Summer is a time of transition. Some of our readers have just gotten their four (or often more) years of college validated by a diploma this past May. Others, this month, received a degree of a different sort, venturing out from high school into academia for the first time without the parents to fall back on, or the nurturing high-school environment that I am so often assured was nurturing. Still others are continuing their station in live, moving from one year to the next in their employment or academics, seeking the warm days of summer for some sign of respite or reinforcement, as we found in its sunny embrace when we were young.
Those of us who have acquired at least one diploma have had to ask the question: what now? And some people, usually those speaking at commencements, attempt to answer that question. The word “commencement” itself means something beginning. “Your time is limited,” Steve Jobs told students in 2005, “don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” But in today’s economy, is optimism the right message?
Controversially, David McCullough became nationally known for a commencement speech he gave a high school. In a speech likely meant to enlighten far more that the conversation it sparked suggested, McCullough said that the current generation (known as “millennials”) has been pampered, treated to everything on a platter and is subsequently spoiled beyond recognition: “Astrophysicists assure us that the universe has no center, therefore you cannot be it.”
The message of the commencement address entitled “You Are Not Special” was not to take achievement as a given, in a world where everything else has been. But the attitude that the millennial generation is the laziest is prevalent. According to a poll collected on behalf of the firm Workplace Options, 68 percent of respondents felt that millennials were less motivated than they were, according to pollster Ely Portillo and journalists like Patricia Sellers argue that millennials simply don't care about careers and choose not to work.
This perception of the millennial generation might be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the stigma of young people as unmotivated and uninterested leads to a bias, either conscious or subconscious, on the part of an older-generation person when faced with the decision to hire a millennial or someone older.
Given that 77 percent of respondents to the Workplace Options survey claimed millennials did not share their attitudes toward work in general, the likelihood of a person hiring being predisposed against the young is high. But with 77 percent of people against the millennial generation, that leaves 23 to fight on their behalf.
“This is the first generation that will be poorer and probably less educated than their parents. It doesn't seem so much to ask that commencement speakers refrain from insulting them,” author David Frum responded to the commencement address by McCullough, “These people were teenagers during the financial crisis. It's been five grim, unrelenting, years and we owe them more than the back of our hand.”
Those of us born between 1981 and 2000 are part of the millennial generation, or as it was called in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “the lost generation”. A study by the Pew Research Center looked in to the characteristics of millennials in 2010, and found that millennials prioritized free time less and helping others more than the previous generation, as well as showing that skyrocketing college costs are the top reason a millennial would not seek education. Further, the study shows that only 36 percent of millennials receive any kind of financial support from their families despite being across the board the least employed.
“It is a social calamity that is happening in front of our eyes with this generation, and I think we should feel shame about it. That's not their fault, that's the fault of the grown-ups,” said Frum. But maybe McCullough has a point too. Millennials were the generation where everyone got an award just for playing, where accolades were not related to achievement.
Maybe it is precisely because we were all brought up with the notion of exceptionalism that when the social calamity does arrive and everyone who came before, from parents to government, from economists to journalists are not sure of what to do next, it is the confidence of the millennials that makes them, according to Pew, the most optimistic.