On a flight to Portland, Oregon the other day I read a report on what’s up with the Millennial Generation that got me thinking about the importance of tracking demographic trends.
According to the study from the American Enterprise Institute, Millennials (those aged 26 to 44) suffer from excessive risk aversion and a failure to launch. They are forgoing sexual, marital, and other forms of human relations. And among those who do choose to marry, fertility rates are plummeting.
“Younger Americans are less sure of where to step and how to build their lives,” the report notes. Millions of young people are sitting out life, living with parents into their 30s, playing video games, and engaging minimally with the world. Too many young Americans have been deposited to the sidelines of life.
The study attributes this generational passivity to social isolation and the crippling, cumulative effects of social media and Covid 19. This first generation of digital natives is living out the effects of social media, where, as WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan observes we “display ourselves without really connecting.” And all this amidst massive social and economic changes that have resulted in a breakdown of the traditional social order.
So, where’s the good news for the Millennial Generation in all of this ennui? Well, if you’ve followed my work for very long, you know that an awareness of trends empowers you to make better decisions and to spot emerging opportunities. And tracking demographic trends, such as the ones the “Divided State of Our Unions” reports on, is arguably the most important category of trends because “demography is destiny.”
But is it really in the case of this rising generation of 72 million Americans? Another one of my teachings is that after you’ve absorbed what looks like a set-in-cement trend, look for it to go in an entirely different direction.
Take the report’s premise, which foresees a “rising generation acutely averse to risk, and so to every form of dynamism” and put it to a stress test. If you observe generational cohorts for long, you know that they evolve drastically as they move thru the lifespan. (Just look at where the Gen Xers are now compared to their earlier “slackers” designation.) So, trends – and cohorts -- do not move in one monolithic direction – and that’s what may be happening with Millennials.
Let me say that while I don’t doubt the report’s research for arriving at its disturbing conclusions, I do believe a countertrend may be brewing right beneath the researcher's noses that they failed to notice.
My own demographic research suggests that Millennials are merely the delaying generation; everything prior generations did, from getting married to having kids to becoming more career-oriented, is happening later with them, here’s why. Saddled with high student debt, and generation-shaping events such as 9/11 and the Great Recession, this generation got off to a rough start. But their past is not their potential. And I’m seeing evidence of a nascent counter-trend as many of the Millennials I know who were delaying, are suddenly getting on with life.
There’s evidence of this everywhere: “Workers quit jobs in droves to become their own bosses,” bellowed the Wall Street Journal this week. Seeking flexibility, employees are discovering their inner entrepreneur as the pandemic unleashes a historic burst in entrepreneurship and self-employment.
Turns out that hundreds of thousands of Americans – many of them Millennials -- are striking out on their own as consultants, retailers, manufacturers, and small-business owners. The number of unincorporated self-employed workers has risen by 500,000 since the start of the pandemic, Labor Department data shows, to 9.44 million. Entrepreneurs applied for federal tax ID numbers to register 4.5 million new businesses from January through October this year, up 56 percent from the same period of 2019, Census Bureau data show. It amounts to a six percent increase in the self-employed ranks, while the overall U.S. employment total remains nearly 3 percent lower than before the pandemic.
The other part of this countertrend is what’s happening in the workplace that favors Millennials. The pandemic will go down in history as the defining tragedy of our lifetimes. But it has set off an opportunity revolution that is still in its infancy. On the positive side of the ledger, it’s bestowed new leverage on workers: from frontline, essential employees all the way up the ladder.
Ten years ago, organizations strove to eliminate “headcount.” They wanted to get rid of people. But now organizations of all sizes are begging for talent. Eighty-eight percent of employers are seeing higher turnover. Two out of three workers are actively looking for new opportunities. And as millions of Boomers head off into retirement, taking their years of experience with them, many organizations are desperately in need of people with the aptitudes and skills to think critically, serve and delight customers, motivate and collaborate with colleagues to get new projects done and achieve unconventional results.
An abundance of open jobs is making workers feel more confident about pursuing options, becoming their own boss, changing jobs, or doubling down in their present line of work and going for advancement and higher pay. Suddenly the passivity of the Millennial Generation is being cast aside. And with it all the assumptions about a generation that felt itself “screwed,” this is the beginning of a whole new period of opportunity for personal growth and pursuing work-life balance not to mention compensation leverage for millions of people.