In Praise of the Millennial Generation

In a dispiriting presidential election season – with important economic and security issues facing us, as well as the uncertainty from Brexit – it’s fashionable these days to be a pessimist. Not me – and all the more so after visiting Google’s New York office last week. I came away very impressed. If the people I met there are representative of our future, we’re in good hands.

At 80 million strong, the so-called Millennial Generation – born between 1980 and 2000 – is the nation’s largest one. Its members will soon be running everything. As a Baby Boomer, with four kids who are millennials, I’ve seen their generation up close. I celebrate their potential, and I’m confident of their character. At Google I saw a company filled with millennials. Their questions, values and instincts underscored their vast potential. We may be in a rough patch now, but as we give way to new leadership, I think we’ll be fine.

I’ve taught thousands of the next generation during the past quarter century at Stanford, and I’m often asked how students have changed from those I worked with when I began teaching. Easy answer: for the better. As a business leader who has hired and worked closely with many millennials, I find them less self-absorbed or unfocused than some in my Baby Boomer cohort claim. In my experience, they’re also less materialistic, more idealistic, more mission-driven, kinder, more caring and more inclusive – with a deeper, wider commitment to making the world a more responsible, peaceful place.

But don’t mistake them for Pollyannas. They’re warier, more mistrustful, more conscious of limits. And why wouldn’t they be? Consider these four tenets of perceived wisdom from prior generations that have let millennials down:

  1. Buy a home: My generation was encouraged to buy a home and found it was our best investment and a place to create the memories of a lifetime. Today’s generation saw friends and neighbors lose homes in a foreclosure crisis that rocked the entire economy. Even those who dodged calamity saw home equity decline. Consequently, many millennials are renting – preferring instead to spend their money on experiences rather than on hard assets. Experiences can never be taken away.
  2. Get a college education: This heretofore reliable ticket to security and upward mobility has let many down. A college graduate now emerges with an average $37,000 in debt, and faces an underemployment rate of 14.9% (vs. 9.6% in 2007). The typical debt for a bachelor’s degree will take two decades to pay off. The silver lining is that millennial mistrust appears to be leading to a revolution in education that will generate new options with fewer liabilities.
  3. Get married: Millennials have seen the detritus of divorce. They’ve seen the statistic that 50% of marriages end in divorce. As millennials choose to marry later, more carefully measure the responsibilities, and develop more equal partnerships, the divorce rate has actually gone down, so that two of three marriages now last.
  4. Trust institutions: Half of millennials don’t believe they’ll be able to count on Social Security. They’re less likely to join political parties or to be loyal to a particular religious denomination. As for Wall Street? Occupy Wall Street happened for a reason. And Main Street doesn’t fare much better. Few millennials believe they’ll spend longer than a few years at any single company. And two-thirds don’t trust either of the two presumptive major presidential candidates.

It will take hard work to re-build the trust of this generation – and they’ll have to do most of the heavy lifting themselves. They’ll have to take charge of their own optimism, their own faith, their own operating systems. The good news here is there are rules for building trust. You can be intentional and systematic about it. And the millennials start out more inclined than my generation to collaborate, innovate and embrace change – which are the hallmarks of high-trust relationships. Having inherited nearly $20 trillion in debt amassed by innumerate politicians, they have a reason to collaborate, innovate and make changes – and they’re beginning to take up the challenge.

The mission of the Stanford Graduate School of Business captures the spirit of millennials: “Change Lives, Change Organizations, Change the World.” Students emerge from their two years in Palo Alto committed to making companies, communities and institutions more capable of healthy growth, more respectful of all stakeholders, and more capable of addressing dynamic markets. Fully a third of these Stanford graduates join start-ups or buy or start businesses, rather than become part of entrenched traditional institutions. This alone is a powerful expression of optimism.

If ever I feel discouragement, I think about my students or visits like the one I had last week at Google. Seeing the world through millennial eyes, understanding the disappointments of their formative years and their commitments, I have faith in the rising generation of leaders.

By Joel Peterson