Misunderstanding a Generation — Simon Sinek on Millennials

The Dangers of Generational Foresight

This is an excerpt from my book, The Foresight Guide, free online at ForesightGuide.com. The Guide intros the field of professional foresight, and offers a Big Picture view of our accelerating 21st century future.

Sinek, Millennials in the Workforce, A Generation of Weakness (YouTube, 13 min, 2017). It is easy to think like Sinek about millennials. Easy and wrong.

For an example of audience bias, generational stereotyping, and cause misattribution, see the 13min YouTube video Millennials in the Workforce: A Generation of Weakness, 2017 by the author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek. I’ve praised his work in Chapter 3, in Why & What vs. How, Who, Where & When, but here Sinek is guilty of offering a facile (tidy, superficial, and wrong) overgeneralization of millennials as a group, and of their future prospects for happiness. He also seriously misattributes the most likely causes of their unique attitudes as well.

By calling this generation quitters, unsatisfied, superficial, and depressed, saying they need more patience, and blaming their attitudes toward work on bad parenting, technology, and insensitive bosses, he crafts a narrative that plays well to older folks looking for easy explanations, and sells more books (audience bias) but which also avoids the real, uncomfortable issues that audiences are less interested in hearing. The real reasons most American kids are much less engaged with the work force than ever are far more complex and diverse than those he offers. Good foresight always starts with truth telling, regardless of what your audience wants to hear, and it also requires admitting when you’re wrong. Hopefully Sinek will do that in coming months. We shall see.

Read the feedback from many of the millennials themselves in the many YouTube comments (16,000 and counting) below Sinek’s video, and you’ll see them discuss some of the real issues they face, and the social conditions that have been primarily responsible for creating their current attitudes. Most fundamentally, those social conditions are inequality and plutocracy, and the problems it creates, including the lack of affordable and relevant education, the lack of good jobs that pay a living wage, ever-faster and increasingly involuntary job changes due to wealth-creating technological automation, and the fact, more obvious and extreme today than ever, that the vast majority of technology-created wealth flows to a tiny minority in our society, leaving the rest of society stagnant or declining in income and assets, and burdened with a political system that is more captured and less effective and representative than ever before. If anything, millennials today need less patience, and more outrage and activism to deal with the bleak economic and political situation they are presently being offered by the older generations, the sixty years of stagnant middle class prospects, and the slow erosion of the mid 20th century social contract, amid all this accelerating corporate and elite wealth.

It is easy to overgeneralize (stereotype), and craft self-serving stories with our generational foresight models. We love to imagine how different we are from our parents, and how different today’s children are from us. But within any culture, people from any two generations are typically far more similar than they are different, and within every generation there are always many subgroups by culture, ethnicity, wealth, class, education, other factors, which makes generational generalization very difficult. Those differences that do exist also typically have deep causes we don’t even think to consider. For an acerbic critical take on millennial foresight, see Joey DeVilla’s Why Millennials Suck (Okay, Not Really), (2013). As we’ll see in our section on sociocultural foresight, cultural differences are typically much stronger than generational differences, but even our cultural differences are subsiding as technology and globalization continue to accelerate. We are truly on track to becoming one digital supersociety.

Certainly some subset of highly privileged kids fit Sinek’s stereotypes. Perhaps he has seen a nonrepresentative sample of today’s youth, and that has led him to his overgeneralizations. He makes good points that today’s kids have far more technological options than ever, many sadly allow them to disengage from human interaction, some of those options are biased to addict them, and parents could do a much better job setting limits, and helping their children use their technologies in only empowering ways.

But the real problem Sinek ignores is that has become harder than ever to find a decent job, it is easier than ever to graduate deeply in debt and without useful skills or a self-motivated mindset, and many youth see no way out of our current elite-owned, antidemocratic plight. In the mid-20th century, democracy was far stronger, and it has become captured by powerful actors in the decades since. Technology, for all its promise, has been used more effectively to divide us than to unite us, and improve our commons.

In short, many aspects of our STEEPS environment are still going in the wrong direction, further impoverishing the middle and lower classes. The 1% and 5% are continuing to gain economic, political, and social power over the 99% and the 95%. Reversing that alarming megatrend requires activism, and the courage to talk the most about our most fundamental problems. We’ve tried to do that in the Guide, in our section on plutocracy in Chapter 1, in our sections on exponential activism in Chapter 2 and empowerment activism in Chapter 3, in our section on Inequality Cycles (Plutocratic-Democratic Pendulum) in Chapter 6, on lobby sims and basic income in Chapter 10, and wherever else it has seemed appropriate.

