Millennials: Prospects Rather Than Punchlines

We are very excited to welcome a new member to the Growing Leaders team. For a long time, we’ve felt the need to have a Millennial voice speak into the content we create, and now, we believe we have the right person for that position. Andrew McPeak is a writer, curriculum designer, and speaker who has served with a number of non-profit organizations (and has spoken to thousands of Millennials) over the last 5 years. Today, Andrew offers his thoughts on how Generation iY reacts to the ways they hear us talk about them. We think you will love his insight! You’ll be hearing from him on blogs and in our resources from time to time. Enjoy.

It’s pretty common these days for Millennials to be the punch line of a joke, from guides designed to help you find out why your millennial is crying to a new viral Instagram account called Millennials of New York (which parodies the now famous Humans of New York account). It’s all in good fun — I’m pretty sure both of those examples were created by Millennials — and these things often unify more than separate generations. But it’s worth noting how much our culture relies on humor to ease the tension between generations of people who don’t understand one another. Almost every part of our culture’s story is now defined less by the events of the day and more by the meme-fest that follows online. Millennials, growing increasingly weary of how they are talked about online, struck back recently by creating a Chrome plugin that replaces every mention of the word “millennial” on their web browser with the phrase “snake people”. All of this back and forth mockery does bring to mind one serious question: How are Millennials feeling about the way older generations (often) negatively talk about them? As a Millennial myself, I can accurately answer that question: not well.

photo credit: via photopin (license)

photo credit: via photopin (license)

Imagine yourself in their shoes. Everyone around calls you lazy and unfit for the real world. Your boss says “you millennial people” and your parents consistently tell you to “grow up”. Over time, doesn’t it start to get easier to just live up to other’s expectations of you? Would any effort you put in really make a difference in other’s opinions anyways?

The Language of Hope

In 2008, the Obama campaign understood something that I think many teachers, parents, and bosses still struggle to understand about Millennials. Chris Hughes, one of the original founders of Facebook, was hired by the Obama team to head up their online mobilization platform. With their resources, Chris created something called, a social networking platform where Obama supporters could connect with other like-minded supporters in their communities for rallying and fundraisers. The genius of his actions had very little to do with the technology (after all, he is not a computer engineer) and had even less to do with social media. What it did have to do with was community and the language of hope.

The platform performed a unique function: it developed communities where people who believed in Obama could come together (people who often thought they were alone in their beliefs). This led to the setup of all-volunteer campaign offices in certain counties, many times before anyone who officially worked for the campaign had ever arrived. The language of hope that was so common to the Obama campaign was the most passionate and bold on, where supporters felt like their actions were leading to tangible results (which is true, as the site helped generate $30 million in fundraising efforts). The message from the Obama campaign was plain and simple: if you align with us, you are aligning with something that is going to create positive change. This is the language of hope.

There is a principle in marketing that would be good to bring up here. It comes along with an illustration.


When good marketers think about selling a product, they know to avoid two things: marketing the product itself, or marketing the customer as they are before getting the product. These strategies just aren’t effective. This is why Apple talks about improving the lives of their customers and Coke talks about opening “Happiness” — solid marketing doesn’t sell the problem or the product, but the kind of person your customer will be after they use the product.

Take a look at headlines for articles and books about Millennials. The titles always seem to contain words like “selfish,” “entitled,” “lazy,” or the like. The most interesting thing about this to me is that the (assumed) goal of such articles is to stop the problem, but most of these articles don’t seem to ever really get past the rants to offer any solutions (and they certainly don’t sound too hopeful). When I do the work of listening to Millennials and searching for those who aren’t lazy or entitled, do you know what I find they do to encourage their peers?

They speak with hope.

A Better Story

This is my challenge to all of us, and I say this tongue-in-cheek, knowing that I (both as a Millennial and as someone who often speaks to them) am as responsible and guilty as anyone else: Tell them a better story. What I mean is:

  • Tell them what you believe they can do.
  • Tell them what opportunities await them if they are willing to put in the effort.
  • Tell them these stories, along with realistic expectations.

And after you tell them these stories, live out your values so that the Millennials you serve know you mean it.

Now put yourself back in their shoes for a moment. Picture your boss encouraging you and taking time to say things like, “I’m really impressed with your growth, and I can see you getting a promotion if you are willing to put in the effort,” or your parents telling you they know you are capable of doing more than you are doing now. Aren’t you more ready to become the person others believe you can be? Hard-working Millennials need to hear us tell them directly, “We believe you are capable of creating a better future.”

Obama arguably didn’t live up to all the campaign promises he made, but sadly, few leaders do. As a result, many of the young, enthusiastic Millennials who voted for him felt let down by the promises he left floating in their subconscious. This isn’t to say that hope language is naive or wishful thinking; I would instead say that hope creates change because it’s bold. So bold that it would make us willing to stake our reputations on the promises we make. Millennials don’t experience too much bold hope for themselves these days, and the fault belongs to all of us — not any one generation or specific news site.

Think of all the good it would do if hope re-entered our vernacular, if we saw Millennials as prospects rather than punch lines. (If we encouraged their smiles rather than made fun of their cries.) It’s a future where they live up to the right values and create the change we know they’re capable of. This beautiful vision for our collective future is not out of our grasp, even if it has fallen out of our vocabulary. I’d be willing to bet my name on it.

Discover the Secrets to Connecting With Millennials & Gen Z

In the 5th Anniversary Edition of Generation iY!

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Order the New iY Here

This new edition includes bonus chapters, new research, and recent stories that help adults:

  • Correct crippling parenting styles
  • Repair damage from (unintentional) lies we’ve told kids
  • Guide young adults toward real success instead of superficial “self-esteem”
  • Adopt education strategies that engage an “i” generation
  • Understand the generation following Millennials: Generation Z

Millennials: Prospects Rather Than Punchlines