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We’re In For A Decade Of Generational Strife. Here’s How To Navigate It.

2022 March 6
by Greg Satell

The physicist Max Planck made many historic breakthroughs, including a discovery that led to quantum theory. Still, he lamented that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Clearly, that’s not only true for scientific truths. Every generation rejects some notions of their elders, explores things on their own and adopts new ideas. Some of those ideas will survive, but others will ultimately be rejected, which always causes some acrimony. Even Aristotle complained about the “exalted notions” of the youth.

Yet this time is different. Because the Boomer generation was so large, and Generation X so small, those who came of age in the 1960s essentially ruled for two epochs. The rising Millennial generation, which is now the largest, holds starkly different values than Boomers. Over the next decade, as Millennials come to predominate, we can expect tensions to rise.

Revamping The Workplace

I still remember one incident early in my career. I had taken a job in national radio sales and the first few months were devoted to an intensive training course. One day that featured particularly nice weather, my fellow trainees and I decided that, instead of bringing our lunch back to the office, we would eat it in the park.

Our Boomer bosses were irate and insulted. The problem wasn’t that we took too much time for lunch, but rather that we took too much pleasure in it which, in their eyes at least, violated the social contract. As trainees, we were supposed to “pay our dues,” not to enjoy ourselves and our brief respite from the daily grind was seen as something akin to insubordination.

Millennials won’t stand for that kind of treatment. As this article in Harvard Business Review explains, they require a better work-life balance, more flexible schedules and constructive feedback. They demand to be respected and chafe at hierarchy. The younger generations of today don’t expect to “pay dues,” they seek a greater purpose.

Businesses that do not heed the Millennial’s demands are finding it difficult to compete. Millions of Boomers retired early during the pandemic, which has led to severe labor shortage and the Great Resignation. Over the next few decades, as the younger generations take change, we can expect a very different workplace.

Rethinking Economics

In 1970, the economist Milton Friedman proposed a radical idea. He argued that corporate CEOs should not take into account the interests of the communities they serve, but that their only social responsibility was to increase shareholder value. While ridiculed by many at the time, by the 1980s Friedman’s idea became accepted doctrine.

It wasn’t just Friedman, either. As the Boomer counterculture of the 60s and 70s gave way to the Yuppie culture of the 80s a new engineering mindset took hold. Much like the success of business was boiled down to its stock price, the success of a society was boiled down to GDP. “You manage what you measure” became an article of faith.

It has become clear that approach has failed. In fact, since Friedman’s essay the American economy has become markedly less productive. Our economy has become  less competitive and less dynamic. Purchasing power for most people has stagnated. By just about every metric you can think of, our well-being has declined since the 1970s.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the younger generations have rebelled. While the Boomers remember the Reagan years of the 1980s fondly, Millennials and Zoomers only see a record of failure. From the Great Recession to the Great Resignation, they see a dire need to change course and will not be assuaged by rosy economic statistics. They want a better quality of life.

Reshaping Society

When the Boomers came of age in the 60s it was an era of rising prosperity. Perhaps not surprisingly, many prioritized self-actualization and sought to “find themselves.” The scandals of the 1970s made them suspicious of the establishment and the Reagan years, along with the fall of the Soviet Union, reinforced their faith in individual agency.

Millennials have seen this ideology fail. Besides the lack of productivity growth and stagnation in wages, they have seen 9/11 traumatize the nation and pave the path for an ill-considered war on terror that cost trillions and devastated America’s standing in the world. Many carry significant educational debt and had their careers derailed by the Great Recession.

Research from Pew finds other important differences. While the Millennial generation is the most educated in history, with almost 40% holding a 4-year degree, they are worse off financially than their predecessors. Many continued to live with their parents as adults and delayed getting married and starting families. They are also far more multicultural than previous generations.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Millennials have rejected the 1980s “greed is good” ethos of the Boomers and tend to focus on experiences rather than materialistic signaling. Also, while the younger generation’s passion for inclusivity is often overstated, they have grown up in a world far more accustomed to seeing marginalized groups in powerful positions.

Brace Yourself For A Tumultuous Decade

The almost seismic shift in values that the transition from Boomer to Millennial dominance represents would be enough to set the stage for conflict. What will make this decade even more difficult is that the demographic impact is hitting at the same time as other important shifts in technology, resources and migration patterns. The last time society has endured this much of a pressure cooker was the 1920s, and that ended badly.

We are already feeling the effects. The mismanaged “War of Terror,” the Great Recession and then the Covid pandemic undermined faith in institutions and paved the way for the rise of popular authoritarianism and the decline of democratic institutions. The battle for the liberal world order is being fought in, of all places, Ukraine, as I write this.

What I think should be most salient about our situation at this point in history is that we are here because of choices that were made. Yes, there were cultural and economic forces at play, but the Boomer generation chose to value the individual over the community, shareholders over other stakeholders and to embrace GDP as a proxy for the overall health of society.

We can, as Ukraine has been doing for the past 20 years, make different choices. We can choose our communities over ourselves, resilience over optimization, and to nurture rather than to dominate. Most of all, we need to invest to increase the productive, environmental and human potentials of our society so that we can better face the challenges ahead.

Make no mistake. This will be a struggle, as all worthy things are.

– Greg


Image: Unsplash



3 Responses leave one →
  1. Michael Lippitz permalink
    March 7, 2022

    Thanks for the link to your article on Engineering Culture, from which I discovered the Danny Hillis article about “The Age of the Entanglement:” A limited set of variables can lead to the emergence of a new and unexpected order. I was familiar with some of these ideas but really like how Hillis weaves them together with the concept of Emergence as a glue–a modern technological version of Winston Churchill’s “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

  2. March 7, 2022

    Yes! It’s a fantastic piece.

    – Greg

  3. Mike Breeden permalink
    March 28, 2022

    Fascinating take.
    Why do I always get it backwards. I’m way tooo old to be a Millennial but you ascribe my views to them.

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