In a world of accelerating technical productivity, there is now so much wealth in our advanced industrial democracies that their citizens can be free to live as they wish, get a great and inexpensive education, get a growing social contract, a basic income just for being a citizen, and have lots of self- and social incentives to collaborate, innovate, and live healthier, more productive and fulfilling lives. The leading democracies, together, can also take ever more global responsibility for ending the corruption, violence, poverty, and overpopulation in emerging nations.

America can have a real republic again, in which the majority of people can say they are represented, where competition is fair, and where our rich and our corporations are kept by antitrust, taxes, and redistribution from getting richer and more powerful than our governments, a trend over the last sixty years that has allowed them to (temporarily) capture and disable them, to serve their own interests. All of this and much more is fully within our grasp today. We can see how it might happen. We just have to make it a priority.

Lessig, Our Democracy No Longer Represents the People (YouTube, 20 min)

Good foresighters must acknowledge that audiences often don’t want to hear this topic, as it is easy for any of us to get discouraged when we think about the scale and difficulty of the problem. For example, Larry Lessig’s great talk on political Tweedism, Our Democracy No Longer Represents the People. Here’s How We Fix It, has had only 400K views and 1K comments as of Aug 2017, nearly two years after publication. Meanwhile Sinek’s oversimplistic narrative already has 1.4M views and 16K comments, seven months after publication.

Lessig is even better known and much more credentialed than than Sinek, the two videos are of a similar length, and neither were likely to have been significantly promoted by their authors. Both videos assign “blame” to subgroups. Both have dramatic narratives. But the first offers a more complex blame model, and proposes a much more complex set of societal solutions and personal responsibilities. The second offers a much simpler model, and focuses too much on intergroup differences, a topic we love to think and talk about, but one that we almost always think too much about, relative to real differences, which are typically much smaller than we make them out to be.

See Chapter 4, on Emotional-Cognitive Biases, for more on this and other common biases. We usually prefer to talk about, and we tend to magnify, our small and always moderating social and biological differences, while the much bigger, and presently still growing comparative differences in our economic, political, and technological systems versus other countries, like Germany and Nordic democracies, or those of our parents, usually get much less attention than they deserve. The latter are of course harder to change, and require us to think abstractly, about the legal and cultural rulesets we are presently using versus other countries, or our parents, and the way our choices, conscious and unconscious, voluntary and coerced, around those rulesets have improved or worsened our societies.

Fortunately, there are also immense strategies for addressing the “immense problems” of plutocracy, exponential strategies like digital activism and personal sims, that are now emerging. The smarter our sims get the more evidence-based they’ll become, and our democratic conversations will increasingly go to both historical and comparative perspectives that we ignore today.

We can easily find examples of great rulesets from our past, and operating in many countries today, like the Nordic Democracies, Germany, Estonia, Australia, the UK, Korea, Japan, Singapore, and China that have led to vastly better social contracts, in large and small ways.

To see these, we have to be willing to go to the bigger picture, and make evidence and options our central discourses, and to really see how different technological, political, economic, social agreements lead us naturally to different outcomes. Many choices are always possible, and there are many predictable futures from today’s ruleset choices.

Australia’s Empowering Retirement Savings System (Superannuation Fund)

For example, Australia’s compulsory Superannuation retirement savings (and choice-based investment) system is far superior to America’s entirely voluntary 401(k) and alternative systems, which all result in ever-growing class inequality, growing government indebtedness to the plutocrats, and the vast majority of Americans “retiring” in a financially impoverished condition, rather than comfortably well-off, like working Australians. See Paul Secunda’s Our super system isn’t perfect, but for a failure, look to the US, TheConversation.com, 2015, for one good overview.

To understand why the US doesn’t have a better retirement savings system, we must see that it is not in the interests of the financial oligopoly or their captured legislators to present us with real choices or comparative rulesets for retirement savings in leading democracies around the world, or to make those real choices part of our democratic conversation, or to help us self-determine and periodically reassess those choices, as a republic.

That means we ourselves will have to collect that data, enumerate those real choices, and write our preferred rules in our nonprofits and our collaborative digital platforms, and then get increasingly active in making our society better, rule by rule. As Lessig points out, nothing is more fundamentally broken than the representativeness of our government, so that is the most important group of rulesets to fix over the next generation. As a nation of voters, we may or may not recognize this today, but I am convinced that our sims will get smart enough to present this evidence to us, and the obvious solutions we want to enact, in coming years. As we’ll discuss in Chapter 10, our sims are now already, and will always remain, the fastest learning aspects of ourselves. It won’t be long before they understand our interests and values, and are able to help us better organize, purchase, learn, lobby, and vote.

So we need to keep our priorities in order, and keep working with the best tools on the most important jobs. Telling false stories is just diverting us from the real problem, and Sinek needs a better education in American economic and political history, and our current plutocratic state of affairs.

John Smart is CEO of Foresight University and author of The Foresight Guide. You can find him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube.

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