Millennials: winning over a generation badly let down

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” So said Socrates in the fifth century BC, clearly indicating that the idea of young people not living up to the standards of their forebears is nothing new.

Yet there seems to be something about the young today that drives older people crazy. They are the “snowflake generation”, which translates as a group irresponsible with money (choosing pricey avocados over prudent property), individuals willing to ban anyone who says anything that hurts their feelings, and a bunch of people who indulge in politically correct nonsense on campus instead of entering the real world and getting a job.

This is a view that is extremely popular with us old fogies who don’t quite manage to sneak into the “millennial” age bracket. Author and organisational consultant Simon Sinek speaks for many when he argues that external conditions – whether indulgent parenting and educational strategies or technological addiction – have produced a generation of people who simultaneously have an overinflated sense of self-worth and a lack of the patience required to achieve their goals.

But this argument is both patronising and wrong. While there’s no doubt that, like literally every generation before them, there are those among the millennial generation who hold wacky views, attempting to label all 11.3 million Britons who can lay claim to being millennials – including hundreds of thousands of hard-working managers, tradesmen, workers, and entrepreneurs – as work-shy snowflakes simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

Many business leaders, such as businessman, syndicated radio host, and author Dave Ramsey, see millennials as the best generation they have ever employed. More than a third of the IEA’s staff are millennials, and we engage with thousands of students and recent graduates each year – individuals who are mission-driven in a way that few previous generations have been. Engage a millennial with a mission, let them see that they’re making a difference, and you will not find a group of people more willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to help make your organisation a success.

This is, after all, a generation that’s been brought up with, and made use of, all the greatest benefits of our modern capitalist society. They take advantage of Netflix, Uber, and Amazon – companies which have radically disrupted their industries and created personalised experiences that previous generations could only have dreamt of.

Yet, despite their desire for tailored experiences and personal fulfilment in their own lives, politically their view seems to go in the opposite direction, as they overwhelming throw their support behind one-size-fits-all public bodies like the National Health Service and state-managed schools over healthcare reform and free schools. But why is this the case?

There are two main causes – and they are both the fault of older generations. The first is woefully bad information that younger people have received for years from schools, universities, the media, and politicians of all stripes. For example, polling shows that only five per cent of younger people in Britain and Europe believe the world has got better since the fall of the Berlin Wall, despite a three-quarter decline in world poverty, an increase in literacy rates of 22 per cent, and clean water access improving by 20 per cent.

The second reason is the extremely justifiable anger coursing through young people today due to the political choices of previous generations. They are the ones who will be picking up the tab for benefits they are unlikely to ever receive.

Indeed, one focus group of students overwhelmingly agreed that they were more likely to meet an alien than be in a position to draw a state pension when they reach retirement age. And thanks to the unfunded promises made to previous generations, they will be paying back trillions of pounds in debt and debt interest over the long term.

Housing is another area where the failure of statism has brought disastrous consequences. Here is a market that’s been deliberately broken by keeping the green belt sacrosanct rather than allowing the millions of homes that could be built if just a fraction of the land was made available – all to protect the property values and leafy suburbs of those who already own homes.

If we were to reform the planning system and allow the 3.7 per cent of green belt land within 800 yards of a train or tube station in London to be built on, that would free up enough land to build one million new homes. So while the answers to our problems are staring politicians in the face, they are simply ignored.

“Every generation has doubts about the ‘younger generation’” was the caption of a 1950s cartoon by American wartime cartoonist and Pulitzer prize winner Bill Maudlin, which he drew alongside an essay defending his own generation which would, in time, become known as the “Greatest Generation”, from claims that they were “surrendering their birthright of individual self-reliance for favors, voting themselves into Eden from a supposedly inexhaustible public purse, supporting everyone by soaking a fast disappearing rich, scrambling for subsidy, learning the arts of political logrolling and forgetting the rugged virtues of the pioneer”.

If we want to avoid millennials taking a similar route, it is time to address their reasonable and urgent concerns.

Written by Mark Littlewood

Mark Littlewood is Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs.