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Some Hard Truths For Millennials

2012 November 18

Franz Kafka once wrote, “Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”  I’ve used that line before in a post about the audacity of youth, because I feel that fresh perspective is enormously important.

Our young people bring enormous value because they apply new contexts to old problems.  It’s no accident that Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and James Watson made their major discoveries before the age of thirty.

However, this new generation has a problem.  They are coming of age at a time in history when great technological forces are converging to democratize the use of complex and powerful machines, which is giving a false sense of validation to their youthful exuberance and making it easy for them to ignore hard truths.  Here are some of them, unvarnished.

Truth #1:  Your Search For Meaning Isn’t That Special

The shortcomings of our elders are easy to see.  They have abandoned many of their ideals out of expediency and would like their sons and daughters to do the same.  They see great opportunity for the younger generation, but would like them to be more practical, both to avoid the pain they endured, but also to give sanction to their own shortcomings.

It is natural, even healthy, for those coming up in the world to ignore dull practicalities in favor of a quest for meaning.  The well-intentioned efforts of the older generation to guide the way often seem to miss the point, as they did in this famous scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman’s character “Benjamin Braddock” is advised by an older family friend about “plastics.”

We are never told what happened to young Benjamin, but it’s not hard to surmise.  He most likely married his paramour Elaine and, after a few blissful years eventually settled down, built a career and raised a family.  He found the responsibilities daunting at times, but persevered because he found meaning in living for more than just himself.

If he was 22 years old when the movie came out, Benjamin would be 67 now.  We can imagine at least some of the sensitivity, dry humour and soulfulness remains and we owe him and his generation a debt for many of the good things that hearten us today.  We live in a world that has just a fraction of the war, poverty and misfortune that contributed to his youthful angst.

Alas, despite their best efforts they poisoned the planet, burdened us with enormous debt and, perhaps most discouragingly, somehow came to believe that the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake was a worthwhile endeavor.

Truth #2: Your Skills Are Substandard

You are, it must be said, not alone.  The United States comprises but a small fraction of the world’s population and most of your youthful compatriots live outside of it.  I’ve spent most of my adult life overseas and have had the opportunity to know many of them well.

In Ukraine, I developed a training program that ushered over two hundred young people into professional life and I interviewed each one personally.  The typical candidate was about 20 years old, spoke five languages and could do econometric modeling.  The starting salary was $200/month and we never lacked applicants.

Despite your supposed disinterest in money, you expect to earn at least ten times that much.  Very few of you speak foreign languages or spent significant time in another culture (no, a month drinking abroad doesn’t count) and your quantitative skills are, to be frank, pitiful.  If I ask you to do a basic regression analysis, you give me a blank stare.

You pride yourself on being connected.  Well…connect.  See what’s out there.  There is a rising tide and they are not unwashed.  They are ambitious, hard working and they outperform you.  In math and science you rank 25th and 17th, respectively.  That sucks. Get to work.

Truth #3: Fear the Rise of the Machines

You tell us that you embrace technology and that’s a good thing, but you should also fear it.  It is not something to be trifled with, for while it opens up a vast landscape of new possibilities, it also closes doors on past ones.  Many of the skills you pride yourself on will be taken over by a machine.

Take a look at the cartoon below and imagine yourself beginning a career 20 years ago. You would have probably chosen your profession based on the skills that were in demand at the time.  Travel agents, radiologists and writers were all considered high value added careers.  Now, machines can organize itineraries, read x-rays and even compose articles.

The next wave of technologies will replace many of the abilities you pride yourself on. Natural language processing algorithms will Facebook and tweet just like you do, except millions of times faster and with greater accuracy and relevance to context.  If you are planning your future based on what passed for cool in your dorm room, you’re in for a rude awakening.

I’ve written about privacy before, but let me give you the short version.  Every time you click on one of those cute “push notifications” you are giving away a data point.  It won’t take many of them to construct a Lévy flight model that can predict your whereabouts 90% of the time.

One more click and your comings and goings can be linked to your online behavior and that sexy facebook picture of yourself can be used to find you just about anywhere on the planet.  In a few years, your genome will be online, which will contain not only things about your body that even you aren’t aware of, but many facets of your personality as well.

