Millennials Don't Want To 'Embrace Failure'
February 11, 2015 | By Neil Howe
This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.
Every year, far more new entrepreneurs fail than succeed. But if you aren’t one of the lucky few, don’t despair: Failure has transformed from a source of shame into a badge of honor. Today’s CEOs and thought leaders glorify mistakes as key stepping stones to success—a sentiment that Generation X has taken to a whole new level. In a recent essay for The Washington Post, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Geoff Lewis uses the phrase “failure porn” to describe the eager repackaging of people’s lowest moments—the grislier, the better. Older leaders are urging young people to take risks when they’re most able—but this message is ill-suited for Millennials, who would much rather get started on the right foot than stumble and start again.
Much of today’s “embrace failure” rhetoric originated in the business world. The past few years have brought countless books with titles like Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure and Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win. Virtually every big-name tech executive, from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg to Jeff Bezos, has publicly touted the value of their biggest misses. Startup failure is the focus of the annual conference FailCon, which launched in 2009 and over the next four years enjoyed sellout success, adding events in other countries like Brazil, Japan, and Israel. Last year, however, FailCon’s founder cancelled the San Francisco event out of the belief that failure is now so engrained in Silicon Valley culture that a conference is unnecessary.
Along the way, this idea has broadened into an industry-agnostic rallying cry. Bestsellers like The Antidote and Antifragile argue that failure and disorder benefit individuals and institutions alike. Meanwhile, on college campuses, commencement speeches have become an opportunity for luminaries from various fields to share stories of their failures. An NPR analysis of popular speeches going back to 1774 identified “embrace failure” as the sixth-most popular theme (outranking platitudes like “be kind” and “dream big”). Of the 38 speeches with this theme, all but three were delivered after 2000—by the likes of J.K. Rowling, Oprah, and Ben Bernanke.
The result is a culture where failure is not only destigmatized but also considered empowering. Rather than move on from setbacks, people are encouraged to examine them—and those who fail repeatedly are told not to give up.
Many view this shift in perspective as a welcome change. A culture that’s open about failure, they claim, can offer those who are struggling the confidence to pick themselves up and keep going. In fact, some investors believe failure to be an asset, a sign that one can handle adversity. (Of course, there’s a paradox here: Taking the stigma out of “failure” means it’s not really failure anymore.) In addition, this mindset indicates a willingness to learn and adapt. In a recent essay, Planet Money co-host Adam Davidson argued that this quality will only grow more important at a time when major industries—like education, finance, and health care—are facing seismic disruptions and their workers must reinvent themselves.
But skeptics counter that it doesn’t help anyone to portray failure as a springboard to greatness. Rather than enabling better choices, this framing can simply enable those who have floundered to try again heedlessly when theyshould be more mindful of challenges. A 2009 study reported in The New Yorker found that entrepreneurs who had failed at starting businesses in the past were not much more likely to succeed in new ventures than first-timers were; around 80% of those who had failed before did so again. What’s more, most of the pro-failure rhetoric is coming from people who have “made it” in life—in other words, those for whom it’s easy to say that setbacks don’t preclude a happy ending.
Positive or not, one thing is certain: Failure is much more accepted today than it was when Silent and Boomers were coming of age. In fact, G.I. leaders drilled into these rising generations the opposite lesson: Follow the rules, avoid taking risks, and don’t fail. In fact, managers were once expected to be infallible, deflecting the blame when problems arose. While the Silent largely ended up taking these lessons to heart, young Boomers famously rebelled and adopted a risk-taking spirit—which their business leaders began applying on the job when they took over.
Generation X has embraced this mindset even more strongly. They’ve been largely defined by their response to tough economic and social situations, which helped shape their determination to work outside the system and succeed in unconventional ways. They were the driving force behind the Silicon Valley tech boom of the 1990s—where the idea of failure as a symbol of resilience really took root before catching on in other industries.
Most Millennials, however, are skeptical about the idea of failing upwards. Though their youth implies that they’re in the best position to take risks, Millennials are actually looking for security. They’d rather climb the corporate ladder than freelance indefinitely—and anticipate hurdles rather than stumble through them. Their poorer economic situation means that many simply can’t afford to risk it all on a “maybe.” They’re also coming of age at a time when failures are more public and permanent than ever; one social media blunder could keep them from getting a job.
This cautiousness is reflected in young adults’ actions. In addition to driving an across-the-board decline in risk-seeking behavior, this generation isn’t producing many entrepreneurs. From 1989 to 2013, the share of people under age 30 who own private businesses fell from 10.6% to 3.6%—a 24-year-low, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Federal Reserve data. Meanwhile, a Babson College survey finds that 41% of 25- to 34-year-olds cite “fear of failure” as their biggest roadblock to starting a business, up from 24% in 2001. The old dynamic has reversed. Now it’s the older leadership who extols the merits of failure—to young people who want to avoid it as they look for safer paths towards success.