Why Millennials are so Fascinating

When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk about the Generation Gap. This referred to the ideological gap between my generation – the Baby Boomers, and our parent’s generation – The Silent Generation (1923 – 1944).

But in terms of behavior, there was a significant gap even amongst early Baby Boomers and those that came at the tail end of the boom – like myself. Generations are products of their environment and there was a significant change in our environment in the 20-year run of the Baby Boomers – from 1945 to 1964. During that time, TV came into most of our homes. For the later boomers, like myself, we were raised with TV. And I believe the adoption of that one technology created an unbridgeable ideological gap that is still impacting our society.

The adoption of ubiquitous technologies – like TV and, more recently, connective platforms like mobile phones and the Internet – inevitable trigger massive environmental shifts. This is especially true for generations that grow up with this technology. Our brain goes through two phases where it literally rewires itself to adapt to its environment. One of those phases happens from birth to about 2 to 3 years of age and the other happens during puberty – from 14 to 20 years of age. A generation that goes through both of those phases while exposed to a new technology will inevitably be quite different from the generation that preceded it.

The two phases of our brain’s restructuring – also called neuroplasticity – are quite different in their goals. The first period – right after birth – rewires the brain to adapt to its physical environment. We learn to adapt to external stimuli and to interact with our surroundings. The second phase is perhaps even more influential in terms of who we will eventually be. This is when our brain creates its social connections. It’s also when we set our ideological compasses. Technologies we spend a huge amount of time with will inevitably impact both those processes.

That’s what makes Millennials so fascinating. It’s probably the first generation since my own that bridges that adoption of a massively influential technological change. Most definitions of this generation have it starting in the early 80’s and extend it to 1996 or 97.   This means the early Millennials grew up in an environment that was not all that different than the generation that preceded it. The technologies that were undergoing massive adoption in the early 80’s were VCRs and microwaves – hardly earth shaking in terms of environmental change. But late Millennials, like my daughters, grew up during the rapid adoption of three massively disruptive technologies: mobile phones, computers and the Internet. So we have a completely different environment for which the brain must adapt not only from generation to generation, but within the generation itself. This makes Millennials a very complex generation to pin down.

In terms of trying to understand this, let’s go back to my generation – the Baby Boomers – to see how environment adaptation can alter the face of society. Boomers that grew up in the late 40’s and early 50’s were much different than boomers that grew up just a few years later. Early boomers probably didn’t have a TV. Only the wealthiest families would have been able to afford them. In 1951, only 24% of American homes had a TV. But by 1960, almost 90% of Americans had a TV.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the values of my generation where shaped by TV. But this was not a universal process. The impact of TV was dependent on household income, which would have been correlated with education. So TV impacted the societal elite first and then trickled down. This elite segment would have also been those most likely to attend college. So, in the mid-60’s, you had a segment of a generation who’s values and world view were at least partially shaped by TV – and it’s creation of a “global village” – and who suddenly came together during a time and place (college) when we build the persona foundations we will inhabit for the rest of our lives. You had another segment of a generation that didn’t have this same exposure and who didn’t pursue a post-secondary education. The Vietnam War didn’t create the Counter-Cultural revolution. It just gave it a handy focal point that highlighted the ideological rift not only between two generations but also within the Baby Boomers themselves. At that point in history, part of our society turned right and part turned left.

Is the same thing happening with Millennials now? Certainly the worldview of at least the younger Millennials has been shaped through exposure to connected media. When polled, they inevitably have dramatically different opinions about things like religion, politics, science – well – pretty much everything. But even within the Millennial camp, their views often seem incoherent and confusing. Perhaps another intra-generational divide is forming. The fact is it’s probably too early to tell. These things take time to play out. But if it plays out like it did last time this happened, the impact will still be felt a half century from now.

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