Free Food and Bean Bags: Why Simon Sinek is Wrong About Millennials

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. …. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company … and tyrannize their teachers.”  – Socrates, 469–399 B.C.

I recently received an email from a parent who had just watched a video that he had found thought-provoking and felt it might be worth sharing with the school. I watched Simon Sinek’s TV interview about Millennials and agreed that it raised several ideas that are worthy of serious consideration for parents and educators.

Sinek, who has produced one of the most popular TED Talks of all-time, seems to be an articulate, reflective and erudite individual, but his pronouncements on an entire generation are distasteful. “As a generation [they] … are accused of being entitled, narcissistic, self-interested, unfocused, lazy … they want free food and bean bags.” Cue shallow laughter. Here are some further highlights of what he has to say:

On Millennials and Parenting
They “grew up … subject to failed parenting strategies. They were told that they were special, all the time. They were told that they could have anything they want in life…. So you have an entire generation that’s growing up with lower self-esteem than previous generations.”

On Millennials and Technology
“We are growing up in a Facebook, Instagram world, which means we are good at putting filters on things. We are good at showing people that life is AMAZING even though I’m depressed…. What we are seeing is, too many kids don’t know how to form deep, meaningful relationships.”

On Millennials and Impatience
“Everything you want: instant gratification. Except job satisfaction and strength of relationships. There ain’t no app for that… The best case scenario is you will have an entire population going through life and just never really finding joy…. They’ll just waft through life.”

This damning indictment of an entire generation (and their parents) is so much different to the perspective originally advanced by Strauss and Howe on this subject. Their influential work popularized the idea that members of a particular age group share a distinct set of beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors. In 2000, they published Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. Here the authors asserted that Millennials are held to higher standards and are significantly less violent and coarse than the preceding generation. While such sweeping generational traits have frequently been dismissed as stereotypical, it has also long been recognized that each generation tends to be critical of the one that comes after it.

Despite the dystopian concerns of Sinek, Yalda Uhls, based on her extensive research at UCLA, offers a reassuring perspective: “I come bearing good news: Our teens are not growing into brain-dead zombies or emotionally stunted sociopaths. After more than a decade of research by child psychologists like me, we have discovered that the kids are alright.”

There are, nonetheless, aspects of what Sinek says that we certainly encounter in schools, but these are exceptions, not the norm, individual scenarios, not the story of an entire generation. Sinek also says some things that are absolutely valid:

On Balance
“There’s nothing wrong with social media and cell phones, it’s the imbalance.”

On Patience
“What this young generation needs to learn is patience. That some things that really matter, like love or job fulfilment, joy, love of life, self-confidence, a skillset, any of these things, all of these things take time.”

On Environment
“This amazing group of kids … who were just dealt a bad hand … through no fault of their own … and we put them in … environments that care more about the numbers than the kids.”

Today, I work with Generation Z, also known as the iGeneration. In my experience with these digital natives – if I am to apply Sinek’s flawed generalizations – I see a thoughtful, kind, and articulate group of young people. It is true that some suffer from a sense of personal entitlement, but many also demonstrate a profound awareness of the needs of others. These young people are deeply invested in technology, but predominantly as a means of connecting with friends, not as an indulgence in dark, delusional isolation. I see a tolerant group who are open to diversity, yet also, at times, surprisingly conservative in their views. They are entering a world of uncertainty and disharmony and will need to be creative, agile, and adaptive to a rapidly changing digital landscape. As a school, our job is to prepare this diverse generation for this world and to reassure their concerned parents that embracing this transformed landscape is our obligation, not a fear. We must help them to navigate this reality, not try to protect them from it.

Elizabeth Gilbert has articulated a very clear take on teens of the 21st century: “Today’s … teenagers are the most sensitive, least violent, least bullying, least racist, least homophobic, most globally-minded, most compassionate, most environmentally-conscious, least dogmatic, and overall kindest group of young people … ever known.”  Gilbert isn’t entirely right, anymore than Sinek is entirely wrong. We need to approach these issues in a calm, balanced, and informed way, without generalization or stereotyping.

I think Sinek’s points on balance, patience, and environment must be stressed again and again, both in homes and in schools. We should not make sweeping statements about an entire generation. We can describe the situational challenges a generation faces and the ways we need to support and empower them. For parents and educators, open communication is critical. For schools, embracing the digital landscape and empowering learners to use it wisely is an imperative, not an option. For parents, the core accountability is to behave as parents, not friends. As Uhls reminds us:

“Think about it—when your child learned how to walk, you stood near her, making sure she did not fall. When she started to cross the street on her own two feet, you held her hand. Eventually, you trusted a crossing guard to guide her, and finally you trusted your child to cross alone, and hoped she would look both ways. Similarly, as your child begins to actively navigate the digital world, you should be by her side, at least in the beginning.”

It’s all about human relationships and balance when all is said and done.

Notes
Simon Sinek. Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace
Neil Howe; William Strauss. Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. 2000.
MTV on The Founders http://time.com/4130679/millennials-mtv-generation/
Elizabeth Gilbert, “The Kids Are All Right.
Yalda Uhls. Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age. 2016.

Image credit @BryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery.