Millennials

In a meeting the other day (a dozen white males in their 50s and 60s, as is so often the case in the energy sector), a discussion arose as to how to get the organization’s message out, both to the public and to the government.

After a few suggestions for case studies, and direct mail, and a glitzier website, it quickly became apparent that none of that mattered.  Why?  Because the people we had to reach are millennials.  The optimum approach, a Youtube video.  Maximum length?  90 seconds.

Much consternation.  90 seconds??!!  How could you possibly tell a proper story in 90 seconds?  Yet, as the discussion stumbled on, it become quite clear that this was exactly what we had to do.  To get our message out to the public, and to the government, we had to make this work.  Without the millennials, we would have nothing.

Sometimes in discussions like this I zone out (hopefully without anyone knowing I’m doing it) to follow my own train of thought.  Here, those rebellious thoughts were two realizations, both of which may have been obvious, but both of which were still jarring when they hit me.

The first realization was, baby boomers don’t matter anymore.  I, in fact, don’t matter anymore.

Yes, I know.  The baby boomers still hold the reins of power, and there is even some question whether we are willing to give them up as quickly as we should.  We seem to be hanging on pretty tightly.  (Or, as one person put it to me the other day, we’re playing elbows-up on the boards, a la Gordie Howe, rather than give up the puck.)

But as much as we may still be in charge, what we think doesn’t matter as much.  When you want to change public opinion, or introduce a new idea, you don’t try to sell the baby boomers.  You go after the millennials.  It is what they think that will matter, in the end.

The most obvious place to spot that is in voting.  When politicians are out stumping for votes, are they chasing the votes of baby boomers?  The surprising answer is, no.  Although baby boomers are more likely to vote than millennials, and there are still a lot of them, the ability to change the vote of a baby boomer is much less.  We are who we are, and we decide how we were going to vote very early in the process, likely based more on party lines than issues.  Our votes are not in play.

Millennials are not as certain to vote, and their allegiances are more fluid, so their votes are (defiantly and pointedly) in play.  A politician who can appeal to them on the issues, and who campaigns well, can create a wave of enthusiasm that will deliver a lot of votes.  Justin Trudeau is a prime example of that.  He may not be a millennial, but his strong support from those in their twenties and thirties was one of the foundations of his victory.  Bernie Sanders came closer than anyone would have expected to being nominated for US President on the basis of the same approach.

Another nail in the baby-boomer-relevance coffin is consumption.  Advertisers don’t target baby boomers.  Why is that?  We have more money than our kids, and we sometimes even like to spend it.  Why don’t advertisers love us?

The answer is that, while we do buy a few things (like travel, and pharmaceuticals), for the most part if we do have the money we also have the things we want already.  Millennials, on the other hand, face a lot of purchases of goods and services.  What good is it to advertise cell phones to baby boomers?  We are not seeking the next new thing (we still have Blackberries, for goodness sake), and when we change it will be on the advice of our kids anyway.  The same is true of most consumer durables, and many of the other accoutrements of Western society.

The same thinking extends to ideas, which means new policies, new technologies, and new ways of thinking generally.  Millennials – whatever their parents may think – are grappling with a changing world.  They don’t always like how things are going. (Ungrateful wretches, say the baby boomers, conveniently forgetting their own views in the 60s.) Millennials think there may be other ways of tackling problems.  Their minds are more open, in part because they are not as full of pre-conceived notions and hard-and-fast positions (what baby boomers like to refer to as “experience”).

And, while the millennials may not be conscious that they are preparing to take the reins of power, that is exactly what they’re doing.  Baby boomers have the power now, but the change has already started.  In Missouri, millennial Jason Kander may take down one of that state’s most powerful political families to become a US Senator.  Amazing, perhaps, but inevitable.

So the first realization that hit me is that our time is past.  We just don’t know it yet.  Our kids are taking over.  (I hear Elton John singing “The Circle of Life”.)

Of course, not being in charge doesn’t mean no longer having a purpose in life.  But, it is a different purpose.  (It involves less reverence, perhaps, but more slippers.)

Second, and perhaps much more important, millennials are different from baby boomers.  They are just not like us.  No way to sugar coat it.

Again, yes, I know.  Our kids are very much like us.  We instilled in them our most basic values, many of which we got from our own parents.  They have personality traits and ways of thinking and acting – good and bad – that are just like us, sometimes so much so that it’s scary.

But in many ways, they are also very different.

This is no more surprising than the first realization, of course.  Look at the world into which we have thrown the millennials.

  • It is a world suffused with technology, where not just physical activities, but even most types of information, are firmly rooted in the capabilities of machines. However, that means it is also a world in which there is less productive work for humans to do, and so there have been and continue to be fundamental changes in the relationship between people, their jobs, and their lives.
  • It is a much smaller world, because what happens anywhere else is happening here, right now. We video chat with people on the other side of the planet as casually as we would talk to a neighbour over the back fence.  When terrible things happen in other countries, we experience them in real time.  We see wars up close.  They are in one sense more real because we see them, but at the same time perhaps more abstract, because we see them so often.
  • It is a world jammed with many more people, and the problems those people create living cheek by jowl in many places in the world. As the overall standard of living in the world increases, poverty and famine are also increasing.  The problems are also different.  Nuclear war was one thing.  (It had difficult, but shorter-term if perhaps temporary, solutions.)  Climate change is quite another.
  • It is a world that is only a speck in an almost infinite universe that millennials have experienced – in all of its massiveness – much more than any other generation. The significance, or insignificance, of humans plays out before millennials every day.
  • And, unless some radical change occurs, millennials have a very good chance of living, and being healthy, beyond 100. A 100-year life doesn’t work with a 70-year life plan.

