We are Misreading and Misleading Millennials — Badly

Rick B. Larsen, President & CEO at Sutherland Institute – Photo credit: Sutherland Institute


Millennials are currently 24-38 years old, and as a voting bloc they are about to surpass Generation X and baby boomers. When they ultimately show up, they have the numbers — approximately 83 million strong. They are already assuming corporate and elected leadership — and they are none too happy with Congress, the Constitution or capitalism.

Many criticize younger generations in terms that typically have to do with intelligence, work ethic and self-interest. This would be idle rambling if it were not — for at least two reasons — so wrong and so dangerous.

First, the criticism prompts a question. If there are knowledge and ethics gaps extant among our adult children, why? What happened?

Second, if we are going to find our way out of the political and constitutional crisis that is evolving by the hour — but may take years to correct — who do we expect will lead that charge? And in what direction and upon what principles might future leaders guide us?

Baby boomers — not millennials — were (and are) the original “me” generation: the ones who wanted everything. Many experts argue that boomers are the generation that mortgaged the future of current generations, all for our own comfort and convenience. We were the alternating over-involved/under-involved parents. We decided, as Timothy Carney explains in his book, “Alienated America,” that “our kids matter more than other kids” and when this thinking took hold, something significant happened to the fabric of our communities.

It was the parents of millennials who insisted their offspring never be challenged or offended. We wanted all the protections, products and opportunities of the free market, but we also wanted government to insulate us and the courts to solve every problem. How could our children and grandchildren not be confused?

A generation focused so fully on itself must collectively take some responsibility for the trends and attitudes we now criticize.

For instance, how can we have a serious debate about socialism vs. capitalism when most everyone under the age of 30 has grown up with the “me” generation demonstrating crony capitalism?

As far as the Constitution and America itself, our children and grandchildren are not equipped to assess current problems with any sense of history or reverence for our form of government because they know very little about it. A 2014 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed only 18 percent of American high school kids were proficient in U.S. history. Why? Because someone decided years ago that U.S. history as a subject is no longer history, but propaganda — and we let it happen.

It is as if we are now trying to have a conversation with our children, and we begin by saying, “You need to speak another language; one I have never taught you. And I insist you respect a faith I never talked about and embrace the principles of a history and Constitution you were not allowed to study.”

It could all be innocent enough — were we just trying to give our kids what we didn’t have. The thing is, we had a lot, but wanted more. And we failed to give them the most important things we did have — a connection to grandfathers who served in the military and grandmothers who served on the homefront; a memory of parents who sacrificed; and a general sense that to be an American is a blessing. This was a version of American exceptionalism that current generations do not understand — it was not an arrogant proclamation, but a humble and grateful recognition of responsibility.

It would be a dramatically different debate if, rather than debating socialism vs. capitalism, emerging generations had the perspective to argue for principled capitalism rather than nonexistent democratic socialism.

But we can still get there.

It is not too late to begin speaking in bygone terms and principles. We can express gratitude rather than entitlement; discuss rather than turn off the news; share stories and perspective from history and a belief that we owe our freedom to heroes.

It is not too late to reprioritize the institutions that create upward mobility and real community, including churches, charities and neighborhoods.

If we honestly examine what may be informing — or not informing — the generations we hold in contempt, we can speak in a different tone, acknowledge the gaps, and replace contempt with compassion, respect and some dose of accountability. From there, we have every reason to be hopeful about our future leaders.

Rick B. Larsen is President and CEO at the Sutherland Institute.

Used with the permission of the Sutherland Institute. This article originally appeared in the Deseret News.