Three Lessons Worth Taking from the TIME Cover Story on Millennials

A portrait of a young girl taking a self-portrait on a smartphone Let's start with what we already know:  the recent TIME cover article about millennials is little more than a desperate bid to boost sales.

The cover itself simply restates hackneyed stereotypes about today's twentysomethings - lazy, narcissistic, entitled - which The Atlantic compellingly demonstrates has been said - probably correctly - about just about every generation of young people. Not only that, but the cover, meant to raise hackles and get you scrambling to pay for a copy, doesn't truly match the article inside. In fact, the author, Joel Stein, thinks you guys will be just fine. And I happen to agree.

Doesn't make for much of a story now does it?

So is there anything worth taking from the latest media spotlight on millennials? Here's what I gleaned:

Let High Career Expectations Drive You

The TIME article discusses the self-esteem movement we've touched upon in the past - the one that made you feel special for simply rubbing a crayon across a piece of pulp - and then blames it for raising your career expectations too high:

"This generation has the highest likelihood of having unmet expectations with respect to their careers and the lowest levels of satisfaction with their careers at the stage that they're at," says Sean Lyons, co-editor of Managing the New Workforce: International Perspectives on the Millennial Generation. "It is sort of a crisis of unmet expectations."

Lyons' observation is probably true. From my experience, Millennials in general have high hopes for their careers, not necessarily in terms of wanting "success" but rather in desiring work they can feel good about doing. You want to something that goes beyond "career" to something that's more meaningful to yourselves.

Does that "meaningful to self" indicate that you're narcissistic? Well if it does, live it up, people, because we know that individuals who experience greater meaning in their lives have higher levels of life satisfaction, work enjoyment, and happiness. Those, in turn, can result in better quality work that has the potential of having a broad impact on society.

Not to mention that if something is meaningful to you personally, it's likely meaningful to someone else (and probably many someone elses). In other words, its value extends far beyond yourself.

So Point Number One:  Revel in your unmet expectations about career. Demand more from your career. And from your employers, which takes us to Point Number Two.

Demand That Companies Accommodate Your Higher-Level Needs

You're a powerful force. Not just anyone gets on the cover of TIME magazine, after all. (Alright, that's debatable.)

In any event, your power has the potential to change corporate structure, according to the article:

Companies are starting to adjust not just to millennials' habits but also to their atmospheric expectations. Nearly a quarter of DreamWorks' 2,200 employees are under 30, and the studio has a 96% retention rate. Dan Satterthwaite, who runs the studio's human-relations department and has been in the field for about 23 years, says Maslow's hierarchy of needs makes it clear that a company can't just provide money anymore but also has to deliver self-actualization. During work hours at DreamWorks, you can take classes in photography, sculpting, painting, cinematography and karate.

And why shouldn't we expect self-actualization from our work? We've long passed the point of needing to toil all day simply to kill the animals and grind the grain that we need for tonight's dinner. You guys get that, and so you want more.

Good - demand it. With your feet.

Diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Yes, the economy sucks right now. Yes, you can't go walking out on a perfectly good job in this particular climate. But guess what, in two years or five or ten, employees will be able to do that again. Just like we 2000-era college graduates did. Don't let this downturn in the job market change the way you see the employer-employee relationship, making you feel beholden and grateful because they're dishing out a salary to you.

So here's Point Number Two:  Maintain your feisty desire for "more" from your jobs and, as a group, demand that companies be like DreamWorks, providing for your whole self and replenishing your capacities, as opposed to draining from your energy and cognitive reserves while covering little more than your safety and physiological needs.

And if the companies can't or won't make these changes, then make it happen yourself, which happens to be Point Number Three.

Be the Inventors of Your Own (and Others') Futures

I strongly believe that come twenty years from now, your generation will have the largest proportion of entrepreneurs and self-employed individuals than any generation preceding you. And I'm not talking about founding big companies; I'm talking about simply working for yourself. And maybe having an employee or two.

Many factors have me believing this, not limited to the potential for affordable individually-purchased health insurance once the Health Insurance Marketplace opens in 2014; a job market that can't accommodate all of the college graduates spilling into the world and, due to changes in technology, may never do so again; and your willingness to take calculated risks and create for yourself what others fail to create for you.

Tom Brokaw said it best, in the TIME article:

Their great mantra has been: Challenge convention. Find new and better ways of doing things. And so that ethos transcends the wonky people who are inventing new apps and embraces the whole economy.

I hope you'll seize on the ingredients for entrepreneurship that are so ripe in your laps. For if you do, you'll not only delve into work that is meaningful to yourselves, you'll also create small businesses that look after others' self-actualization needs, too.

In other words, Point Number Three is that you have the potential to address Point Number One and Point Number Two with your own industrious, creative power.

Find what you're passionate about, figure out how to sculpt that passion such that it meets a gap in other people's lives, and then market that gap-filling to bring you income while doing what you love and meeting a real need in the world.

That's the recipe for millennial success, in my opinion. And we didn't need a controversial Time cover piece to tell us it.

What did you take from the TIME article? Did you even bother to read it?


Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(1), 80-93.


Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Aim for the top, baby. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)