Cat Flag’s Guide to Understanding Millennials: Debunking Millennial Myths and Misconceptions

Millennials image from CSU Long BeachI appreciate some of the great feedback Cat Flaggers have been leaving on my previous articles discussing the Millennial generation. Thank you all, very much!

Having said that, I am far from the only person discussing the newest and largest generation to be coming of age. You will find articles about us all over the Internet as well as in magazines and newspapers. Many of these articles are not written by Millennials, but by people in older generations who occasionally fail to grasp the full picture. They also frequently draw on others who have written about Millennials, meaning that one person’s misrepresentation or misunderstanding is transformed into a full-on nationwide stereotype.

It’s high time that we tear down these myths and misconceptions, so that we can have a much deeper understanding between the generations.

“Millennials don’t respect authority!”

South Park image from MTCToys, South Park is produced by Trey Parker and Matt Stone for Comedy Central.

In fact, a survey conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership demonstrates the opposite: Millennials respect authority far more than Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers!

So, wait, what is going on here? How did Millennials get portrayed as the disrespectful generation?

The difference is in how Millennials approach authority. We absolutely respect and obey authority – when we feel it has been earned. That is the key difference, and probably the source of many an inter-generational conflict between employer and employee.

To a Millennial, the fact that you have a fancy title on your business card or an office with your name on the door does not impress. All that proves is that you have enough connections to get promoted. What Millennials respect is leadership. We want our bosses to show us that they care about their employees, that they are willing to roll their sleeves up and get in the trenches with us, that they have a vision for the company or department and want to guide us all there, and who have an answer when we ask why something has to be done a certain way. We want our bosses to clearly know what they are doing and be passionate about their work.

We do not want to work for somebody who thinks too highly of himself or herself because of his or her title, who will bark orders at employees just to keep us busy, or who resents us for asking questions and dismisses us with a “because I said so.” We want to work for somebody who sees the workplace as a team in pursuit of some goal, not as a collection of disposable pawns to do menial tasks that are beneath him or her.

We want to work for somebody we can respect, and indeed, the most common reason for a Millennial to quit a job is because he or she didn’t like the manager. More to the point, the most common reason a Millennial stays in his or her job for a long time is because he or she liked the manager. When we find a boss we like, we will be incredibly loyal. If you are a manager and having a hard time retaining Millennial employees and feel that those you do have are being disrespectful, maybe it’s time you looked at your own management style.

“Millennials are so rude! All that texting is destroying our manners!”

Texting gag from Red Oxygen

I hear this one all the time. Here’s the problem I have with that sentiment. What behaviors are considered “polite” and “impolite” changes and evolves over time.

That isn’t to excuse the cashier at Starbucks who is too busy texting to pay attention to the customer trying to get his attention. That cashier needs to find a new job. Nor does it excuse those people in the movie theater who distract you from the movie by playing Angry Birds or checking their bank balance. That is just plain inconsiderate. Believe me when I tell you that there are plenty of Millennials who will happily call those sorts of behaviors out as rude alongside you.

On the other hand, I think many of the complaints arise more out of a misunderstanding than any actual intended impoliteness. What I see among my peers is that we have adapted to our always-plugged-in, technologically-driven world by creating new rules of etiquette.

Where somebody from my parents’ generation may believe that it is always better to talk on the phone with the person you want to reach and hear an actual human voice, from what I’ve seen Millennials are actually developing a set of rules regarding when to talk and when to text. We generally see it as better to talk to a person on the phone to carry on a long conversation, to break really important and personal news, or to say anything that can’t be summarized into a few short words. If all you want to do is set up a time and place to meet, it is better to text. Just as I was writing this, my classmate and I carried out a very, very brief conversation via text message about an assignment. He just had a quick question, and I gave him a quick answer. Just the sort of thing texting was meant for.

There’s even a online guide here with some of the basic rules for how to text politely, if you want to check it out.

“Millennials are a generation of selfish, entitled brats!”


This one is the myth that inspired me to write this post. In a recent issue of Time magazine, columnist Joel Stein basically insulted me and all of my peers. He’s not the first person to say this about Millennials, but he is certainly the one who was the most in-your-face about it. Or at least the guy who wrote that headline was.

I’m sick of people telling me that I’m entitled or selfish. I take personal offense to that. I also don’t think that it’s fair to my friends, classmates, or co-workers, few of whom I would categorize as narcissists. I will agree that there are SOME rude, selfish, narcissistic, and entitled Millennials. However, aren’t there rude, selfish, narcissistic, and entitled people in every generation?

In fact, this article from The Atlantic Wire specifically points out that every generation has been called selfish, narcissistic, and entitled by its parents’ generation. It shows a series of articles just like the one above – dating as far back as 1907! Here’s what I think is really going on: young, single people are generally going to be more self-centered than older, married people. Why? Older, married people have a spouse, children, and a career consuming virtually all of their attention virtually all of the time. Younger people, who are just starting out in life, haven’t worked their way up to that level of responsibility yet, so they are free to be self-centered.

Maybe it’s more obvious of a difference with Millennials because the median age of one’s first marriage is going up. In the 2010 census, the median age was 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women. It is true that a combination of factors – more students going to college, more students staying in college longer, the poor economy and job market, and the desire by Millennials to be extra picky for their life partners because of their parents’ divorce rates – is stretching out the length of time we are enjoying premarital young adulthood. Having said that, I refuse to believe that this makes us especially self-centered compared to other generations in their youths.

Some of my friends, classmates, and co-workers are already married and have families of their own. I can tell you that they are all settling down and focusing on their responsibilities, just as all parents should. Don’t worry, Boomers and Gen-Xers, the Millennials won’t be saying “Me Me Me” for much longer.

“We are approaching an ‘Age War’ as the needs of Millennials and Boomers are at odds with each other”

Anti-Ageism ad from Coloribus

This myth takes a little more explaining than the others. The story goes that as the Baby Boomers approach retirement, demographics combined with economics are making things harder for the younger generations that follow them. As more people are choosing to retire later, fewer new jobs are freed up for young entry-level workers. This, it is said, is one of the causes of those high unemployment figures for Millennials.

It is also totally bunk.

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center has found that there is no statistical evidence at all that employers are not hiring because of older workers staying on after 65. As much as the “Age War” sounds like an intuitive, common-sense conclusion to draw, the science simply doesn’t bear it out. And why should it? The older workers who are retiring later are probably mostly in high-level positions that they have earned after a long career, while the positions that Millennials would be seeking would be entry-level, bottom-of-the-totem-pole positions that are not dependent on the number of high-level positions that are currently filled.

Yet, however this myth was created, it is exactly the kind of dangerous myth that could become a part of a bigger problem. Already, we are facing a major crunch on Social Security and Medicare in the coming years if we don’t enact much-needed reforms. Already, I have seen this fact misconstrued as older generations “stealing from” the younger ones. (In fact, retiring seniors have been paying into Social Security and Medicare their whole lives, and aren’t “stealing” from anybody. The problem is budgetary policy and an outdated system, not the retirees.)

Ageism – prejudice against people due to their age – is a real thing and a real problem in our society today. Promoting conflict between generations is only going to make the problem worse. We must not let misrepresentations and rumors and blame-shifting create a conflict out of nothing. I hope that this series will help build understanding between the generations and bring us closer together, instead of further apart.

What do you think? Let me know in comments below!