Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

By Brenda Bauer, Psy.D.

Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, are often derided by older generations as selfie-stick wielding, “Keeping Up with the Kardashian’s”-watching, soft-in-the-middle whiners.  Surely the stereotypes of Millennials as entitled, self-centered, and shallow are a distortion and misrepresentation of an entire generation of people. So how do we account for this bum rap on Millennials?

At the center of this Millennial-scorn is a failure of generativity. Generativity, a term coined by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, is defined as “a need to nurture and guide younger people and contribute to the next generation.” Generativity is a sign of developmental maturity and health. This developmental failure has always created tension between the way things “used to be” and the way youth of a given day adjust existing societal norms to suit their specific needs.

Millennials' Experiences Have Shaped Their Worldview

To situate this premise, let us consider Millennials’ unique historic experiences. This generation came of age in a post-9/11 America primarily at war. High profile data breaches and Edward Snowden’s disclosure that America engaged in mass surveillance of its own citizens has seriously shaken young professionals’ trust in government. Additionally, both the government’s and the private sector’s reluctance to take decisive action to stymie global climate change leaves many millennials frustrated by what they see as a problem of epic proportion that has been passed along to them to handle. Lastly, Millennials are drivers of today’s movement of ethical consumerism. Their socially responsible attitudes are both despite and because of a set of crises, most notably a recession set in motion by Wall Street that was deeper than any other since the Great Depression that seriously damaged Americans’ confidence in financial, banking, and governmental institutions.

Millennials want straightforwardness in what they understand to be a capricious, unstable world. Despite their reputation for laziness, they work hard and feel strongly about wanting their work to be meaningful in ways that older generations typically do not insist upon. According to the United States Treasury, millennials tend to invest in organizations that prioritize the greater good more than any previous generation. Unlike preceding generations, who were more concerned with charitable giving in traditional ways, Millennials approach the question of how to invest their time and their money more strategically  with an eye toward “social impact investing” that serves the greatest good. They are largely civic-minded and driven by their strong sense of local and global community. According to Pew Research Center, millennials are far more connected to their peers than institutional power structures and tend to be more upbeat than older generations despite much higher levels of student loan debt and unemployment. David Burstein, author of the book “Fast Future,” describes Millennials’ approach to social change as “pragmatic idealism.” He notes that this generation expresses a deep desire to improve the world and that they recognize this will require the creation of new institutions while working within existing structures.

Baby Boomers and Generation X are presently in the driver’s seat in much of corporate and institutional life and are situated perfectly to guide millennials in their pursuit of social responsibility as eventual leaders in private and public sectors.

Generativity: An Example

Here’s an example: Last fall, my patient, Lance, was awaiting word of a promotion. He worried that if he wasn’t promoted this year, a further move up the corporate ladder would be unlikely at the bank which had employed him for most of his professional career. Now 52, Lance noted that the financial industry seems to prefer younger, less-experienced candidates with fewer financial requirements. He grimaced as he described a hipster-hotshot, “Carlos,” over twenty years his junior, whom he felt was perpetually “nipping at my heels.” Only a few years earlier Lance had served as Carlos’ mentor in a corporate program designed for team-building purposes.

Carlos’ star rose quickly, and the go-getter was appointed coordinator of the bank’s philanthropy program which brought him notoriety and praise in the local media and at the bank. Now Lance saw Carlos as a threat, and took great delight in mocking his mannerisms and style of dress, which apparently included “wild socks that no serious banker would wear.” Lance, himself the son of a banker, dressed conservatively, in a Brooks-Brothers-all-the-way style.

He paused after this latest rebuke of Carlos, a bit lost in his thoughts. “What occurs to you?" I asked. “Oh nothing…just this memory of my father criticizing me for wearing a loud, 90’s tie for my first interview right out of my MBA. I remember choosing it explicitly because I didn’t want to look like my father. I wanted to be my own man.” Thinking for a moment, Lance chuckled to himself. “And now, here I am acting like some old curmudgeon,” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “Carlos is a fine man. Why wouldn’t he be trying to get a leg-up in his career?”

Lance eventually came around to understanding that as a quite-senior colleague to Carlos, he wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain. And much to his surprise, Lance was promoted to Senior VP of his group at the bank, and Carlos is now a direct report.

The moral to this story? Instead of defaulting to ridicule and suspicion, older generations must engage in nurturing and developing the next generation, and then, step back and cede power and control to the new generation. Such generativity immeasurably benefits, and befits, both the old and the new.

About the Author: Brenda Bauer, Psy.D., is a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist in New York. She has a particular interest in what a psychoanalytic understanding can offer the world on a variety of social issues, in popular culture, and more broadly, on simply being a human being in the digital age. 

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