The Promise of the Millennial Generation

Millennials may be problematic, but consider their potential for radically improving government.
by | February 18, 2009

With good reason, Tom Brokaw coined the term "the greatest generation," in his book of the same name, to describe those who grew up during the Great Depression and went on to persevere through WWII. I was raised by two members of this remarkable group and I'm continually astonished by both the accomplishments of their generation and their mental fortitude. These people faced one enormous challenge after another, handled those challenges beautifully and without complaint, and did so with humility and a positive spirit.

It's just possible that we're about to witness another great generation.

That's my take after reading the intriguing book Generations, by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The authors identify a pattern of four generations that have repeated sequentially throughout American history since 1584 (the only period in which a generation was skipped was during the Civil War).

The four generational types they discovered are:

Adaptives: They tend to be risk averse, like to conform to existing norms, and try to live up to the high standards of the powerful generation that preceded them. The most recent Adaptive cohort includes those born from 1925-1946.

Idealists: They often inspire a "spiritual awakening." Their strengths include visionary leadership and their shortcomings can include a tendency toward narcissism. The most recent Idealistic cohort was the baby boom generation, born 1946-1964.

Reactives: They tend to be alienated and highly individualistic and are skeptical of existing institutions and of the Idealists who preceded them. The most recent Reactive cohort, commonly referred to as Generation X, was born between 1964 and 1980.

Civics: This group is called an "institution building" generation. Like the Idealists, they tend to set the social agenda for the country. They respect authority, are comfortable working within the system, and set very high goals. The most recent Civic cohort was born between 1980 and 2000.

The Idealist and Civic cohorts are change-oriented generations, the other two reflect a more stable and conservative orientation. The twenty-somethings now entering the workplace are a Civic generation, often referred to as Millennials. And, if you believe Strauss and Howe's premise, they offer enormous promise for our organizations and our society.

What the Next Generation Has to Offer

My wife and I have two adult "Millennial" children. They and their friends reflect most of the characteristics that Civics have historically demonstrated. Moreover, the research on Millennials who are now in the workplace suggests that this group's strengths align beautifully with government's most pressing needs. Consider the following list of traits exhibited by Millennials:

  • a great facility for technology
  • an eagerness for change
  • an assumption that information is to be shared, not hoarded
  • a lack of patience with bureaucracy
  • a talent (and preference) for collaboration
  • a passion for service, and
  • a desire to make a (big) difference

Wouldn't you want such people working for you?

Yes, this group can be problematic. Their impatience with bureaucracy can get them in trouble, and their expectations for immediate change can leave them easily disappointed. As a result of their early life experiences (e.g., being carted by parents from one structured activity to another) many Millennials need more adult attention and supervision than managers may choose to give. But, consider this group's potential for radically improving government.

At a time when most government agencies need to find new ways to engage their citizen-customers as active partners, Millennials are able and eager to redefine citizen engagement by harnessing the power of Web 2.0. In a "discontinuous" age of incredible global changes, Millennials aren't unsettled by the turbulence; on the contrary, they are energized by it. In an era when we must tear down organizational walls, collaborate and share information, this generation has been doing exactly that since they were given group projects in elementary school (and were graded for how well they worked in a group).

These are all generalizations, of course, and you'll no doubt find many exceptions. But my experience with a number of Millennials tells me that this generation does share the characteristics described in recent research. Moreover, they reflect the fundamental nature of Civic generations discovered by Howe and Strauss.

The next time you're truly despondent about your own team, or division, or agency, just reflect on this fact: most of the Founding Fathers were members of a Civic generation (Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Monroe, John Marshall, John Jay and many other Founders were born 1742-1766). The Civics are, indeed, an institution-building generation. The real challenge is ours: Will we be farsighted and smart enough to put today's Civic cohort into appropriate positions of leadership so they can build tomorrow's government?

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