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Millennials have a reputation for being difficult, entitled, and spoiled.New research finds that actually, they’re optimistic, resilient, hard workers.Their much-maligned “helicopter parents” are likely a big reason they’re turning out well.
A few years ago, I sat in on a research presentation on millennials at a prominent bank, sequestered so high in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper that the snow outside the windows turned to rain by the time it hit the ground.
I was one of two millennial attendees in a packed room.
Armed with a folder of research compiled by Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, I returned to my trendy open plan office and told my millennial coworkers that the experience had felt a lot like it must feel to be an endangered snow leopard, watching zookeepers whisper about you on the other side of the glass.
Hello? I’m right here. Why doesn’t anyone ask me?
Since then, I’ve had a pet theory that is, admittedly, not based on any type of evidence other than anecdata: Older generations complaining about younger generations has little to do with the younger generations themselves – it’s just the pattern that has played out for the past dozen generations or so, amplified by the echo chamber that is the internet.
Turns out I might not be so far off base.
A new study released by boutique firm 747 Insights in partnership with consumer intelligence platform Collaborata found that the generational differences boil down to only three primary factors: age, societal norms, and technology.
The study, called “Generation Nation,” surveyed over 4,000 Americans from their late teens to their early 70s to find out how they feel about everything from work to friendships to brands, and analyzed their responses. Millennials were defined as people born 1981-1997, meaning they’re currently ages 20-36.
“What we’ve learned in our Generation Nation deep-dive is that, while behavior and beliefs may be influenced by generations, they’re dictated by life stages,” wrote the researchers, who decided to do this research to have cross-generational data points after years of studying millennials specifically. “In other words, how Gen Z is today is just as Gen X would have been today had Gen Xers been born 35 years later.”
I spoke to principal researcher Michael Wood about the report, and floated my theory by him. Are millennials really so entitled, and lazy, and difficult to deal with? (You know you’ve heard it.) Why is hating on millennials so popular?
“If you go back in time, Boomers were also referred to as the ‘me generation,'” Wood told me. “We’ve always carried biases against people who are younger than we are.”
He continued: “I think part of why you hear so much about millennials is because they were a generation that was really set up to do so well. There was so much promise around millennials because of technology and the internet and how strong the economy was – this is a generation that held so much promise. Just their size alone made them a force to be reckoned with.” There are over 75 million of us, according to Pew.
In fact, he said – you’ll love this – older generations might even have been jealous of the younger generation, the one dominating the conversation, taking a piece of everything from workplace culture to politics. Millennials had it good, Wood said, and there may have been an element of “people wanting to bring them down a notch.”
But then, after all that promise: the recession. The student debt crisis. The unemployment numbers. Things weren’t going so well for millennials.
Still, one of Wood’s standout findings from the research was the incredible resilience of millennials. “They’re still very upbeat, they’re very hopeful, and they have a positive outlook on their generation and what they’re going to contribute to the greater good,” he said. “I find that fascinating and reassuring, and it confirms what we’ve always believed.”
In the report, millennials were more likely than other generations to agree with statements expressing a desire to make the world a better place, confirming a purpose in life, and projecting a confidence in the US, the government, and each other to work together to solve problems.
Plus, here’s a sentence from the report to inspire some teeth-gnashing: “Playing against type, millennials are actually an employer’s dream.” This is largely because millennials are willing to work hard for an employer who supports them, and they tend to blur the lines between life and work – they’re more willing than members of other generations to catch up on work during their personal time. “Millennials truly care about their work,” wrote the researchers. “And they care about it beyond being a means to a paycheck.”
If the urge to roll your eyes is getting to be too much, you might like to hear Wood’s best guess at why millennials are so darn resilient: It’s thanks to their parents.
That’s right – those “helicopter parents” suffocating their progeny might have been doing something very right.
When surveyed, 77% of millennials said they enjoyed spending time with their parents, about the same as the two older generations and, understandably, a larger percentage than the teenage Gen Z.
The “frank conversations and realistic relationships” many members of the generation can boast with their parents may have helped them become “honest and transparent and very candid,” in Wood’s words.
“For so long, people talked about the millennials as having helicopter parents, and them being unprepared, and their parents doing everything for them,” he explained. “They were entitled and they weren’t hard workers. I think they surprised a lot of people because they’re turning out to not be that at all.”