralize a generation based on a trend, and to make assumptions and logical leaps like those present throughout the video. If there’s anything “lazy” associated with the Millennial generation, it’s previous generations’ unwillingness and incapability around changing ourselves and what we do to adapt for the better, and Millennials can show us how to do that if we listen. That said, we better get at it quickly, because their impatience is a virtue, and Millennials wait for no Boomer.
In the end, Sinek’s overarching point – that balance is important – is well taken, but I challenge you not to take his video as a “hell yeah” reinforcement of your preconceptions about Millennials. They are a remarkable, diverse, powerful generation that is poised to do what our generations could not, and reverse poor trends and improve the world in profound ways, quickly, if they are given the chance. I count myself fortunate to teach the Millennial and Gen-Z generations, and look forward to seeing them do the remarkable things they surely will, and will join them in lamenting those individuals and institutions who stood in their way instead of empowering them.
I admit freely that I am biased, as someone who wants to work with them instead of against them, and wants them to do what they want, not what I want, but I am ultimately unconvinced by the tired “laziness” narrative, when I see empirical and observable evidence everywhere I look that Millennials are remarkable as a generation. I hope you’ll take pause before indicting any person because of their age, and instead take the appropriate opportunity every person deserves: get to know an individual, as an individual, for who they authentically are. We all have strengths and deficits, and just because the Millennials are different than us doesn’t mean we’re better.
It’s high time for Generation X and the Boomers to get off their high horses. The world doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the future generations.
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