Simon Sinek is wrong about “Millennials”

Here’s why.

Jan 13, 2017 · 5 min read

My mum sent me the video of Simon Sinek talking about millennials that’s had 60-odd million views yesterday evening. I’m unconvinced. There’s already been a little written about his diagnosis but nothing that really gets to the heart of why he is wrong.

I’m part of that generation so I have my own emotional reasons to disagree with Sinek, but I thought I’d write more about what the data tells us about people born after 1984, and the structural economic and political conditions that have led to this point, and what that actually means for us.

The first thing to say is that there are roughly 1.6 billion people worldwide who fit into the post-84 generation. Are all of them addicted to social media? Are they all incapable of forming meaningful relationships? Looking for meaningful work with impact and “free food and beanbags” (as if those two demands are equally ridiculous)? Or is he really talking about the people around him — a privileged elite of well-educated, reasonably well-off city dwellers from the United States? I doubt a post-84 born worker in a Foxxconn factory in Shenzhen making iPhones has the same concerns as Sinek paints here, despite the global proliferation of communications technology and increasing incomes and education worldwide.

In fact his analysis of our impressions of the workplace, even when limited to Western workers, is wrong — despite the picture of mass dissatisfaction Sinek paints, the truth is about 86% of post-84 workers are happy in their jobs (according to studies by Fidelity Investments and by SHRM). This is only marginally lower than preceding generations and, regardless of previous results, a huge number — especially considering the dire warnings of Sinek’s that we are impossible to manage, entitled and ultimately dissastisfied with anything short of total perfection in employment.

In fact the real differentiators between post-84 and older workers is in their attitudes to learning — post-84 workers are far more interested in work-based education, career development training and clear advancement opportunities than older workers are (per SHRM). While post-84 workers are happy to take a huge pay cut to work in a place with some social purpose (apparently around $7k/year), their chief concerns in evaluating a job offer are still salary, medical benefits, paid time off, retirement benefits, and bonuses.

This is despite the fact that broader economic conditions are considerably worse for young people than anyone else in the economy across the West. Youth unemployment hit its worst rate in two decades in 2015, with young people three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population. Sinek doesn’t mention this.

He also doesn’t mention that wages have been near-stagnant compared to productivity for the best part of forty years, meaning young people are earning significantly less for their labour than previous generations. Our inheritance from Sinek’s and his parent’s generation has been a massive concentration of earnings in the top 1% of the population despite huge increases in individual productivity. Is it unfair or unrealistic in this case to expect more from work than we’re getting currently? I don’t think so, particularly.

At the same time as this income stagnation is occuring the things that matter most are becoming more expensive. In the US, medical care, university tuition costs and the cost of housing have increased well above the rate of general consumer inflation, hitting millennials hardest and shackling us to extraordinary debts for things that prior generations have been given for near-free. These structural debts act as claims by one generation on the income and wealth of the next — regardless of how well we do, prior generations with access to capital will always do better.

On the left, the rates of inflation for various goods since 1978 (CPI is the average for a range of goods). On the right, the rate of return on invested capital (like debt, factory ownership, art holdings, etc.) against growth in world productive output over the last millennia — basically if you own capital (like other people’s debts) you’re almost guaranteed to do better than everyone else.

The same theme, of substituting neat just-so stories for actual evidence or analysis, is true of the “participation trophy” meme. Sinek’s theory is that rewarding participation in sports through medals, trophies, rewards, whatever, invariably leads to a desire for instant gratification and an inability to understand the importance of coming first. Again, there’s strong evidence that the opposite is true; that rewarding effort and participation are significantly better for young people than rewarding success, making them more likely to work hard (and take on more difficult challenges) in future.

The idea that the self-esteem of young people is “shattered” when they realise that promotions and pay rises aren’t handed out like candy is laughable when compared to longitudinal evidence showing very little change in self-perceptions, self-esteem, individualism, hopelessness and happiness (among many others) between generations (meaning the youth of 1976 are roughly the same, mentally, as the youth of 1996). Again, the real differences are likely to the credit of the post-84 generation — they have higher aspirations for their education than previous generations and are less fearful of social problems.

Blaming social media and communications technology for the ills of a new generation isn’t a new thing. Blaming young people for broad social ills is also not new. The argument that we can link cellphones and dopamine, a phenomenally complex chemical that plays a role not only in habit-forming but also psychosis, movement, executive function, breastfeeding and Parkinson’s disease, and have the solution to these crises be to put your phone away, is so wrong as to almost be funny.

This is John Philip Sousa in 1906 on recorded music. What followed was a century of unparalleled mass-creativity and musical diversity.

Ultimately Sinek’s points are simple, homespun justifications for his own consultancy and lucrative speaking tours, telling bosses what they want to hear and helping older generations feel less guilty for having been willing participants in creating the structural conditions that are fucking over young people worldwide.

That won’t hit 60 million reads, though, because it isn’t confirming what people already believe.

If you paid me $100,000 for an hour of talking I’d tell you what you want to hear too


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Designer. Displaced Mancunian.