I started conducting in-depth interviews with young people in the workplace back in 1993. For decades now, RainmakerThinking, Inc. has been tracking the ever-emerging ever-“newer” new young workforce. By the late 1990s, we started tracking the first wave of the great Millennial cohort, what we refer to as “Generation Y” (born 1978-89), and by the early 2000s, we began tracking the second wave Millennials, whom we call “Generation Z” (born 1990-2000), when they first entered the workforce as teenagers in part-time jobs. Since then, we’ve kept our finger on the pulse of the new young workforce, maintaining a comprehensive picture of where they are coming from and where they are going in the changing workplace.
Although demographers often differ on the exact parameters of each generation, there is a general consensus that Generation X ends with the birth year 1977. Most agree that those born between 1978 and 2000 belong in the Millennial Generation. But the Millennials (like the Boomers) come in two waves: Generation Y (those born between 1978 and 1989) and Generation Z (those born between 1990 and 2000). Gen Yers are today’s thirty-somethings, no longer the youngest people in the workplace, while Gen Zers are the newest new young workforce, those who are filling up the rising global youth tide in today’s workforce.
Here’s the short story with the Millennial Generation: If you liked Generation Y, you are going to love Generation Z. If Generation Y was like Generation X on-fast-forward-with-self-esteem-on-steroids, Generation Z is more like the children of the 1930s… That is, if the children of the 1930s were permanently attached to hand-held super-computers and reared on “helicopter parenting” on steroids. Overall, the Millennials embody a continuation of the larger historical forces driving the transformation in the workplace and the workforce in recent decades.
Globalization and technology have been shaping change since the dawn of time. But during the life span of the Millennials, globalization and technology have undergone a qualitative change. After all, there is only one globe, and it is now totally interconnected. Millennials connect with their farthest-flung neighbors in real time regardless of geography through online communities of interest. But as our world shrinks (or flattens), events great and small taking place on the other side of the world (or right next door) can affect our material well-being almost overnight. World institutions—nations, states, cities, neighborhoods, families, corporations, churches, charities, and schools—remain in a state of constant flux just to survive. Authority is questioned routinely. Research is quick and easy. Anyone can get published. We try to filter through the endless tidal wave of information coming at us from an infinite number of sources all day, every day. Nothing remains cutting edge for very long. What we know today may be obsolete by tomorrow. What is beyond belief today may be conventional wisdom by tomorrow. Meanwhile, the pace of everything continues to accelerate. A year is long term, and five years is just a hallucination. Short term is the key to relevance. In a world defined by constant change, instantaneous response is the only meaningful time frame.
Millennials are comfortable in this highly interconnected rapidly changing web of variables. They’ve never known the world any other way. Uncertainty is their natural habitat. Globalization does not make Millennials feel small. Rather, it makes them feel worldly. Technological change does not make them feel as if they are racing to keep up. Rather, it makes them feel connected and powerful. Institutions may be in a state of constant flux, but that’s no problem. Millennials are just passing through anyway, trying to squeeze out as much experience and as many resources as they can. Authority figures and celebrities may disintegrate for all to see. But this doesn’t make Millennials cynical. Rather, it gives them faith in everyday heroes. The information tidal wave may inundate us all with more data in one day than anyone could possibly sort through in a lifetime. But this doesn’t make Millennials feel overwhelmed or uninformed. Rather, it makes them would-be experts on everything. The pace of everything may be accelerating to the point where we expect immediacy in all of our doings. But this doesn’t make Millennials feel slow. Rather, it makes them impatient. Right now is the only real time. Constant change means you can’t count on anything to stay the same. But this doesn’t make Millennials feel nostalgic. Rather, it makes them feel liberated to abandon what bores them, embrace new things wholeheartedly, and reinvent themselves constantly.
