Managing Millennials

August 30, 2010 | By Neil Howe and Reena Nadler

“Every generation has its chance at greatness. Let this one take its shot.” —Newsweek (2000)

“Relentless optimism and faith in collective action in the face of hardship is typical of civic generations such as the Millennials. And judging by history, their attitudes will serve them well.”—Los Angeles Times (2009)

Every generation has its own strengths and weaknesses, its own potential for triumph and tragedy. Some generations steer society toward outer-world rationality, others toward inner-world passion. Some focus on graceful refinement, others on the hardscrabble bottom line.

The German historian Leopold von Ranke, who weighed many Old World generations on the scales of history, observed that “before God all the generations of humanity appear equally justified.” In “any generation,” he concluded, “real moral greatness is the same as in any other.”

The Next Great Generation

The collective Millennial lifespan — and its influence on history — will stretch far into the 21st Century. What will this generation provide for those who come after? It is this future contribution, not what they have done in youth, which will be their test of greatness.

The first wave of this generation is already setting its course in life.

In 2000, their first birth cohort — those born in 1982 — graduated from high school and began entering the workforce. In 2002, they began graduating from community and career colleges, and in 2004, from bachelor’s degree programs, pouring into the workplace in greater numbers.

In 2006, they began graduating from business and professional schools, in 2007 from law schools, and in 2009 from medical schools and PhD programs, launching careers as credentialed professionals. In 2007, the first cohort of Millennial women reached the median age of first marriage and of giving birth to a first child. The first cohort of Millennial men reached that age in 2009.

Over the next two decades, the Millennials will fill the ranks of young-adult celebrities in the Olympics, pro sports, and entertainment — and the ranks of the military in any wars the nation may wage. From now through 2020, they will make a major mark on the youth pop culture. The new youth activism that began impacting national politics in the election of 2008 will strengthen and solidify in the elections of 2012 and 2016.

Through the 2010s, Millennials will be giving birth in large numbers and swarming into business and the professions, no longer as apprentices. Some will enter state houses and the U.S. Congress. Around 2020, they will elect their first U.S. Senator — and around 2030, their first U.S. President.

In the 2020s, the Millennials will begin taking over as senior managers in the workplace, and in the 2030s they will take over as CEOs, bringing their generational style to the highest echelons of corporate leadership. They will occupy the White House into the 2050s, during which period they will also provide majorities in the Congress and Senate, win Nobel prizes, and rule corporate boardrooms. Thereafter, into the 2070s, they will occupy the Supreme Court and be America’s new elders.

How will Millennials respond?

And along the way, they will make lasting contributions to literature, science, technology, and many other fields. Their children will dominate American life in the latter half of the 21st Century — and their grandchildren will lead us into the 22nd. Their influence on the American story, and the memory of their deeds and collective persona, will reach far beyond the year 2100.

As is true for any generation, history will intrude on the Millennials’ collective life story, posing distinct challenges and opportunities. How they respond will alter the way others see them and the way they see themselves.

What would one have said about the future of the G.I. Generation of youth back in the early 1930s, before World War II redefined who they were and how they lived their lives? What would one have said about the future of young Boomers back in the early 1960s, before the Consciousness Revolution? And what of Generation X in the early 1980s, before the digital and dot-com age?

Towards the close of his re-nomination address in 1936, President Roosevelt said:

There is a mysterious cycle in human events.

To some generations much is given.

Of other generations much is expected.

This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

When summoning “this generation” to a “rendezvous with destiny,” Roosevelt was particularly referring to the G.I. Generation — those young men and women who had overwhelmingly voted him into office and who, within a few years, would rally behind his elder leadership with dedication, energy, courage, and intelligence. Together, all of America’s adult generations — leaders, generals, and soldiers — fought and won a war civilization could not afford to lose, achieving a triumph we today honor with monuments and memorials.

A new version of the “G.I. Generation?”

For many decades Americans have especially revered this G.I. Generation, today’s very old war veterans and their widows. As young people, the G.I.s understood how much older generations had given them. They wanted to give back, and they did — especially in World War II, and also by nurturing a new postwar generation of idealistic Boomers. Those Boomers have given birth to the first Millennials, and the story continues.

The Millennials’ greatness as a generation has yet to reveal itself. When the strengths of this generation do appear, it is unlikely they will resemble those of their Boomer parents. Instead, their virtues are more likely to call to mind the confidence, optimism, and civic spirit of the high-achieving G.I.s.

It is possible that the Millennials will dominate the story of the 21st Century to much the same degree as the G.I. Generation dominated the story of the 20th. If Millennials face their own “rendezvous with destiny” as they come of age, much will be expected of them by older generations. Will future writers have reason to call them, on their record of achievement, another “great generation”?

We think it is likely — though of course only time will tell.

Igor Stravinsky once wrote that every generation of youth declares war on its parents and makes friends with its grandparents. Already we see some signs of this in Millennials. When asked which of today’s living generations has the highest reputation, and which they would most like to emulate, Millennial high school seniors say it is their grandparents’ generation — the can-do, war-winning, “greatest generation.”

Excerpted from Millennials in the Workplace.

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