By Jack Orton
Director Business World and Future Wisconsin
This column was published in the 2017 edition of Wisconsin Business Voice.
An insidious slander has been leveled against the so-called “Millennial” generation. It says “Millennials” (individuals born between 1980 and 2000) must be coddled, indulged and “properly understood.” And, it’s being perpetuated by some of the most shameless hucksters since Barnum and Bailey.
It’s “hogwash,” as my grandfather used to say. “Pure hogwash.”
This summer, some of the most talented, most creative, hardest working students in Wisconsin participated in the Business World summer program organized by the WMC Foundation. Students from every corner of the state, all of them members of this “dreaded” Millennial generation, sought out the program as a way of furthering their business and economics education. Every one of them demonstrated an eagerness to learn and a willingness to work hard through an exciting and, often times, rigorous, four-day overnight summer camp.
The Business World program has had the same proven curriculum in place for the last 35 years; proven to encourage the growth and imagination of Wisconsin’s future leaders. And while the organization and leadership of the program has changed since 1982, the core curriculum has not.
During the program, students learn the value of career planning, business ethics, the history of the free-market system, the inner workings of Wisconsin’s economy and so much more. Year after year, business professionals and college professors, chamber executives and entrepreneurs from all over the Midwest volunteer to help the students during the program by facilitating discussion, encouraging ideas, and pushing the students to be successful. Year after year, participating students come up with more creative, calculated and innovative business ideas that seem to demonstrate one thing: the transcendence of the teenage American spirit.
For the past few years, pundits have accused the Millennial generation of, among many things, a poor work ethic, insubordination and general laziness. Even here in Wisconsin, there are those who preach a message of conceit and generational snobbery; who bounce from community to community explaining that Millennials are the largest generation now entering the workforce and society must conform to their particular wants and needs or perish. It’s a message that seeks to drive a wedge between generations for no other reason than to be provocative.
But this is an old marketing technique. It is a way of transforming a perceived disadvantage into an overwhelming advantage. It’s how P.T. Barnum was able to sell a truckload of unmarketable white salmon to a bustling New York street market—by slapping a sticker on it and saying “Guaranteed not to turn Pink in the Can.” These generational hucksters are trying to mislabel and misrepresent the coming generation as somehow lacking and different to fool you.
It is natural for every generation to question the maturity, judgment and work ethic of the next generation. Didn’t the parents of the Roaring 20s shake their heads at Flappers, Zoot-Suits and the boozy Jazz Age? Didn’t parents of the 1960s think the Rolling Stones’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was a harbinger for the end of the world?
What are these con-artists trying to accomplish by slandering an entire generation?
They, no doubt, see the “generation question” as an opportunity to elevate themselves to a point of perceived enlightenment. By bamboozling the world with their mislabeling, they will have “proved” their clairvoyance and self-appointed “expertise.”
And, what exactly is destructively different about Millennials from other generations?
According to a survey done by Goldman Sachs, a growing number of Millennials are choosing to live at home with their parents longer than generations prior—30 percent of 18–34-year-olds in 2010, as opposed to 27 percent in 1990. But, it is worth mentioning that the majority of the Millennial population entered the workforce during the significant economic downturn of 2007–2010, making jobs harder to find, in the first place, and stagnant wage growth if a job was found. Meanwhile the costs of goods, services and rent made it almost impossible for a Millennial to live on their own and still pay for housing.
Millennials are also more reluctant to buy luxury goods, like houses and cars, or even get married. They are “putting off” the “significant milestones” that generations before them were eager to hit. The median marriage age in 1970 was 23. Now, the median age is 30.
According to the same survey, students are healthier than ever before. They are exercising more, eating smarter and smoking less than students were even fifteen years ago. The percentage of high school seniors who disapprove of people 18 or older smoking 1 or more packs of cigarettes a day went from 69% in 1998, to 83% in 2013.
And, a similar poll, conducted last fall by the Victims of Communism Foundation, found that Millennials are incredibly under-educated when it comes to understanding different political and economic ideologies.
Indeed, it is one of life’s most pronounced ironies that the “most informed generation” (Millennials)—a generation that has more information and more technology in the pocket of their jeans, than that which sent man to the Moon— is disturbingly ill-informed when it comes to capitalism vs. socialism vs. communism. There seems to be a growing number of students who believe more in socialist principles than in capitalist ones.
But, it is becoming more and more obvious that there is not an active anti-capitalist sentiment among students, rather students are simply under-educated in these subject areas.
The Business World program had nearly 200 students participate in its program events this summer—200 of the best and brightest Wisconsin has to offer. Despite the babble, despite the useless chatter, despite the slander leveled against them, Wisconsin’s future business leaders rose to the occasion and successfully completed another summer of Business World events. Generational misunderstanding is nothing new. But, the idea that the entire world must change in order to indulge the particular wants and needs of one generation is an idea that must be undone.