“I want a party with roomfuls of laughter / Ten thousand tons of ice cream / And if I don’t get the things I am after / I’m going to scream”
- Veruca Salt
On Friday, the New York times published an astonishing story, which was itself based on an astonishing survey: apparently “Millennials” would rather give up coffee for a week than surrender seven days of wifi.
My astonishment (squared) came not from the results of the survey, you understand, but rather from two other realisations. Firstly, that someone at the New York Times thinks that Millennials preferring wifi to coffee is an interesting story. I mean, who of reproductive age would answer the question “wifi or coffee?” with “oh, I’ll take coffee thanks”? Given that wifi is basically a synonym for Internet, you might as well phrase the question “which would you prefer: having to choose an alternative beverage, or being locked a dark room for a week?” Or as Eddie Izzard might put it, “cake, or death?”
My second astonished realisation was that, according to the Wakefield Research study, a Millennial is anyone born between 1980 and 1993. As someone born in December of 1979, the narrowness of my escape terrifies me. After all, based on all the available evidence, Millennials are the most obnoxious, self-entitled, lazy and willfully ignorant generation ever to pollute the surface of the earth.
I’m not kidding. Just spend a few minutes Googling the thousands of published articles about the rise of Millennials. I challenge you to find a single quote that leaves a positive impression of the generation, particularly when it concerns their attitude to work. Take, for example, this twenty-something who told CBS’s 60 Minutes: “We have options… [W]e can keep hopping jobs. No longer is it bad to have four jobs on your resume in a year…. that’s the new reality for us. And we’re going to keep adapting and switching and trying new things until we figure out what it is.”
And it gets worse (also from 60 Minutes)…
“Career services departments are complaining about the parents who are coming to update their child’s resume. And in fact, you go to employers, and they’re starting to express concern now with the parents who will phone HR, saying, ‘But my little Susie or little Johnny didn’t get the performance evaluation that I think they deserve.’”
Meanwhile, over at PSFK.com (“Your go-to source for new ideas”), we’re treated to an explanation of how to communicate with Millennials: “Experiences designed for them should be intuitive and easily understood at first exposure (and sight). They do not want to read instructions.” Anyone who has ever ventured into the murky, illiterate world of Twitter Trending Topics might venture to go further. It’s not that Millennials don’t like to read and write, it’s that many of them simply can’t.
Moving on. When it comes to Maslow’s self-actualisation needs, PSFK tells us that Millennials ”want to be appreciated and understood.” In fact, being understood is the last thing Millennials want: appreciation and understanding suggest accomplishment that deserves to be acknowledged. What Millennials really want is to be celebrated. Conan O’Brien summed up their attitude when he talked about kids boasting to him that they’re going to be famous, without explaining what they will actually be famous for.
Academics have studied this stuff. Research by Paul Harvey, assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire, found that Millennials as a whole “have unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback… managers are finding that younger employees are often very resistant to anything that doesn’t involve praise and rewards.”
There was a time when society would react with horror at the prospect of an entire generation of such whiny, spoilt little brats. For some unfathomable reason, though, instead of condemning this army of latter-day Veruca Salts, we’ve decided to pander to them.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Andrew McLoughlin – CEO of Huddle – wrote a guest post for Forbes explaining how companies need to adapt in order to appeal to Millennials: “the thought of being chained to a desk day in and day out fails to appeal to them,” he writes. Well, boo fucking hoo, I respond. Meanwhile, over at clothing retailer Zappos they’ve gone so far as to build nap rooms to keep their poor pampered employees happy. Seriously: nap rooms. Who are they employing? The Muppet Babies?
“Hello, Mr Salt? I’ve read your daughter Veruca’s 60-page resume: you did an excellent job typing it for her. Now, we’d like to invite you to drive her in for an interview. What’s that? She doesn’t do interviews? Ok, well then we’ll just go ahead and offer her the job anyway. What are her salary demands? Pink macaroons and a million balloons? That’s no problem. We’ll throw in some performing baboons too. Anything else? Nap rooms? Oh come now, Mr Salt, we have to draw the line somewhere…”
Inevitably, this culture of entitlement has seeped through to product development. Last month at Disrupt, I had an on-stage argument with the creators of “Gripe”, an app which allowed (as I put it) “self entitled new media douchebags” to bully front-line employees of stores, bars, hotels and restaurants into acceding to their every entitled whim. If the employee refuses to comply with whatever demands the customer makes, the app allows them to be shamed – by name – across Twitter, Facebook and every other social network. The ultimate Millennial app.
Even Presidential politics has tapped into the essence of how Millennials think. The secret to Barack Obama’s success, we’re told, was securing the support of Millennials. His campaign slogan? “Yes we can”. The ultimate Millennial dog whistle.
Which brings me neatly to The Social Network. When I watched the Facebook biopic for the first time a week or so ago, I thought it was a decently written flick, but I couldn’t understand why so many reviewers felt that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin had captured the Millennial zeitgeist.
For all his fictional faults, Fictional Mark Zuckerberg is hard worker – eschewing partying for work, and sticking with his project even when others doubted him. Hardly the behaviour of a Millennial. The second key character – Fictional Sean Parker – is a bit more Millennial (flaming out of businesses, spending money he doesn’t have…) but as a child of the very late 70s (he’s four days older than me) he’s too old to qualify. If anything, the movie was the antithesis of the Millennial narrative: the Millennial as hard working company man and the non-Millennial as flaky attention-whore.
On Friday, though, I saw the movie for a second time and about halfway through I realised that I’d been paying attention to the wrong characters. It’s not Zuckerberg and Parker who sum up the Millennial generation: it’s everyone else. Consider the Winkelvoss twins – both born in the 80s (Millennials: check!) – who abandon more noble principles (“we are gentleman of Harvard, we don’t sue and we don’t plant stories”) and spend the majority of the movie demanding compensation over a site that they didn’t build. And consider the third of the three main characters: Eduardo Saverin. He too spends much of the movie demanding compensation and – what’s the phrase? – “understanding and acknowledgment” over a business that he felt cheated out of. Moreover the real Saverin, nursing a years-old grudge, was reportedly one of Ben Mezrich’s key sources for The Accidental Billionaires, the book on which the movie is based.
The message is clear: I didn’t get my way so rather than rolling with the punches and moving on (“have another idea” as Fictional Harvard Dean, Fictional Larry Summers advises the Fictional Winkelvosses in the movie), I’m going to whinge and whine and sue and slander until I get the payday that is my birthright.
What could be more Millennial than that?