Editor's Note: In recent years, the media landscape has been particularly harsh toward Millennials. Whether Millennials are at school, in the workplace, or at home, their behavior is confounding older generations—prompting many to label this generation as entitled, narcissistic, and lazy. But most of these widely held views betray ignorance about who Millennials really are.
Hedgeye interviewed Demography Sector Head Neil Howe to set the record straight on who Millennials are and why they act the way they do. Below is an excerpt from that interview. Here, we focus on four common criticisms of Millennials—antisocial behavior, risk-taking, excessive individualism, and narcissism.
Click here to watch a video narrated by Hedgeye Demography Sector Head Neil Howe describing the generational theory put forth in his 1997 classic “The Fourth Turning,” co-authored with William Strauss.
Hedgeye: So what are people saying about Millennials today?
Neil Howe: These days the headlines about Millennials are hard to read. I recently watched an interview with author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek, who labeled Millennials as “entitled, narcissistic, self-interested, unfocused, and lazy.” He argues that Millennials have been told from a young age that they could have anything they wanted, even if they didn’t deserve it. He also contends that their addiction to technology makes them depressed and unable to form close relationships with others. Although he softens the blows by saying that Millennials’ parents are to blame for their flaws, his assessment is clear: Millennials are a very troubled generation indeed.
Hedgeye: What do you have to say in response?
NH: I should preface everything I say here with one simple statement based on my extensive research on generations through the centuries: There is no such thing as a good or bad generation. Every generation has its strengths and weaknesses. It’s also fair to say that many negative stereotypes of Millennials are based on kernels of truth. The term “snowflake,” for example, conjures up specialness and risk aversion. And to be sure, Millennials manifest a good deal of both.
In short, I’m saying not that the Millennial reality is diametrically the opposite of what these critics are saying. Rather, it’s that the critics’ picture is so wildly and negatively distorted as to be utterly unhelpful.
Hedgeye: Critics often point to excessive self-esteem to explain all the negative adjectives they apply to Millennials—namely, antisocial, risk-taking, individualistic, and narcissistic. How do you respond to these charges?
NH: Fine, let’s go through all four, one at a time.
Hedgeye: OK. What about antisocial?
NH: I know of no better indicator of antisocial behavior than violent crime. And violent crime rates among youth have plummeted by an astounding 60% to 75% since the mid-1990s—just when Millennials began to enter their teens. Thanks to Millennials, most core urban areas in America are again habitable. In fact, this generation has accounted for arguably the most dramatic reduction in youth violence in American history.
Bottom line: If violence is your indicator of antisocial behavior, Millennials are innocent as charged.
Hedgeye: Case closed I guess. So what about risk-taking?
NH: As they have matured, Millennials have proven at every age to be a risk-averse generation. From 1991 to 2015, Millennials have brought about significant linear declines in the prevalence of high school students engaging in the vast majority of “youth risk behaviors” monitored by the CDC. These include not wearing a bicycle helmet or seatbelt, having sex, drinking alcohol, and smoking cigarettes, among other things.
So if you’re looking for risk-taking, you’ve got the wrong generation.
Hedgeye: Why are Millennials so unwilling to take risks?
NH: The reality is that Millennials have seen firsthand how self-defeating risk-taking can be. They watched Boomers and Xers suffer mightily after investing in the wrong home, trusting the wrong broker—or even marrying the wrong spouse and turning too eagerly to the wrong drug. They’ve learned from their elders’ mistakes and are trying to avoid risky situations as a result.
Because they’ve been told they’re special, they think it really matters if bad things happen to them. Lo and behold one of the many benefits of having a high self-esteem: more prudent behavior.
Hedgeye: Let’s move on. What about individualism?
NH: The supposed “individualism” of Millennials is largely a creation of older observers who take their habits out of context. Yes, Millennials may be taking “selfies,” but they are also receiving selfies from their friends. Yes, they’re staring at their smartphones rather than at you, but they’re checking their social media feeds to see what their family and friends are doing next weekend. For Millennials, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are social. They’re more about staying close to others than about admiring themselves.
Millennials’ willingness to be dependent on others marks a real generational break from DIY Gen Xers and lock-‘n-load Boomers. And it’s not a break in the direction of individualism. Critics get this totally wrong. Indeed, I would say that Millennials’ strong group orientation is actually a potential weakness they will have to deal with as they grow older.
Hedgeye: And finally, let’s not forget about narcissism. Who makes that charge?
NH: Ah, you must be referring to Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State. Author of Generation Me, she is probably the first and most persistent of all Millennial-bashers. Like me, she thinks generational differences are important. But unlike me, she sees no rhythm of correction or compensation in generational change. Instead, she is relentlessly declinist: Americans were pretty altruistic until Boomers came along, and then rampant selfishness—she uses “narcissism” as a term of art—has grown worse with every subsequent generation, from Boomers to Xers and then from Xers to Millennials.
She once famously announced that “young people born after 1982 are the most narcissistic generation in recent history”—and in case anyone misses the point, she elsewhere explains that “narcissism is one the few personality traits that psychologists agree is almost completely negative.”
It will not surprise you that I disagree entirely with most of her findings. Her popular books, chock-full of lurid anecdotes about misbehaving youth, actually cite very little data about the behavior or attitudes of this generation as a whole. There’s a reason for that: The data seldom make her point. She does rely heavily on some narrow and fairly technical survey instruments, including something called the “Narcissism Personality Inventory.” For various reasons, I think these instruments are suspect—and her use of them has been duly criticized by other academics.