As Generation Y or the Millennial Generation, we seem to be a puzzle to generations before us. While some have deeper insight, many portrayals of our generation mix a feeling of disappointed incomprehension with accusations of being conforming, jaded and value-deprived. Or, as William Deresiewicz has interpreted us in his New York Times opinion piece, commercial.
What makes Deresiewicz’s article so difficult is not only that it feels a little insulting. It’s that he has identified the right symptoms, but is mistaken about the underlying patterns. Aiming to rebut and explain, I’d like to make a few points about the Millennial Generation.
We don’t need to revolt
We millennials had an experience that is somewhat unique in history. We understood the fast-emerging digital technology considerably faster than our parents, and they never caught up. When technology became more mainstream, we were our parents’ teachers at an age when other teenagers feel disempowered.
This is our source of self-confidence. We figure that we can add value to the world in a way that most people before us can’t. We’re not fighting previous generations because we don’t have to. We mostly don’t need them to do what we choose to accomplish.
There’s a certain kind of power that comes with this realization, and it has made us incompatible with large, naturally conservative organizations. In corporations, politics, and academia, you have to work your way up to succeed. This power imbalance contradicts our generation’s feeling of empowerment. We secretly feel we’ve leapfrogged this system, and often choose entrepreneurship over climbing the ladder.
We’re not selling
Deresiewicz called us Generation Sell for our skill of marketing and giving our identity a voice—behavior that he finds to be typical of sales people. I think there’s an underlying characteristic that describes us better. Our generation grew up in the information age, and we have unprecedented, easy access to information. We drank it in as fast as it dropped onto the screen: We’re eager to learn. The skill of marketing ourselves and our ideas is just the symptom of that—it’s important in the world, so we learned how to do it.
Similarly, we strive to become more socially competent (in his words: “polite, pleasant, moderate, earnest, friendly”) because at the core of how we work is collaboration and leadership. Our “smile and hearty handshake” is sincere much more often than not; we know how important relationships are, and we place value on building them.
Our culture is hard to grasp. “No anger, no edge, no ego.” Correct, we’re pragmatic, not angry. We know that anger is what people feel who’ve been left out, the feeling of those who set the banlieues of Paris or London on fire—and most of us don’t feel like that. Also, we apparently don’t display edge, but that’s just because we have our discussions where older people seldom go. Social change has become harder to gauge if you look in the wrong places (hint: you don’t read about it in the newspapers). Lastly, we don’t need ego, because we have self-confidence.
It’s not uncommon for culture and art to be equally misunderstood. It does hurt, though, to read this: “The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan”. Really? Has Deresiewicz ever been to Vimeo? Listened to studio-quality, home-recorded music or enjoyed a perfectly written essay by a (yes, self-publishing) journalist? I don’t see businesses making money. Most often I see artists who don’t ask for money at all, and sometimes I see artists fortunate enough to make a living by delighting a million patrons earning average income, rather than a handful rich ones. That doesn’t make them more of a business than Michelangelo.
We’re building something
No, a business plan is to this generation more like a work contract to baby boomers. It makes sense, and therefore we set it up. Our passion is directed elsewhere: the common denominator of entrepreneurship is not the business plan, it’s building something of value. We’re a generation of creators.
Although we will if we have to, we don’t always need to fight for rights and values anymore; our parents and grandparents did that. They succeeded—at least in many places in the world. We’re now using this victory to build and re-build business, society and politics based on their legacy.
The reason why some of us look like sales people is also because we’ve started in areas where change happens more quickly than in others: business, and more specifically digital products. The rest will follow, and everything will implicitly be based on the values of previous and current generations.
We believe in freedom of thought, speech, and creation. We believe in democracy, protecting and empowering minorities, as well as justice. We support diversity in our countries of origin, and we’d rather live in another country than send soldiers. We think listening to many sides is more important than defining one truth, and moral views should be discussed instead of imposed. Self-realization comes before dogma; openness, transparency and change before holding on too much.
What we build reflects that. It’s transformative. It’s real. Come visit our websites.