Millennials: Why Can’t We Understand Them?

Author: Matt Morava

Before we begin, I promise you that this isn’t just another gripe piece about Millennials. If you’re a Millennial (or work with Millennials) I guarantee that there’s value here on how to more effectively communicate across generational boundaries.

The Set Up

I was asked today by a colleague to interpret a message he got from a Millennial (I work with Millennials every day as a part-time college professor) and so I thought I’d share the message and my interpretation with everyone here.

First, the email…

Hello Chandler Bing,

Hope all is well. I wanted to reach out and personally apologize for missing our meeting a couple of weeks ago. My contacts at xxxx were excited for us to meet and I was looking forward to discussing opportunities for employment with you and xx. Since leaving xxx I’ve had a lot going on, visiting family in Virginia and spending time upstate where I had limited transportation back to the city.

I’m using this time to re-group and do some adventuring, and will be out xxx over the next couple of weeks in the xxxxx and xxxxxx. Upon my return to xxxx (around June 6th) I should be in a more focused state of mind and plan to initiate a concerted job hunt. If there would still be interest in meeting with me sometime in the middle of June I would welcome the chance.

Thank you for your time and interest and hope to hear from you soon.

Boaty McBoatFace (Name withheld for privacy)

The Translation

Okay, let’s begin. First, it’s important to note that the focus on self is an age thing and not narcissism or some character flaw in an entire generation. Young people aren’t taught Sales 101 in high school and therefore can’t speak to your wants/needs adequately. If you can remember what it was like back then, everything is focused on your Features. You don’t start thinking about what Benefits you offer till after your first corporate gig. When you’re young it’s how smart you are, how good looking you are, what kind of athlete you are, etc. Clicks are formed around Features, not Benefits. You get into college based on your Features, not what benefits you’re going to provide the university. From K-Graduation at University, it’s all about Features and then we suddenly expect kids to think differently when everything they’ve been rewarded on so far is how well the display their Features.

You can hate the game, but don’t hate the player.

The Apology

I think the hardest thing for non Millennials to understand about Millennials is that most have been taught a collaborative style of conflict management. Win-Win. It’s not that they don’t get competition, it’s just that they’ve had decades of training from teachers, coaches, counselors and therapists to open up and speak their inner reality as the first step in conflict resolution. “Use I statements” is a form of mantra for them. So, if you hear a Millennial start to share their inner world, think of it as like a dog rolling over and showing you their belly. They’re saying “sorry” in the only way they’ve been taught.

Think about how conflict has evolved…

Tommy throws a rock and hits Sally…

G.I. Generation (1901–1926) — Boys will be boys!
Silent Generation (1927–1945) — Boys will be boys, Tommy apologize! 
Boomer Generation (1946–1964) — Conflict is a product of our violent society!
Generation X (1965–1981) — Conflict is a product of family upbringing! 
Generation Y or Millennials (1982–2000) — Conflict is internal turmoil!
Generation Z (2001-) — ?

Conflict is an inner state experience that is treated with therapy.

In class, I’ll use The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a discussion on motivation. Bill Gates started out pursuing what interested him and there was almost zero thought on building an empire, much less building something as useful to society as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For most Millennials, philanthropy is where they start, not the end designation.

Without getting to heady here… most Millennials are taught to aspire towards a Teal Meme Consciousness.

The hard reality is that they haven’t built the preceding levels. In their world, “Empire Building” doesn’t come before “Self Activation” or “Peaceful Community” because the seeking of a peaceful, caring community is first and foremost. The individual above is sharing this much personal information because they inherently believe that Chandler is a member of their peaceful, caring community and is actively and collectively working towards a Win-Win here.

The worst thing in the world to most Millennials is to be materialistic and greedy. Those are evil things. It’s not that Millennials aren’t materialistic, they totally are, as everyone in our society is… I mean we just went nuts over a woman’s pure joy because she bought a toy. Shit, watch these two clips back to back for an experiment:

So yeah, we’re totally materialistic, but Millennials have been taught to be circumspect around it and that leads to a lot of feigned disinterest. In fact, that’s really the curse of that generation — feigned disinterest.

While fear and loathing were very much the reality of Generation X, for Millennials it’s the opposite. Life has been pretty awesome for most of their lives. Sure, they’ve hit a few recessions and gun violence is insane, but no drafts and unlike Generation X, they’ve had adults (parents, teachers, coaches, counselors, therapists) active in their lives from Day One. And so their thing is to not look too excited about it… sure you swipe right on Tinder or Grinder, but then you pretend not to care. You apply for a university, but then you act like you don’t care if you get it or not.

Same thing with a job.

Change and Resistance to Change

Lastly, when you think about your first real job… how much did it change you? I worked for Qwest Communications in the Organizational Development group and watched 2,000 men and women lose their jobs. My CEO went to jail for insider trading, my boss was a total flake, and I’m pretty sure was embezzling was the norm for senior leaders. I heard people in the elevator (on my first day) talking about what the bare minimum effort was to get a severance but not fired AND I got to see grown men, my dad’s age, cry when getting a severance and realized the unspoken rule was that the closer someone was to vesting in the pension program the more likely they were to be let go.

Holy crap!

Look, Millennials maybe a lot of things but stupid ain’t one of them. They know what they’re getting into… this kid is basically saying to Chandler, “Look, I know I’ve been mucking about and the time has come to put my head on the block and sacrifice my idyllic childhood by coming to work for you. I know it’s going to suck and not be nearly as much fun as hanging out with my friends or as rewarding as building houses for the homeless in Guatemala, but I’m ready to do this.”

That’s worth a conversation at least.

Whatever you think about this email… this is someone who’s coming to realize the reality of their situation and is trying to make the best of it.

You can either be that good person on the other side of the bridge with a friendly face or the total dick who just confirms what they secretly fear, which is that everything they’ve been taught is total BS. Imagine you’re in high school and college today and the “change the world” attitude is given to you in buckets and then you’re totally blindsided by the first corporate culture you find your way into.

This is a generation that hasn’t failed and is terrified of failure, and with good reason, failure sucks.


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