The Millennial Delusion

The obsession with “millennials” continues to fascinate me. Despite being the most outspoken generation in history, people – very important and powerful people – claim they don’t understand us. We make no sense apparently, as if the actions and career paths of our parents make total and complete sense.

There are even consulting firms that specialize in teaching businesses how to interact with us (I refuse to link to them, Google if you dare). I wish I could start one of these and just talk about myself all day as a passion job, in the process becoming the very essence of a millennial.

A meta-millennial, perhaps.

More words have been spilled in the business press about this arbitrary agglomeration of people than any other, yet debates seem to go on endlessly.

That’s because there really is no debate, and there really is no such concept as “millennial.” If it wasn’t clear already, millennial values are American values, which is perhaps more obvious this week with the Supreme Court’s decisions around same-sex marriage, health care, and housing discrimination, which were significantly more in line with millennial thinking than with the baby boom generation.

Millennials are a figment of our imagination, a delusion of marketers and others who believe that the changes in our society are only applicable to a narrow group of people rather than our whole population.

They’re completely wrong.

What’s happening is that people are finally taking advantage of all the technological progress we have made over the past few decades, finding empowerment in the world that was lacking before. We all now have the ability to choose our own paths – our own “passion careers” – and use technology to foster a better future, not just an elite sliver of the population with enough resources.

Unsurprisingly, everyone seems to be doing just that.

We can see technology’s influence on society everywhere. Millennials are described as more “socially conscious” than any other generation, but this is a function of our heavy use of technology, particularly social networks. People today have more access to news and opinion from the United States and around the world than ever before, and it shouldn’t be surprising that conflicts or diseases in other places have an emotional resonance with us that didn’t exist before.

Take, for example, brands like Nike and Apple, which have had to deal with the harsh conditions of their factories overseas. They were forced to make changes and improve those conditions not because of changes to laws or advocacy by a government, but simply because their customers started to have the means to pay attention to their actions.

As a tool of social progress, the camera in our smartphones is probably more impactful than any other currently out there. With live video streaming apps like Periscope and Meerkat, we don’t just view these images later, but feel the very essence of a situation in real-time. How can you watch harm happening and not feel some desire to ameliorate it? This is not a millennial thing, but rather a human impulse.

Technology brings to us a deep awareness of what is going on around the world. It’s one of the reasons why so many of my generation refuse to take part in the traditional labor market and instead pave their own paths. We have been exposed to so many wrongs in the world, that maybe it is time that each of us attempts to do something to make it just a little bit better. If ignorance is bliss, then technology has made us permanently anxious to fix every problem.

When we combine that sentiment with the constant push in America for entrepreneurship, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that millennials are more free-thinking and independent than previous generations. The idea of climbing up a corporate ladder seems so alien since so many storied companies have ceased to exist in our lifetimes and the process seems so divergent from actually improving humanity.

It also helps that technology has brought down the costs of building our own companies and service organizations. Today, anyone – not just millennials – has this alternative option of simply ignoring everyone and going their own way. The stasis of the world has been replaced with technology-based flexibility powered by the cloud and mobile devices.

Empowerment has a price though. If ever there was a debate to be had in this country, it is that the great projects of our time still do take significant teams to build. Everyone can’t be a founder. While we have a cooperative and community-oriented spirit, that doesn’t necessarily translate into wanting to join someone else’s startup or nonprofit. Indeed, we probably want to start our own.

Nonetheless, we have to accept that the world won’t revolve around a few hundred massive companies, but rather millions of small ones. The biggest challenge that comes from “millennials” is simply that we think in a decentralized way about the world, while businesses still focus on centralization. There is supposed to be one brand, not millions of them adapted to every consumer.

Thankfully, we have seen a sea change in marketing over the past decade in order to facilitate consumer engagement with brands, but we still need more at the product and services level.

This centralizing impulse is felt even more heavily in the non-profit and government sectors. The crisis over the waste at the Red Cross is a perfect example of all the problems today with scale. How could the organization have thought bottom-up rather than top-down and possibly saved hundreds of millions of dollars while actually doing something with its donations?

Of course, the story of the Red Cross’ waste is simply another retelling of this whole millennial narrative. A team of journalists can now investigate locally and cull documents online to prove things that would have been difficult if not impossible before. Technology has empowered the donor.

Technology has given us more awareness and choice than ever before. How we navigate abundant choice is most connected with millennials since we understand this natively, but everyone else is quickly coming on board. This new world may be different, but it is also better, with more equality and security. If this is what technology can do, it’s time we all become millennials.