I spent much of my day at a conference that addressed how the world has changed since the 60s. It highlighted the unique characteristics of millennials—children of baby boomers and Gen Xers who largely are defined by their speed-of-light connectedness and dependence on media, communication, and digital technology. I should have nothing in common with them, but apparently I do.
Born in 1964, I barely qualify as a baby boomer, and frankly I find Gen Xers incomprehensible. For much of my life, I’ve floated somewhere between those two generations in search of a nonexistent identity. I thought I’d found kindred spirits in my millennial children because I raised them, but I’ve come to realize that my appreciation for millennials extends far beyond my family ties.
Until three months ago, I thought I had nothing in common with any generation that came after me. I was sliding into a comfortable, middle-aged state of 80s nostalgia and was actually beginning to buy into the notion that each generation is more selfish and narcissistic than the last.
Then I taught a university class on business ethics to 13 millennials. I went in thinking they had a lot to learn. I came out realizing that I had a lot to learn, and that my nebulous generation, as well as the generations on both sides of me, are potentially more self-centered than millennials will ever be. The students, all senior business majors with every reason to be cynical, asked hard questions and seemed to respect me for admitting that I didn’t have all the hard answers (even though I held fast to my belief that there are at least a few hard answers to be had). I took them into the gray, but challenged them to come back out of it eventually, and to redraw more authentic and logical black lines than their predecessors, as well as to add back some color while they’re at it (compassion, warmth, faith, generosity).
Initially, I expected them to be bored, unfocused, apathetic, underachieving, and adversarial. Why? Not because of my own experience (my own children aren’t that way), but based on what I’d heard about them from my peers. Instead, I found them to be warm, engaged, focused, practical, and supportive of anything probable or worthy. They listened, they contributed, and they challenged my pessimistic nostalgia to the core. I worked hard to engage them, and it paid off when they gave thoughtful, meaningful, well-reasoned responses—each one of them.
Along the way, I discovered that we have some common traits. For one thing, because I was born on the cusp of huge advances in digital technology and communication, I share their short attention spans. I have little patience with those who act like we have all afternoon. I don’t have that kind of time or energy. Just give me a bullet point list and I’m happy.
Today’s conference presenter likened it to the difference between playing basketball in 1891— when it was played with a soccer ball and two peach baskets and the ball had to be retrieved from the basket using a ladder—and playing it today, with a bottomless basket and a 24-second shot clock that means you’d better shoot fast and score or lose the opportunity. I, like millennials, want to see you shoot and score early on in the game before I decide how much of my afternoon to invest in you. I can literally feel the seconds of my life ticking away.
In addition to a limited attention span, I also share the millennials’ general sense that, hey, we’re all different, so who can truly expect to be understood, and why is it so important anyway? What I really want is to be heard—listened to—treated with respect, despite our obvious differences. To be drawn in and embraced somewhere near center rather than marginalized with all the other fringe offenders who don’t fit in anywhere else.
Instead, I find myself on the edge of a frigid, arctic expanse where 30 to 40 somethings are so focused on their agendas and solutions and programs-in-a-box that they don’t have five seconds to really listen to anyone, much less a a 49-year-old without a generation like me. They’re too busy being cool and witty and in charge. They don’t need drugs. They have adrenaline. They have a perky self-confidence I can’t relate to on any level. They’re a bit like baby boomers, except that baby boomers tend not to care what anyone thinks (at least they won’t admit it).
Meanwhile, millennials like my 13-to-20-year-old offspring are staring back at me from the other side of the Gen X expanse, wondering whether that cold, dark space is where they have to go next if they want to achieve credibility and success. They don’t want to go there, and I don’t blame them. And if that’s where I came from, I regret it, and I don’t want to go back. Neither do I want to go the way of the baby boomers with their cool indifference and assured sense that they have all the answers.
Like millennials, I’m willing to throw myself—my talents, skills, and energy—into anything I find to be probable or worthy. I’m not concerned about privacy, because I’ve stopped pretending it exists. I wilt when forced to say things I don’t mean, do things I believe don’t matter, and promote things I literally know to be harmful, just to make a living. When I attempt to live without integrity or authenticity, I become paralyzed, despondent, hopeless. I hate that about myself. It’s impractical. But I love it about millennials. In them I see hope for a more honest, transparent future. They refuse to let any generation, including mine, relax comfortably in their vices.
We live in two different realities, millennials and I. But I see a better version of myself in them, and that vision of my better self is what gives me courage to go on.