Why 4,000 Millennials Are Gathering In The Nation’s Capital

July 14, 2015 | By Jillian Berman

They’ve been called entitled, lazycoddled and a host of other unsavory adjectives. Now they’re descending on Washington to rebrand.

Beginning this weekend, 4,000 of the nation’s youngs are expected to gather at various venues in the nation’s capital to eat, drink and schmooze as part of the second annual “Millennial Week.” The confab, which features typical conference events like networking receptions and panels as well as more, um, innovative activities such as “Mantras & Martinis” and a “Food Faceoff,” will give 20-somethings a chance to talk with each other, panelists and sponsors about what they want from employers, investors and of course the political candidates running in “#2016.”

“Millennials can have a bit of a PR problem,” said 34-year-old Natalie Moss, explaining why she founded Millennial Week. The moniker has earned such a distasteful reputation that a full two-thirds of 18- 34-year-olds say the word doesn’t accurately describe them. “You can’t turn on a television or open a newspaper without hearing something about millennials,” notes Moss, who is a molecular biologist by training. “A lot of that dialogue is being generated from commentators and pollsters who were outside the generation.”

Many of the grumblings about today’s generation of young people may seem truly 21st century — their heads are buried in their phones, they overshare and are accustomed to instant gratification — but complaining about the latest crop of 20-somethings is a decades-old practice. Today’s young adults may be the first to convene a week’s worth of events to combat their image problem, but they’re certainly not the first to have one.

Every time a new generation comes of age and enters the workforce, their parents and grandparents react with “this negative shock,” said Neil Howe, an economist and demographer who first coined the term millennial in “Generations,” a 1991 book he co-authored with William Strauss.

“There’s always a certain fear of what’s new,” he said. “In part, it reminds older generations of their mortality.” And of course there are more concrete concerns, Howe says: “We don’t want to be kicked off the hill by young bucks who don’t fully understand what we know.”

There’s such a strong tradition of older generations freaking out about young adults that it’s hard to distinguish what today’s media says about millennials from reporters’ and business leaders’ fretting over baby boomers’ habits in a 1969 issue of Fortune:

* Like today’s 20-somethings, young adult boomers insisted on doing meaningful work: “Young employees are demanding that they be given productive tasks to do from the first day of work and that the people they work for notice and react to their performance,” Fortune noted in the 1960s.

* 1960s-era young adults also tended to job hop, a source of much hand-wringing for the businesses employing millennials: “Some companies are avoiding brand-new graduates because of their penchant for moving on,” the 1960s-era Fortune writers observe.

* When they were young, baby boomers craved praise, a trait for which millennials are oft-criticized: “One experienced personnel man sums up his duties by saying, ‘We’re dealing with a lot of tender little egos. They have to be told they’re loved frequently,’” Fortune reported at the time.

“The descriptions are to me strikingly similar,” said Jennifer Deal, senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, who studies generational differences. “Similar things are said about every new set of young people as they come into the workforce and then the older people forget that it was said about them.”

Of course, like every generation, millennials have a distinct world view and their own stable of idiosyncrasies. Coddling from their parents combined with coming of age in a time of economic uncertainty has made today’s young people more risk-averse, which means they’re less willing to buy a home or start their own business, says Howe. Fueled in part by social media, this group also has a propensity toward collaboration and team work. In addition, today’s 20-somethings have more faith in the power of credentials than their Generation X peers, which is partly why they’re the most educated generation in history.

But these are all small differences compared with the gulf in understanding between baby boomers and the so-called Greatest Generation that came before them, says Howe. Pieces like those in Fortune’s “generation gap” issue are typical of a certain “hysteria” of that time surrounding Boomers’ disregard for their parents’ values.

But that lack of mutual understanding between parents and their 20-something children has largely disappeared. More than half of fathers and 67% of mothers talk with their young adult children almost every day, a 2013 poll from Clark University found. Daily parental updates weren’t the norm for boomers and Generation X; in 1986, just half of parents said they had spoken to their young adult child in the last week, according to a 2012 op-ed in the New York Times.

This parental closeness indicates that today’s fear surrounding millennials can be chalked up mostly to “snarky media pieces occasionally fed by certain kinds of academic research,” instead of a true lack of mutual understanding between different generations, said Howe.

And so today’s 20-somethings are finding strategies — like a weeklong generational meetup — to take that criticism in stride. “I don’t think it’s a totally new concept to critique the youngins’ of the bunch,” Moss said.