This different world means that, in important ways, their lives will be different from ours.

To test this, ask yourself the question: “Do you ever wonder whether your advice to your kids is really what’s best for them in the current world?”  We tell our kids to go to school, get a good job that will provide them with long-term security, buy a house, start a family, save for retirement.  In short, all the things we were supposed to do (and sometimes did).

Could that advice be wrong?  The answer is, almost certainly, yes.

School is important, no question about it.  But school is not the same today.  Where baby boomers went from high school to university (or not, as was often the case), and then to a job, millennials face the inevitability that they will have to learn new things many times in their lives.  Early, the most important thing for them to learn is how to learn, because the world is changing too rapidly for the things they learn at 20 to be either true, or relevant, at 50 (or perhaps even 30).

And jobs?  Does anyone think that the typical 30-year-old today will still be working for the same employer, in the same business, when (i.e. if) they retire?  Economists call the new normal the “gig economy”, meaning that jobs are temporary gigs, lasting as long as they are needed, or you still want to do them.  Then, you need a new job.  Or maybe a new career altogether.  Having one employer in your life is an economic buggy whip.  Ten jobs – some employment, some contract, some your own business – will be the new norm, and even that number is probably low.

Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau calls it “job churn”, but that likely misses the point.  It is not that jobs are less secure today, although that is certainly true.  It is, instead, that there are less jobs available, and in today’s much smaller (due to globalization) world there are many more people competing for that work.  That situation is not going to get better.  It will, instead, accelerate.  For millennials, building a happy and secure life will require more personal responsibility, more discipline, and more flexibility than the baby boomers ever had to find in themselves.

Yet these things pale beside the real ways in which the world is different.  The baby boomers lived in a world where they couldn’t know most things.  It was just not possible.  You could build an area of expertise, and become knowledgeable in that area, but for most things in life, there were going to be vast gaps in your knowledge.  You had to rely on others, who did have that knowledge.  There was no practical way you could know much about anything other than a small set of areas that interested you.  (On those, you could get really good.)

Today, knowledge is available at the fingertips of anyone who wants it.  While there may be too much of it, the average person can learn any fact they want, relatively quickly.  This is not just the demise of the skill of trivia.  Baby boomers grew up understanding that they would not know things, so they got comfortable with not knowing things, not caring about that gap.  It was normal.

Millennials acquire facts just because they want to.  How are bagels different than  bread?  What are the different types of elephants?  How does a black hole work?  What are the problems in the prison system?  What is life really like in a remote aboriginal community?  Even the most avid readers amongst baby boomers access a small fraction of the knowledge that millennials can – and do – access easily.  Of course, baby boomers are adapting, but for millennials it is second nature.  They think differently than baby boomers.

The mass of information also means that millennials take a different approach to acquiring new ideas.  A baby boomer reads a book – an expert analysing the components of a subject and presenting some new ideas – and assesses whether they accept the new ideas of the author.  It is a largely binary, often passive, response.  The publishing system has essentially curated the information for them.

A millennial gathers information in small chunks (hence, the 90 second Youtube video), and then follows the train of thought to find additional sources.  This continues only as long as they are interested.  Each new snippet of information, small though it is, can be assessed as reasonable or not.  Differing pieces of information can be compared, and the “truth”, at least for some things, can be crowdsourced.  Acquiring ideas is more a meander through the forest.  It is no longer as much of an organized trip, with a pre-determined route and plan.

Aside from the fact that discovering new ideas, for millennials, involves more self-directed effort, the converse is that millennials continue to get inputs on those ideas well after they have reached a conclusion.  Thus, a conclusion is not necessarily a decision point.  “Yes, I accept this new idea” actually means “Yes, for now”.  As new information emerges, the idea will be either supported, or undermined, or modified.  Knowledge is fluid.  A scientist recently told me that millennials have discovered what scientists have known for a long time: the truth will always change.  Very few things are set in stone.

There are many other ways in which millennials are different from their parents.  We should not be surprised.  We are just as different from our parents, much as we often reject that notion.  The ways in which the generations are different have changed (baby boomers turned away from religion, for example, a key staple in their parents’ lives), but the depth of the change is not less.

My two realizations are, as I noted, pretty obvious when you think about them.

These realizations may be a bit of a gut check, but probably not enough to warrant the shaking of heads and quiet disapproval that baby boomers sometimes display.

Knowing that millennials are an entirely new breed of people, different from us, and yet getting ready to take charge of “our” world, shouldn’t make us worried.  It should give us hope.  We took the world of our parents and, in many respects, made it a better place.  Our kids are getting ready to do the same.

We should expect, and anticipate, nothing less.

  –  Jay Shepherd, October 31, 2016.

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About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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