I suppose it’s time for me to weigh in on the “here come the Millennials” craze.

First, it’s important to let you know that I don’t particularly subscribe to generational theory. I tend to think it’s just another faddish mechanism to sell books and try to force complex human beings into neat little boxes for the purpose of more expedited stereotyping.

And, if at all true, for the “Millennials,” the stereotypes aren’t flattering.

I was born in the early 1980s, so I guess that makes me – by all of the definitions I’ve read – one of the very first Millennials ever (ah!). And, judging by all of the LinkedIn articles, blog posts, Inc, and Forbes articles,  I am supposed to be self-centered, entitled, disengaged, difficult to motivate, idealistic, and in pursuit of a deeper purpose and meaning in whatever I spend my incredibly rare existence on this planet doing.  

Wait, that last one doesn’t sound so bad!

But really, is the pursuit of a deeper meaning and calling a “generational” thing, or is it really just a fundamental human trait that generations before have oppressed? Oppressed possibly to the tipping point of misery manifesting itself as “mid-life” crises, a proliferation of mental health issues, and the collective American cynicism that’s been dominating every news channel of late.

You can tell where I stand.

Why?

The need and call by this younger generation to seek and find utility and purpose in life and work is merely one symptom of a deeper societal issue that must be addressed: The inter-generational human search for meaning.

This “symptom” was perfectly captured for me when a college class brought in a speaker to discuss how Millennials can “get ready for the work-world” just this past semester at the university I work at. It was supposed to be a benign personal development seminar for students transitioning to their final year.

The speaker was visibly (and rhetorically) “Baby Boomer” age and was telling the students how Millennials need to change how they think and act to be “successful” in a professional work setting. The speaker was talking about “earning” political capital and learning from “those who have gone before.”

It was clear the students were a bit offended and lost interest quickly. The presenter could tell. After the session, the speaker went up to one of the students and asked why she seemed so disengaged. The student explained that she felt stereotyped and that she disagreed with much of what he was saying.

The guest speaker became uncomfortable. “See,” he said, “This is exactly what I’ve been talking about.”

He continued, trying to make his point, “If I said to you, ‘jump!’ what would you say?”

The student looked at him, confused by this “test,” but very calmly asked, “Why?”

“No, no!” he said, “You’re supposed to say ‘how high?!’”

“And who says what I am supposed to say?” she answered.

The Power of Why

While generational theory is incredibly limited, the symptom being displayed in ways of thinking of our younger generation deserves attention – by all of us.

We are a what-obsessed society. And you don’t have to look hard to see this obsession in action. For example, when I ask students in a class to go around and answer the question, “Who are you?” at the beginning of a semester, their answers resemble the list of statistics on the back of a baseball card.

One of the first things we learn in grade school is to answer a question in a way that is directly congruent with the interrogative (i.e. who, what, where, why, how).

“Who are you?” I ask them. They respond, “I’m from Denver, I am a ____ major….” and so on.

It doesn’t even make sense. That is a small example of the power of society and our “what” obsession.

We’ve lost our collective ability to critically question – not only our own lives, but the state of our own country. “It’s what you’re supposed to say,” said that guest speaker to the student. Who decides what we are supposed to say and do? What if everyone did what they were supposed to do? What if Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King, Jr. did what they were supposed to do?

Just think about the questions you ask of your family, friends, and co-workers in daily interactions. Instead of “What are you doing today?” try just once asking, “Why are you doing what you’re doing today?”

I recently heard a student walk out of a class and ask his classmate, “What grade did you get?”

I was joking a bit and asked, “Hey! Try asking him, ‘why did you get the grade that you got?’” Funny enough, he did, and after I finished cleaning up the classroom I walked out to see the two students sitting and talking – about stress, about how to cope, one giving advice on reading and studying techniques. Their normal interaction transformed.

When we ask why, we demand explanation. We assume responsibility.

The same is true with our lives and work. When we ask ourselves “why” we suddenly have to assume responsibility for our own existence. We have to justify, “Why me?”

The answer could be life-changing.

Thanks for that, Millennials.

– Zach