Stop Spreading the Millennial Innovation Myth
Why the Mantra of Generational Innovation is a Strategic Mistake for Military Leaders
I blame Plato for most problems. Lately, however, I have a new frustration: Millennials. Actually, my issue is the narrative that links the generation with innovation.
Headlines tout Millennials, those born roughly between the years 1981 and 1996, as “Leading the Way” and “Catalysts for Innovation.” The message is clear: they are the “secret weapons for innovation.”
The same theme is present throughout the US military. It is repeated in blogs, it is repeated in official journals, and it is repeated by senior leaders. Recently, a number of senior US Air Force leaders have repeated it to me directly.
This needs to stop.
Coupling innovation and Millennials is a strategic misstep. The reason does not have anything to do with the accuracy of that claim. Whether they really are more innovative or not, the message that “only those younger than 40 have good ideas” undermines the very real need to nurture a culture of creative adaptation. Yes, Thomas Kuhn famously highlighted the role of youth in cultivating scientific revolutions. Yes, there is some consensus that it is not just the stage of life Millennials are in, but something characteristic of their generation. Yes, any discussion of nurturing innovation in the military must account for them. Yet, it must also account for the large percentage of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines born before the 1980s. Right now the narrative excuses them from the innovation game. This is wrong, and this is dangerous. Innovation is everyone’s playground.
In her work Mindset, psychologist Carol Dweck offers a useful distinction between two perspectives. The first mindset assumes traits, like creativity or imagination, are fixed. Efforts to develop a skill only reveal that one is not already endowed with it. In other words, in this “fixed mindset” the winner is determined by talent. The contrast is the optimistic belief that people can grow themselves through dedicated, deliberate practice. In other words, in the “growth mindset” the winner is determined by who works the hardest. Not only is this view more accurate — our abilities are incredibly malleable —but it is also incredibly helpful.
Automatically assigning Millennials the role of innovator in our organizations is a fixed mindset message. It implies their skills are innate. To paraphrase Dweck, their potential for innovation becomes a talent to be documented, not developed.
And then there is what really worries me. I am 40 years old. This narrative asks little of me, my peers, or anyone older than us. As a squadron commander at the school that teaches every US Air Force Captain, the “innovative Millennial” mantra simply asks me to get out of their way.
I want our leaders to ask more of me; to ask more of themselves. Organizations are innovative because they have the right attitude, not an age restriction.
Even Plato knew that.
 The first reference to the Greek philosopher is on page ix.
 There is no consensus on what defines the Millennial Generation. These years come from the Pew Research Center.
 For examples, see https://medium.com/@jasonmbro/the-militarys-much-needed-innovation-ecosystem-a717ec6bbfa0; https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2016/4/28/recruiting-the-best-the-american-military-and-the-millennial-generation; or https://permanent.access.gpo.gov/gpo72899/pub1279.pdf. There are also examples in papers written by students in Professional Military Education: http://dtlweb.au.af.mil/webclient/StreamGate?folder_id=0&dvs=1526566078709~65 and http://dtlweb.au.af.mil/webclient/StreamGate?folder_id=0&dvs=1526566503984~128.
Jason “TOGA” Trew, PhD, is a senior pilot and a graduate of the US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). His doctoral dissertation, “‘No One Comes Close’: The Technological Paradigm of US Airmen” offers an original analysis of USAF culture through the History of Technology field.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the position of the US Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force, or Air University.