In defense of Millennials – as if they needed defending

by Dan Cowling (dancowling@comgroup.com) 699 views 

I write this article from three perspectives: First, as someone who went to college in the 60s. Second, as someone who has dedicated his career to creative pursuits. Finally, as the owner of a marketing and public relations firm who is firmly entrenched in the changes that Millennials are bringing to the business world.

I have heard most of the standard complaints about Millennials. They’re undedicated, undependable, without focus, narcissistic, broke and even lazy. That doesn’t sound too nice, but hey not many were too crazy about my generation either.

We were derided with words like un-American, long hairs, freaks, dissidents, unmotivated, unfocused, unproductive, destructive etc. In fact, established America pretty much announced that the U.S. would be doomed under our leadership. Millennials, does that sound familiar?

We’re still here, and we’ve had a number of our group who have become leaders by not doing things the way they’ve always been done. One of those dissidents became president, broke the mold and even wore blue jeans in the oval office of all things. Heresy!

I’m betting that we’ll survive and thrive as Millennials make their mark. Will they fail at things? Of course, they will. Will they disrupt and change established conventions? I hope so. Sitting still and living on conventional wisdom without thinking outside the box is a formula for failure.

Throughout my career in a creative industry, I have often heard creative people maligned in similar ways: unreasonable, disagreeable, impractical, off-center, delusional and unstable (yep, we even recycle the same derogatory words from one generation or type of person to another). However, it’s this very type of “untypical” person that is able to think outside the box and go places with their imaginations that us methodical, structured, earth bound types simply can’t get to. In addition, people respond to creative work. They find it inspiring. They want to participate. They want to be a part of something dynamic that they on their own can’t create.

Moreover, they can be extremely successful. Think of Mark Zuckerberg on one end of the creative scale and Lady Gaga on the other, both millennials and both untypical. Both creatively outside the box. Both inspirational. I believe we have an entire generation of uniquely creative people that we’re trying to label negatively. By the way, labeling people is one of the things they hate.

A couple of years ago this thinking and respect for creative qualities led me to an epiphany about Millennials in our culture and our workplace. My company has always placed an emphasis on the idea that creativity is a valued asset for all employees, not only in the way my industry typically views creative – the ability to write, generate ideas, develop images and visuals, etc. – but also, in the way they think and the way they see the world around them. We even test for it during the interview process. I refer to it as creative curiosity.

The epiphany I had was this: Millennials think, act and live from a perspective of constant creative curiosity, and that perspective can help identify much needed change.

It’s the very thing that helps make them “unmanageable” (another label often used by employers).

Therein is their true value. They’re idea people. Always moving to the next experience. Always creating their own sense of success and fulfillment. Always thinking in non-traditional ways. They even have their own communications tools that they’ve helped create to capture the power of the internet.

Rather than criticize them, my intention is to grab hold of the reins and take the ride. By doing that I believe both my generation and theirs can be mutually beneficial.

To Millennials, I would offer only two observations, not advice. First, look at your Millennial idols. Regardless of their field, the truly successful ones face and deal with reality along with their creative ideas. Second, no matter how differently you see things, you will always need to provide food, shelter and water for yourself.

To business, I would say that it’s time to engage Millennial creative curiosity by engaging them in the creative process. Then, listen and value their ideas. It can lead to new ideas that help companies succeed in a rapidly changing world.

Millennials don’t need defending nearly as much as we need to engage the difference.

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Editor’s note: The author of this column is Dan Cowling, founder and president of The Communications Group, a Little Rock-based integrated marketing communications firm. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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