This is the situation now facing millions of Millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000. These kids have grown up in a consumer paradise of endless expansion. Pampered and groomed for a bigger, brighter future by parents who rarely say no and never mean it, they've never doubted that it's normal for each year to bring more than the one before: sharper images, faster connections, more memory, larger screens, tinier screens, new ways to communicate globally, and cheaper ways to get there. Millennials have never doubted the promise of the future nor their right to it.
Yet suddenly they're finding that hyperconnectivity means 24/7 exposure to global economic apocalypse. News reporters and pundits draw parallels with events that happened way back in black and white (the Great Depression), or even a little more recently in washed-out color (the oil shocks and stagflation of the 1970s). Most Millennials are way too young for the recession of the early 1990s to mean anything to them, and the dot-com crash of the early 2000s was nothing compared with this.
Only one year ago, we were heaping praise upon these plugged-in Millennials for their rabid self-confidence, their relaxed, assured expectations of their own success. We were a little thrown off by their demand for a more laid-back, good-time workplace (flip-flops and Facebook? In the office? Really?). Yet we were envious of their seeming ability to have everything, to prioritize the experience of life (“I really can't make that meeting, I've got yoga at 3”) ahead of work, or at least to blend the two into an entirely new ethic that seemed to be working for them. It was the way forward. Get used to it.
So what happens now that Easy Street is suddenly jammed with roadblocks? While some older folks recall how earlier economic downturns eventually ended, circling back to prosperous times again, many more are finding the “Great Financial Crisis of 2008” to be a lot bigger and more complex. So how do the Millennials figure out what it all means for them, as they witness huge government bailouts, and watch their future taxes being proffered to cover debts run up by the generation of people they are meant to be emulating?
Millennials are likely realizing that this is all just a taste of what's to come. Over the next decade, as they become the core of the workforce, growing numbers of Baby Boomers will enter their 70s and Gen-Xers will start entertaining hopes of retiring, setting the stage for a much larger population of older people needing financial and health care support.
How will these kids respond to the road ahead, and the prospect of their promised pot of gold turning into a pot of lead? In the past, a generation of young people might have left their troubles behind and gone seeking their fortune in the big city or unexplored frontier, but for Millennials, there's no escaping the burdens of bailout debts and aging generations.
Will the Millennials feel duped and walk away with their heads hanging? Not likely. Will they cling to any mediocre job that comes their way, just grateful for the steady paycheck? Doubtful. The more likely scenario is that they will rise to the challenge. Because of all they have been afforded in life, Millennials constantly push the envelope and don't take no for an answer. And for all of their apparent self-centeredness, they have an earnest streak. They want to make their world better, and they are more than happy to announce just how they'll do it.
Nothing proves that point more than the role of American young people in getting Barack Obama into the White House. Preliminary estimates show last week's election saw an increase of 2.2 million youth voters over 2004, which itself saw a major increase from 2000, the first year Millennials were eligible to go to the polls. But it's not just about the vote. These kids were actively engaging in dialogue and taking part in the campaign process in record numbers.
Businesses and government must open their dialogue and encourage discussion with these kinds of thinkers, because they may be where our solutions ultimately arise.
Marian Salzman is CMO of Porter Novelli