There you go.  The one, complete, unified profile you’ve always wanted.

Truth #4: You Are Being Conned

You have, unwittingly, become an industry.  Teams of consultants write books about you and those books lead to large contracts for corporate seminars which claim to prepare an adoring corporate world for your ascendance.  It’s a business and you are merely fancy new widgets to be bought and sold until the next management fad emerges.

They pander and peddle charts like this one, which should be ridiculous on their face, but are nonetheless widely discussed at conferences and in boardrooms:

So here’s what the experts have to say:  While those of us in Gen X accepted diversity, you Millennials celebrate it.  While we rejected the rules, you want to rewrite them.  While we wanted a “killer life,” you now want a “killer lifestyle.”

Maybe I’m being obtuse, but it all seems like a load of crap to me.  Kids in their teens and 20’s tend to act like kids in their teens and 20’s.   That’s not saying that there aren’t generational differences, but they tend to be defined by events rather than indicative of them.

One thing that rarely gets pointed out is that kids grow up.  I’m a card carrying member of “Generation X”.  We were supposed to be slackers, and we were (me especially!).  Then something funny happened.  We got jobs, added responsibilities and before we knew it, we were working our asses off.

Truth #5 You Will Be Tested

So here’s the final truth.  You learn from your own beats.  They will be painful.  Many of you will overcome the hard things life will throw your way and go on to live successful, productive, happy lives.  Unfortunately, others will be crushed by life’s uncaring misfortunes and will never recover.  They will become bitter, nasty people.

In ten years, you will look back and realize that much of what you believed was nonsense and that some of your most cherished ideals were abandoned out of expedience. Hopefully, you will find a few precious ones that you can nurture and bring to fruition. You have accomplishments ahead of you that will make you proud and failings that will shake your soul to its core.

In other words, you are not special.  You will stand on the shoulders of giants even as you pay the bill for the silly dalliances and excesses of your forebears.  Your own children will depend on you, then reject you and finally pity you for your failure to keep up with the times.  Most of all, you will live a human life, with all the joys and sorrows that entails.

So follow your dreams, but check your facts.  Soft skills are no substitute for hard truths.

– Greg

5 Responses leave one →
  1. November 18, 2012

    Great ouch article, Greg.

    And at the risk of being rude, I repeat myself at times; it’s all inside your head she said to me.

    As we are, consumed, altered and destroyed by the things we love, and aware or not that our enjoyment (of the distractions of youth) is the poison.

    We have this magic box in our hands, granting every communication, pleasure, information and entertainment wish we command with addicting sugary delights, leading a shortened attention span brain rewiring our restless shallow thinking, liberating us from real thought and life.

    The internet, happily chugging along, chronicles in its infinite memory the thought process, activity and behavior of all of us along for the ride, available for retrieval and use, for any purpose, by any government, business, group or individual with the know how.

    Within you, without you, the beat goes on.

  2. November 19, 2012

    Greg – no punches pulled here. Was watching “Lions & Lambs” at the weekend and Robert Redford’s character makes several of these points as he tries to reason with one of his gifted students. I’ve long been astounded that multi-lingual European and techno-literate Asian youth (huge generalization) haven’t leap-frogged NA. As barriers to entry evaporate, I firmly believe this generation have a long tough slog ahead of them.

  3. November 19, 2012

    I think every generation has its challenges. The problem with this one is that they are so misunderstood. Everybody seems to think that they are too techie and should get more “real” when in fact they aren’t nearly technological enough.

    We had video games, they have video games. We knew we were playing, I’m not sure they always do.

    – Greg

  4. November 19, 2012

    Greg as usual great post and observations that make people stop -and think. But this post is a real bummer because I, “Baby Boomer” don’t even make your list! Now I feel like a speed bump in the road of life.
    “Too soon Old- TooLate Smart”

  5. November 19, 2012

    Not at all. Benjamin Braddock was the quintessential boomer!

    The ones I left out were those who came of age in the 80’s. Who knows what to do with those people. They don’t even have a name!

    – Greg

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