Off the Cuff: May 2017

I’ve had it with millennials. We’ve all heard the stories about the absurd environment on our college campuses — the policing of offensive language and the “safe zones” and the silencing of anyone with a view of the world that doesn’t fit into a narrow ultra-liberal box. The idea of college as a time of true intellectual exploration has become a joke in this country. But what’s even more troubling is what happens now when our young people have to leave college — that is, when they depart the safe, coddled, oh-so-pleasant atmosphere of school to enter the workforce. That’s where the real fun begins.

Millennials seem to believe the world they grew up in — where they got trophies for finishing last at T-ball, where every half-assed term paper they wrote was praised, where every need and desire was met — should extend to the world at large. I hear it from friends in business constantly: “There is a sense they have a special right,” a partner at a major Philadelphia law firm recently told me. “They’re entitled to feedback, but if you’re critical, that’s a problem. They are much more sensitive than previous generations, and I don’t know why that is.”

I do — it’s because of how little we’ve asked of young people. Somewhere we got the idea that our children are better off never experiencing hardship of any kind. That’s a nice idea, and absolutely terrible preparation for dealing with the reality of the marketplace, or of being an adult. Not long ago, Simon Sinek, author of the best-seller Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, aptly summed up the state of millennials: They are described, he noted in an interview, as tough to manage, entitled, narcissistic, self-interested and lazy. “Entitled,” he said, “is the big one.”

Sinek believes the basic problem is that millennials have been dealt a bad hand, especially through indulgent parenting and the rise of technology that made cell phones into an easy and constant drug of choice. Whether walking down the street or sitting around a table at work waiting for a meeting to begin, everyone is tapping away on his phone. Looking around at the world — or having an actual conversation with the person sitting two feet from you — doesn’t offer the same quick hit of gratification.

I see the problem in my own office. Not so long ago, editors and writers would gather during lunch at a table scattered with newspapers, which were actually read. News was debated. Stories being worked on were hashed out. The state of the world — in Philadelphia and beyond — was appraised and argued over. But all that is ancient history. Now, young staffers stick to their offices, their headphones on, with social media a constant at their fingertips. Actual conversation — unless you count tweeting and texting as conversation — isn’t something they’re interested in.

Which is something Sinek addresses as well — that so many millennial relationships are superficial, based on the quick hits of social media instead of face-to-face encounters. He worries, too, about millennial impatience, citing how new corporate employees become depressed at their jobs because they haven’t made an impact after only a few months. They see the summit, but not the mountain, Sinek says: “So what this young generation needs to learn is patience. That some things that really, really matter, like love or job fulfillment … these things take time. … The overall journey is arduous, and long, and difficult. And if you don’t ask for help and learn that skill set, you will fall off the mountain.”

It’s startling — and pathetic — that we have raised a generation that seems incapable of functioning in the world as it is. There’s no easy solution to that. We could start by taking a hard look at higher education in this country and asking a fundamental question: What are we teaching our children, anyway?

Published as “Off the Cuff” in the June 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.