Recently, my social media feed was practically glutted with recommendations to watch the latest viral rant about “millennials”—that amorphous population blob between age fourteen and thirty-four.
This group is supposedly recognized by their armloads of participation trophies, their entitlement, and their helicopter parents.
This particular installment comes from Simon Sinek, and it has received around four million views.
Because I am eager to encounter insights that have been described as “Yes!” and “Boom!” I watched the video.
It’s easy to see why it caught fire.
Sinek is witty, well-spoken, and has smart-guy glasses.
But while he makes a couple of fairly obvious points (like: social media can be addicting <Now share this in-no-way ironic insight from a viral video>), I had a different reaction than did “Yes!” and “Boom!”
Apparently, I was not the only one (see here; NSFC).
For Sinek (pun intended?), the problem with people born between 1982 and 2002 is that they were given lots of participation medals, and as a result, this self-esteem parenting has given them an insatiable desire for—in Sinek’s words—“beanbags” and “free food.”
In short, millennials are lazy and entitled.
And when the world doesn’t match their “Lo-Fi” Instagram filter, they become impatient and depressed–which makes them difficult to manage.
But don’t worry, Sinek sells books and courses that can teach you how to get more out of such lazy, narcissistic, and developmentally “Lo-Fi” people.
To be fair, not all of Sinek’s claims are baseless.
So it would be wrong to follow the “crowd-pounding” of millennials with the crowd-pounding of Simon Sinek.
Some millennials are lazy, entitled, and surgically attached to smartphones.
I know: I’m a college professor.
In the words of a colleague:
“You are entitled to your opinion, but your opinion is a C minus.”
Some are even so surrounded by viral videos that they think success comes by becoming a YouTube sensation who plays fast and loose with data. It’s weird; I don’t know where they get it.
In sum, the trouble is not that the allegations against millennials are totally wrong, it’s that they are exaggerated and oversimplified.
In Sinek’s case, the flaws are masked by wit and supported by completely unsubstantiated appeals to things like “science” and “research.” And the glasses.
In my view, the problems are threefold:
- Wild generalizations,
- A bogus boogieman in the form of “participation trophies,”
- And a not-so-subtle marketing approach that succeeds by validating attitudes of superiority that are (ironically) similar to the faults discerned within millennials.
I’ll tackle these in order.
- THE TROUBLE WITH “GENERA(TIONA)LIZING”
“All generalizations are false; including this one” (~Mark Twain).
Imagine if someone started a sentence with “You know what’s wrong with black people… [or Asians, or Jews, or the elderly].”
Then imagine that they proceeded to give a ridiculously reductionist answer like “they all want X.”
The trouble with such sweeping stereotypes is not just that they’re offensive, it’s that they’re wrong in many cases. You need actual data to make claims like this.
One cannot speak of millions of people, born in different regions, in different decades, under different economic conditions, to different parents with the tagline that “they want beanbags and free food.”
When dealing with runaway generalizations, one useful exercise is to look at what is being assumed. What face is Sinek putting on millennials?
Based on the description, his portrait is a child of privilege, showered with parental compliments (i.e. continually told that she was special), and ferried about to numerous after-school activities in which medals were awarded for participation.
Picture a Chevy Tahoe, orange slices, and a nice house in the suburbs.
And while this certainly describes some millennials, I’ve known just as many who struggled for nearly OPPOSITE reasons (And some who don’t struggle at all).
Some millennials were born poor, rarely heard words of affirmation, never knew a loving dad, and were rarely able to participate in activities that didn’t involve a television or the struggling schools tasked with fixing all manner of parental and societal shortcomings.
In fact, Sinek’s “millennial” looks strangely like himself: a reasonably affluent white kid with cool glasses and a bizarre beanbag fixation.
It is as if he looks into the deep well of culture, sees a distorted reflection of his own face, and calls it “millennials.”
I’d say look again; and this time leave the suburbs.
Now for the bogus boogieman:
- THE DREADED TROPHIES
Participation medals are silly.
Lots of people think so.
So decrying them takes about as much courage as yelling “Yankees suck!” at a Red Sox home game. “That’s right Hahvey; Derak Jetah’s a bum!!!”
It’s red meat.
But while the golden knick-knacks may be silly, they are not the major reason why some millennials are struggling to find jobs and pay off student loan debt.
The millennials I know (myself included) don’t even recall receiving the dreaded trophies. And if we did, they were likely lost beneath the minivan seats before we got home.
To explode the absurdity, Mark Hill recalls his reaction to one of these shiny little WMDs:
My response was not “Well, clearly I’m going to be handed a six-figure job as an adult.” It was “Neat, a trophy! Now I’m going to go back to thinking about Pokemon or farts, because I am a child.” [As] I got older, eventually only the teams that won were rewarded. This did not shock and sadden us — it was what we expected, and wanted, because we were actually capable of observing adult society, and we noticed that pro sports teams weren’t handed many trophies for constantly losing.
To blame a plastic trinket for the loss of a generation is like blaming the 2008 financial collapse on an ill-chosen Happy Meal toy (probably the Hamburgler; he totally normalized greed).
Participation medals are like Vin Diesel movies, Jar-Jar Binks, and men with bangs: they’re absurd, but they are not among our biggest evils.
The trouble is that we crave simplistic answers to complex problems. So along comes a pitchman, or a demagogue, to say:
- “It’s the Jews!”
- “It’s the rich people!”
- “It’s the ab-roller for five minutes!”
It’s not. It’s really not.
And while Sinek bases his case on vague appeals to “science” and “clear research” Hill refutes this also:
It took me five seconds to find science that says the exact opposite. [So] maybe, just maybe, giving a kid a plastic knickknack when they’re eight doesn’t forever shape their psyche.
Now for the biggest problem:
- “FIRST, REMOVE THE [TROPHY] FROM YOUR OWN EYE”
The most insidious issue with millennial-bashing has to do with a not-so-subtle marketing technique: the validation of self-righteous attitudes in the land of “Yes!” and “Boom!”
“God thank you that I am not like those people” (Lk. 18.11), I don’t even like beanbags.
Ironically, this sense of “special-ness” is quite similar to the fault decried within millennials. Funny how that works.
It is as if we all have a satisfied smirk while failing to notice that there’s a trophy sticking out of our own eye.
This happens in two ways:
First, there is the reaction of an older generation that sees the rant as validation: “I walked to school uphill both ways, and these spoiled brats get trophies.” This is nothing new. Every generation sees the next as upending everything. But the accusation is especially rich when coming from the children of the 1960s.
Second, it’s worth noting that many people laughing with Sinek are millennials themselves (see video). And for us (since, again, I technically am one), the pride comes from knowing that we are not like our peers. We’re better. “I sit on a real chair; I pay for my food; I drive a Dodge Stratus!”
Either way, such rants inculcate a sense of self-righteous superiority over a population that is not exactly what Sinek makes it out to be.
So yes, entitlement does need to be quashed.
And we can thank Sinek for reminding us.
But it doesn’t happen best by caricature and mockery devoid of data.
Believe me; I’ve tried.