You want to understand Millennials?

Two articles jumped out at me this week. One by Farhad Manjoo, “Corporate America Chases the Mythical Millennial,” and the other by David Brooks, “Inside Student Radicalism.”

Brooks compared the incessant rush for “excellence” as rewarding the “meritocracy,” where college students are “stressed and exhausted,” with “a moral life that is more vehement, more strenuous than anything being offered by their elders.” The basic clash college students (e.g., Millennials) now experience is the clash of results and process, between production and purpose. Brooks concludes: “There is a vacuum at the heart of things here. The meritocracy has become amoral. We ask students to work harder and harder while providing them with less and less of an idea of how they might find a purpose in all that work.”

Manjoo asserts that “Millennials aren’t real” and that the rest of us must “break out of the stereotype.” He cites Laszlo Block, head of human resources at Google (and my niece’s boss), “Every single human being wants the same thing in the workplace — we want to be treated with respect, we want to have a sense of meaning and agency and impact, and we want our boss to just leave us alone so we can get our work done.”

In my own research and experience, I am convinced that this is a generation that has been the recipient of greater expectations while receiving less social capital to help navigate them than any in history. That, of course, is an ambitious statement, but there is data aplenty – from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege – that point in the same direction. Gen X-ers and Boomers at least enjoyed vestiges of days when a teacher or coach would spend an hour with a kid after school “just to talk.” Millennials have grown up having to earn their way into a meaningful relationship. If there’s one place I depart from Google’s Laszlo, I do not believe that they want to left “alone,” even when they think they do. Being micromanaged is anathema to them. They would rather be given the opportunity to try, and to risk, but they also want someone they trust to help to learn know how to be better.

You really want to understand Millennials? First, don’t think “Millennials,” think “person.” Second, toss out the profane labels and descriptors that separate you from them, like “entitled” and “a trophy for every kid.” Look into their eyes. Learn their name. Be a student of their perspective. Honor their gifts and calling. And, above all, treat them with respect.

Previous generations were welcomed because they were part of us; they were worth the effort to equip and include them. Today kids grow up having to perform their way into blessing. This is where David Brooks and Farhad Manjoo get it right: Millennials long to be empowered and they are desperate to be valued. Funny, they are just like us.