Those Soft and Squishy Millennials

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I am a member of Generation X, otherwise known as “the Slacker Generation.” Anyone who knows me would laugh at that designation because I am, without exception, a ridiculously unapologetic workaholic.

This week Forbes published an article by Dr. Steven Berglas asserting that a recent study suggests that Generation Y (otherwise known as “The Millennials”) are “too soft” for the dog-eat-dog world of entrepreneurship.

I am not sure whether to laugh or shake my head and sigh. Where to begin?

The 80/20 Rule
If there is one truism that seems to pervade any social context, it is the fact that the vast majority of contribution comes from the smallest minority of individuals. By definition, these individuals are the exception to the rule. These are the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the world, who defy all the “norms” they grew up with and did something completely out of the ordinary and leave a staggering sea of change in their wake.

As such, my point is this: if it’s always the minority that makes the most staggering contribution to posterity, then does it really matter whether or not the vast majority of a generation wasn’t raised to prize an aggressive entrepreneurial spirit?

Baby Boomers were notorious for wanting a secure job at one company for the duration of their career. As such, most of them were not entrepreneurs. And, if one buys the argument that most Gen Xer’s are slackers, then most of us wouldn’t be entrepreneurs, either. So does it really matter why the vast majority of Millennials are also disinclined towards the uncertain and financial turbulent lifestyle of an entrepreneur?

Gen Y Employee Shortage
The fact that The Department of Labor expected a 30 percent decrease of workers in their 30s and 40s between 2000-2010 is another reason that Dr. Berglas’ contention strikes me as a bit absurd: if major corporations around the world really are going to be experiencing a massive employee shortage, then those corporations are likely going to pay top dollar for the best of the small crop that exists. If that’s true, then the issue is much bigger than Generation Y. An entrepreneurial existence can be rough, and it is often difficult to raise a family on one. I have known plenty of people over my life — starting with my own father — who has spent his life struggling to maintain a small business for lack of other good options. If corporate America had been able to provide a more profitable, sustainable and stable lifestyle, there are plenty of struggling entrepreneurs who would happily give up the uncertainty of that lifestyle for a long-term corporate sponsorship.

The danger here is Dr. Berglas assuming that entrepreneurs are exclusively entrepreneurs simply because they possess a strong entrepreneurial spirit. That is another unsubstantiated assumption. Necessity is the mother of invention. There are plenty of business owners who do what they do out of (a sense of) a lack of other options, and many of them have very difficult and unstable professional lives because of it. Sure, there are plenty of people who want to own their own business. But there are also plenty of people who own their own business who would happily trade it in for affordable health care, a 401K and an ability to take a vacation or a sick day every once in a while.

Generational Generalizations
Of course, this is probably the bigger objection I have to this whole assertion: generalizations are typically simplistic b.s. While I did get a chuckle out of Dr. Berglas’ describing Millennials as “”The Everybody Gets A Trophy” generation” (because the eternal championing of mediocrity has often been a source of scoffing among me and my friends: kindergarten graduation ceremonies? Gimme a break.), the fact is that social pendulems swing from one extreme to the other. Defining such a large group of people in such broad terms is simply absurd.

If you want to address specific conditions that do impact Generation Y, then we should discuss disruptive technologies that practically spawn new business models daily, or about how fast/easy it is to start online businesses in an SaaS world. Those things will impact Gen Y’s entrepreneurial spirit more than whether or not they got the fourth runner up medal at their six grade spelling bee.

So when I see someone use generic terms and sweeping generalizations to describe large groups of people, I think of all the times throughout history that has happened and for all the different reasons — some of them simply ignorant, others out-right nefarious.

But no matter what the reason, that kind of generalization is just lazy. If we know anything, it is that history is made by the exception, not the rule. So who cares if the Gen Y “rule” is to sing Barney’s theme song while living in their parents’ basement?

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