William Strauss' most recent books, Millennials Rising and Millennials Go To College, make a strong case that the generation of Americans now coming of age brings a quite different mindset than the "Gen-Xers" just before them. At the NACUFS conference in July, Strauss offered directors—a majority of them Boomers— indepth advice on how to prepare for, manage and cultivate this new generation of customers and workers. A few excerpts:
The myth of generational decline. "There is a perception, often held by an older generation about the young, that the new generation is disappointing, not as smart as previous generations. But if you look for a data point that shows over the decades whether people were getting smarter or growing less smart, you find that is not true. Overall, risk taking is down and achievement is up.
"Consider the National Spelling Bee. If you look at the winning words back in the 1940s, it was not a difficult contest to win by today's standards, with words like knack and promiscuous. Today, you see winning words like autochthonous and appoggiatura.
"This doesn't mean Millennials use these words in conversation; but to compete at the highest levels, they have to learn them. The same is true in science fairs, athletics, the arts and other endeavors. The top sliver is amazingly good. But also, the top 10 percent is better, the top half is better and yes, the bottom half is better than it was in the Boomers' time."
The origin of perceptions. "The mis-perception that a new generation is not doing well is a product of culture wars. For example, people from the conservative side often have a moral agenda or an anti-public schools agenda. On the left side, from academe, the curricula are typically based on the way things were seen back in the 1960s and 70s. It is just not that way any more and academe is reluctant to let go.
"There is also Hollywood, which perpetuates the idea that this generation is 'edgy.' But the people making the movies and pop songs that supposedly depict the teen culture are mostly in their late 20s and 30s. People that age don't have a clue about what's going on
in high school. They don't have children or siblings or social friends who are adolescents. They are just offering a satire of what their own experience was."
An intersection of cycles. "A generation is an intersection of the cycles of life and the cycles of history. Typically these are 20-year swatches. For example, Boomers are too young to have a personal memory of World War II, but are old enough to remember Pleasantville when it was still black-and-white. This creates a common attitude and behavior. Not everyone behaves that way, but you either have to lead it, follow it or resist it. In any case, you have to deal with it. It creates a collective identity.
"Many Gen Xers, saw the period between first sexual experience and first marriage stretch to 12-15 years. Contrast that with the "Silent" generation, in 1950, when it was typically minus-three hours! We forget that we recently had the generation that was the youngest to get married, the youngest to give birth and probably the most virginal generation we've ever had in American history. And that was just three generations ago. These things do not go in a straight line—they go with the ebb and flow of history.
The Hippies vs. The Slackers. "In 1970 there was something called the Woodstock Census that estimated the percentage of Boomers who were hippies; it defined a hippie as someone who believed in and actively engaged in radical politics, frequent substance abuse and free love. By that measure, about 12 percent of young people were hippies. That means one in eight of you who are Boomers did all three of those things; the others can have a conversation about who fell short and why!
"In the same way, there is probably only a small sliver of Gen-Xers who are so-called 'slacker— dotcommies.' But if you get a Boomer school administrator and a Gen-X parent in the same room, the parent is going to think, 'Hippie,' and the administrator is going to think, 'Slacker.' They both start from a disadvantage."
Generational archetypes." Generations can be classified by four different archetypes. There are Artists, those born during times of great wars or empire adjustments.This describes those of the Silent generation, now in their 60s and 70s, who witnessed the Great Depression and WWII as a child or teen.
"They are followed by Prophets, boomer-like generations, post-war babies. Boomers were post WWII just as FDR's generation was post-Civil War.Then come Nomads, children in periods where there are "
Awakenings," like the "consciousness revolution" of the 60s and 70s.That was when the Gen Xers were born.
"Finally, these are followed by Heroes, those born immediately after one of these "consciousness awakenings." It is as important to realize the Millennials are a post consciousness-awakening generation as it is to realize the Boomers are a post-war generation."
Generations are non-linear. "Every generation is the parent of the subsequent two and the child of the previous two. It is the Boomers who are driving the nurturing style for Millennials, just as the GI generation, not the Silent, drove it for Boomers.The lesson is that no generation is a linear extension of the one that came before.
"The bottom line is that the generation the Millennials most resemble is the GI generation.That's why the term 'Generation Y' is so unhelpful. It creates the impression that Millennials are like Gen Xers except perhaps a little more affluent or whatever.That is not a useful construct.
"All generations rebel, with back-and-forth resistance to parental agendas.They rebel in the context of their own times, breaking stylistically from those who created their culture. They also correct the predominant parent group's mistakes. Millennials are not an Echo-boom, they are Anti-Boom.They get along with us, but they are going to fix us.
"The reality is that as each generation comes along, there is a generation that is dying. In this case, it is the team-playing, community-ahead-of-self, GI generation from WWII. They were Heroes, and we need heroes. So we are training our young people in our families and schools and churches to take their place.
"The Millennials see this as the way they can provide something fresh and new to our society.They are stepping into the same role and mindsets that the Boomers' parents are vacating."