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Improved Millennial Operating System

They may not have all the needed software, but millennials have an improved operating system. This makes all their software work more effectively.

Millennials are the butt of every joke. They are a generational whipping boy... that seemingly knows no end. This needs to stop. It is unfair, inaccurate, and frankly paternalistic. The latest survey reports that millennials are poor tippers. The fact made the national news coupled with sweeping generational criticism by the media commentators.

Millennials will be the first to remind you that the very concept “millennial” is one that is made up. William Strauss and Neil Howe first coined it in 1987 in their book Millennials Rising. It has now been reified and stereotyped unfairly.

Millennials—those born roughly between 1980 and 2000—are now the largest single generational cohort in the United States. Their market and brand influence is widely recognized. They also have a significantly different take on religion, relationships, and reality than their generational predecessors. These differences lead to routine misunderstanding.

We are told, for example, that they are bad workers. This is not true though this is a generation for whom finding meaningful work is difficult. For them “bullshit jobs” are called what they are “bullshit.” For them embracing a both/and frame means that there is no distinction made between their public and private life. Their expectation for flextime and mobile work is a direct consequence. They have broken with the nine to five factory patterns of work and employment. Mindless work in seas of identical cubicles is, as Charlie Chaplin pointed out in “Modern Times” (1936), soulless. So are they bad workers or are they workers that no longer have patience with the dehumanizing commodification of employment? Instead they are those who come to work with the aspiration of making the world a better place, of having a significant voice, and breaking the corrosive effects of bureaucracy. They are not bad workers, but the best workers.

These are those who are fueling the growth of triple bottom line companies: people, planet, and profit. They are the soul of the B Corporation movement. They no longer have patience with the assumed binary tension between management and unions. They dream and expect a better way of structuring work, employment, and capitalism. And these dreams and expectations are met with the harsh realities of their student debt and a changing digital job market. As a result many are required to assume multiple jobs in the “gig economy” in underpaid service work. As sole proprietors and 1099 workers, they are also the victim of frequent abuse and systemic oppression by uncaring institutions locked into old and dying patterns of work. So to harp on them being poor tippers is to make a mountain out of a molehill and to miss the larger context and struggle of their daily lives. Theirs is the first generation that is self aware that their economic prospects are not a good as those of their parents’ generation.

I am a champion of millennials because I believe that they not only think different, they think better. Assuredly they don’t have all the skills and software to navigate the daily complexities of their lives, but their intuitive operating system is a significant improvement over the past. Appreciating this new operating system or conceptual mind frame is important. Compassion and competitive effectiveness demands understanding its contours. I highlight seven features of this operating system: secularity, explorers, cross-pressured, experiential, relational, authentic, and haunted. I devote a chapter length analysis of each in my book The New Copernicans. Here let me touch on each briefly in terms of how this is an improvement.

Secular: Millennials live lives that assume a basic day-to-day secularity. They are not head in the cloud romantics or idealists. They are prepared to live in the real world with a grounded set of expectations. As will see, however, this does not mean that they are irreligious or atheists. Instead, even at the price of existential tension they long for meaning, love, and yes, even faith.

Explorers: Millennials are seekers, always wanting to learn more, and never so self-assured that they think they have a corner on the truth. For them the “journey is the reward.” They embody the traits highlighted by MIT Sloan School of Management’s Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. For millennials life does not comes with fixed rails, but is an open-ended pilgrimage. This creates a high degree of tolerance, acceptance of diversity, and allergic reaction to judgmental certainty. Life is a verb, not a noun.

Cross-Pressured: Millennials view life as a complex set of evolving relationships. They don’t like to be put in a box and are not easily put into one. As such, they don’t do “isms” or ideology. They generally reject doctrinal straight jackets—religious or political. This is not to say that they are without convictions or are uninhibited relativists. It just means that they assume that reality is complex, messy, and filled with ambiguity and mystery. They hold their convictions loosely because reality demands such humility. What to a Newtonian outsider may appear to be inconsistency may be totally consistent to their quantum understanding of reality.

Experiential: This view of reality means that all true learning is best derived from lived experience rather than reductionistic abstractions. In academic speak their approach is phenomenological and existential. Learning is for them prioritized as hand, heart, and then and only then, head. It is the reverse of how reality is processed by left-brained Enlightenment thinking. Their anti-authoritarianism—that is, accepting knowledge on the basis of some other authority—is because they prefer to muddle through on their own and learn from experience. Inevitably, this means that learning for them comes with scars. Mistakes will be made, pivots are expected, wounds will be experienced—but it will be their knowledge learned in and from the fire of life.

Relational: While some of this appears to have a highly individualistic and subjective streak, this is all cast within a relational priority. The millennial pilgrimage is done in the company of others. They are intrinsically communal. Friends and ongoing connectivity is how they roll. Social media is not a tool or an addiction but an epistemological portal and ground of identity.

Authentic: For this approach to reality to work, masks and pretense have to drop. Having grown up in a world of fake and simulacra, millennials prize candor and authenticity. This may mean calling out the perceived BS around them prophetically, but it is in service to genuine connection and relationship.

Haunted: Millennials allergy toward simulacra or the inauthentic means that they long for and seek the real in reality. They are not content with accepting what is, instead are haunted by what ought to be or might be. They have a deep fear of missing out (FOMO), and are open to and seeking meaning and transcendence. So while they don’t like the dogmatism of religion, they are unapologetically spiritual. Their haunted seeking finds onramps in their pilgrimages through the portals of justice, beauty, love, and spirit.

Millennials don’t have it all figured out and they are not right about everything to the degree that one can generalize about such a large cohort. But this new frame is a great improvement on the past. Millennials represent the first post-Enlightenment and post-secular generational cohort.

In the coming years, $30 trillion dollars will be transferred from boomers to millennials. This will make their values much more significant within the mainstream culture. Instead of taking cheap shots, we should sit up and listen to them with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Their day is coming, and fast. The current media bitching is only evidence of the change that is fast approaching.

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