Let’s talk about that video about millennials that’s been doing the rounds. If somehow you’ve managed to avoid it, its over here. It's a intoxicating mix of scientific inaccuracies, patronising condescension and some really stupid glasses.
Other people have already eloquently explained why it’s a load of crap. This Cracked article manages to debunk the pseudo-science, as well as get some top quality righteous fury in there from an actual millennial (they let us write things now and everything). The article also points out the most obvious thing for those of us blessed with bone-deep cynicism – that Simon Sinek’s proposed solution to his invented problem is a solution that earns him more money. Shocking, I know.*
Personally, I find someone using the word “millennial” to be a pretty solid indication of when someone isn’t worth listening to anymore. It’s usually followed up with some variation of this meme.
As people have pointed out, Sinek isn’t wrong to claim that his people group is the source of many of my generation’s problems.† But phone addiction pales in comparison to the economic, social and environmental catastrophe that’s been handed over to us due to the greed and hubris of people who look and sound a lot like Sinek.**
My interest, though, was caught by his mention of participation medals. This is a common idea – that my generation was rewarded extensively for the bare minimum whilst we were growing up. It’s one of the most common reasons I hear from people trying to explain my own generation to me.
I quite simply cannot understand where this has come from. Sure, when I was in primary school, even I got a medal for waddling over the finish line ten minutes after everyone else, but by the time I reached secondary school, you got rewarded for what you achieved. Your grades reflected the quality of your work – and trust me, as someone who managed to fail a lot of stuff, you do not get participation medals for your a-levels. You just get held back a year. On sports day, there were medals for 1st, 2nd and 3rd and bitter disappointment for everyone else. If anything, it was too brutally Darwinian – turning up and doing your best didn’t get you anything.
Do you know what was different? This thing called ‘diversity’ had started to take hold. The idea that a young person with additional needs wasn’t just stupid, but gifted in other ways. That someone in a wheelchair wasn’t just someone who wasn’t able to do things, but a person with their own skills, talents and gifts. That someone from another country didn’t just need to assimilate to became as white and British as possible, but had a culture worth celebrating.
I’m not accusing Sinek of being anti-diversity, but I have a hunch that the whole ‘participation medal’ thing might well have its root in a cultural clash. An older generation, whose response to diverse groups of people was a well-intentioned but ultimately deeply misguided paternalism, simply not being able to understand the idea of celebrating difference. I’ll stop short of one of my traditional rants about post-modernity, but there are serious differences between generations.
Of course, the actual upshot of this sort of thinking is pretty gross – patronising ‘help’ offered to people who have no need of help. But for a generation to whom this help is a laudable form of charity, rejecting it and celebrating people for who they are can look a lot like ‘participation medals’ being given out just for taking part.
In short, one of the major reasons that older generations criticise millennials is that we celebrate people for who they are, rather than castigating them for failing to live up to some imagined ideal. I happen to think this is one of our best traits, not a moral failing or a result of poor parenting. So thank you, Simon Sinek, for helping me understand my generation better – and I, for one, resolve to give out as many participation medals as possible.
Your glasses are still silly though.
*The New Statesman also had a go at debunking it.
† Middle-aged white men, know that I love you, and soon enough I will be one of you, but you’ve really got to cop your share of the blame here.
**Yes, technology has some scary implications. I don’t always love the way we use it. But compared to falling wages, rising house prices, global warming, high unemployment for under-30s, an NHS pushed to breaking point, and the return of fascism, its not really that big a deal. Also, the science he uses to talk about phones and social media is total nonsense. Seriously, go read that Cracked article.