Why are Millennials so confident and self-possessed, even in the face of all this uncertainty? One reason is surely that they grew up in and after the Decade of the Child. Gen Xers were the great unsupervised generation (we made the latchkey into a metaphor). But Millennials are the great over-supervised generation. In the short time between the childhood of Generation X and that of Millennials (especially Generation Z), making children feel great about themselves and building up their self-esteem became the dominant theme in parenting, teaching, and counseling. Throughout their childhood, Millennials were told over and over, “Whatever you think, say or do, that’s okay. Your feelings are true. Don’t worry about how the other kids play. That’s their style. You have your style. Their style is valid and your style is valid.” This is what child psychologists called “positive tolerance,” and it was only one small step to the damaging cultural lies that somehow “we are all winners” and “everyone gets a trophy.” In fact, as children, most Millennials simply showed up and participated—and actually did get a trophy.
Every step of the way, Millennials’ parents have guided, directed, supported, coached, and protected them. Millennials have been respected, nurtured, scheduled, measured, discussed, diagnosed, medicated, programmed, accommodated, included, awarded, and rewarded as long as they can remember. Their parents, determined to create a generation of superchildren, perhaps accelerated their childhood. On one hand, kids grow up so fast today (I often say that twelve is the new nineteen); on the other, they seem to stay tightly moored to their parents throughout their twenties. Their early precociousness, in fact, turns into a long-lasting sophomorism. Many psychologists have observed that Millennials act like highly precocious late adolescents well into adulthood. (I often say that thirty is the new twenty.)
The power of diversity has finally kicked over the melting pot. The Millennials are the most diverse generation in history in terms of ethnic heritage, geographical origins, ability/disability, age, language, lifestyle preference, sexual orientation, color, size, and every other way of categorizing people. But this doesn’t make Millennials feel alienated and threatened. Rather, they take the concept of diversity to a whole new level. (I call it infinite or total diversity.) To Millennials, every single person, with his or her own combination of background, traits, and characteristics, is his or her own unique diversity story. Millennials feel little need to conform for the purpose of gaining entry to institutions. For Millennials, difference is cool. Uniqueness is the centerpiece of identity. Customization of the self is sought after with great zest and originality, through constant experimentation. In the world of the Millennials, the menu of selfhood options is extraordinary and the range of possible combinations infinite.
How do Millennials continually shape and reshape their uniqueness? They want to customize anything and everything they possibly can. This goes beyond the services and products they buy. It goes very deep. Millennials want to customize their very minds, bodies, and spirits. Millennials customize their minds by customizing their information environment on the Internet. They voraciously pursue an ever-increasing array of mind food—images, sounds, experiences, texts—in an ever increasing range of media and formats, from an ever increasing number of sources, for an ever increasing number of purposes (education, skills training, self-help, health, entertainment, news, household matters, consumer interests, life planning, death planning, spirituality, and so on). They are info junkies compulsively pouring through bits and bytes, mixing and matching the perspectives that appeal to them. Millennials know they have more and more information available to them, right at their fingertips, from more and more sources on every conceivable subject. In this environment, Millennials have always had the ability to create their own ever-changing personal montage of information, knowledge, and meaning. The ability to access and manipulate information from a wide range of sources gives every individual the opportunity to identify and create meaning with genuine use value and resonance, at least to some online community of interest they can locate or build. In a world with so much perspective, traditional thinking, knowing, and believing are impossible.
They customize their bodies by availing themselves of the wide range of natural and artificial tools and techniques, going way beyond tattoos and piercing and fashion statements. Their efforts range from food obsession to surgery; from Ritalin to naturalism; from yoga to steroids; implants, teeth whitening, tanning cream, and on and on. Beyond family, they customize their primary relationships across space and time in personalized networks. They even customize spiritual lives of their own devising. Millennials often put together bits and pieces of the teachings of one or more religious traditions, rejecting others, and ultimately settling on their own selection of values and beliefs and religious or spiritual practices.
For the Millennials, customization is the Holy Grail, and it has always been right there within their grasp. From the first day, they arrive in the workplace, they are scrambling to keep their options open, leverage their uniqueness for all its potential value, and wrap a customized career around the customized life they are trying to build.