The Millenial myth: a personal history

In 1987, the UK was at the receiving end of a rare hurricane. I was 6 years old but remember it vividly. Hilariously and quite famously, the BBC weather report had suggested “light winds” the night before. The following morning, the nation awoke to widespread power cuts, upturned cars and shed roofs suspended in half fallen trees. So much for light winds. It’s always been grimly funny to me how British conservatism and stiff upper lip extends even to the realm of national crises.

The hurricane, aside from plunging the surrounding village / whole country into a Threads-like apocalypse (for about 24 hours), had a more direct impact on my family. The “light winds” resulted in a 50ft tree collapsing across the patio of our newly bought detached house in the leafy suburbs of Kent. We hadn’t moved in yet. Awkward conversations with the sellers on how to clear the mess up probably ensued. Highly inconvenient I’d imagine.

My parents were excited about the prospect of having a bigger house; each of their three kids getting their own bedroom, an en suite for them both and plenty of outside space. My dad worked in the City (I still don’t understand doing what other than vague finance, IT, sales etc) despite having nothing in the way of formalised qualifications. My mum stayed at home and looked after us. We were by no means affluent – just neatly comfortable, slightly nouveau-riche and with pretentions of being middle class. This was the tail end of Thatcher’s free economics dream and my working class parents were living it. They were very much typical of the “baby boomer” generation who we so often refer to. Easy access to credit, accelerated social ascendancy and rapidly expanding equity.

My mum was always one for creative solutions to hindrances. Rather than being massively annoyed that there was a tree covering the whole patio, she asked the tree surgeon (yeah) to cut up the trunk into reasonably thin discs. She then used these to decorate the garden, sort of like a wooden rockery. You can make a hell out of heaven or a heaven out of hell. Wise words those.

Tree cleared and a new gardening project for my mum underway, we moved in. It was a very 70s house: red brick, wooden panels, double glazing, sliding patio doors. I thought it was cool because it was surrounded by fields and woodland, and as an introverted sort it meant I had plenty of fuel for my imagination.

As a slightly – ahem – eccentric child, I was obsessed with C.S. Lewis and Narnia. My bedroom window looked out over the back garden. Behind that was a street lamp that stood in front of a thick wood (I called it a forest, it wasn’t). I’d sometimes sit inside my plywood cupboard reading The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe with a torch. Being a ‘curious’ kid, I wasn’t allowed a candle for obvious reasons, much to my pithy annoyance. After an hour or so of reading, I’d creep out to look at the street lamp, hoping that a mythical creature (a fawn, a centaur) would be there to ferry me away into adventure. What a self important six year old I was. I once saw an old man there staring into through the bedroom window at me. Not creepy at all. Honest.

We settled in nicely to our new house. We had neighbours from London which, even as a six old, strengthened the magnetic pull of the city. They were outgoing, hard-working and in my mind really cosmopolitan. My aspirations were set. My dad works in London, I want to live there. How’s that for Oedipal competitiveness?

My mum and dad seemed to be doing pretty well. We cycled through what seemed like an endless parade of cars. My dad’s job was seemingly going alright. He took my mum to a black tie ball in the city. My mum wore a Laura Ashley dress. Black Monday came and went. We were unscathed. “What’s a recession dad?”

We got two dogs. Two cats. I had a catfish called Albert (as in Finney – I know right?). I had a jar of stick insects (they escaped and hunted me – I now have a phobia). My older brother and I would wake up early on Saturdays to build forts out of the living room furniture. My younger brother became louder and funnier. I developed an addiction to custard cream biscuits, sneaking downstairs at 6am on a Saturday and devouring a whole pack. I learned how to bake and routinely destroyed the kitchen. Fun times. Innocence.

Something started to feel awry a couple of years after we moved into the house. It was family tradition to watch Clive James’ review of the year on New Years Eve even though I probably didn’t have the depth of knowledge to understand why it was so funny. The invisible world of adulthood began to materialise. Between his sarcastic dismantling of global leaders and intellectual quips, I picked up on an ongoing dysphoria. Politics, war, economics, disease: these things were funny, but only because to not think that would be terrible. For reasons unknown, I found Yasser Arafat hilarious. Don’t get me started on Boris Yeltsin. I said I was eccentric, most kids laugh at cartoons.

Eccentricities aside, I was also a sensitive kid: noticed everything, missed nothing. I started to see the wider world through a slightly neurotic lens at the age of 8; it’s politics, it’s conflicts, it’s uncaringness towards the individual. These are things we all struggle with: awareness of our own insignificance yet addicted to our own self-importance. As adults, this is a lens that I think we are all trying to smash.

Of all the subject matters that I was blissfully unaware of as a child, money was the biggest elephant in the room for my parents. I understand this now as an adult. Whether we like it our not, the construction of individual financial security is symbolic of our perceived “worth”. We don’t tell other people our salary unless we’re trying to sound impressive, we don’t tell our friends we had to borrow money because that means we’ve failed. It’s the dark essential heart of our species; a relentless source of shame driven behaviour with both positive and negative consequences.

In 1990 the outside world intruded as unceremoniously as the hurricane did. There was little warning – I read now that despite financial contraction since 1987 in the US, Asia and Europe, the U.K. faired better. It was a delayed but sustained collapse for us, not least my family.

My dad came home from work one night and my brothers and I were put to bed early. My parents were up to something, I could sense it, so I put my ear to the floor and listened hard. Something about losing a job, some other stuff about the house, another thing about not going on holiday that year. Admittedly not catastrophic outcomes, but enough of a prick to my childhood bubble of nonchalance. My dad reassured my mum that he’d get something else. He had great experience and would surely find something somewhere. Reassured by what my dad had said, I went to sleep. I missed nothing.

Unfortunately for my poor dad and the other 3 million unemployed in the UK, it wasn’t that simple. The financial world had changed, his competitors had also had to swing the axe and unemployment by 1991 was at a record high. Computer technology was improving efficiency in the industry whilst businesses fought to save costs wherever they could. Like many people in that sector, my dad was at the receiving end of this perfect storm. House prices stagnated, we couldn’t sell, we remortgaged, we borrowed and borrowed whilst my parents tried their very best to maintain the life we had with a rapidly dwindling severance package. Holidays, custard creams and trips into London were received gratefully but heavily, all shamelessly presided over by the spectral bank manager.

In the wider world, Thatcher was out, Major was in and the party line was around recovery, what the government was doing to stem the crisis and that their approach was definitely working (sound familiar?). I think I liked the colour blue and disliked Neil Kinnock’s face so I was pro-conservative in the 1992 election. I’m still hugely regretful about that which is very very English of me. I was only 10.

The economy started to recover throughout the 90s, we moved out of recession and into the Blair years. My dad eventually found work, but the damage was done. It was an impossible situation for him to be in, and it changed all of us. My parents could never get back into financial safety. The debts my parents had to accumulate to pay for us to live never loosened their grip. Not until tragedy anyway. Not quite the stereotypical baby boomers anymore.

If there is any kind of reward for watching your parents struggle in a vastly different world to the one they understood, it’s empathy. It’s also responsible for a steely determination to not be seduced by excuse making and to take full accountability for your own decisions wherever possible.

But what does any of this have to do with Millenials?

I have a huge issue with “Millenials”. Not as individuals, but as a firebrand for anyone who came of age post the Internet and prior to the financial crisis of 2009. I also have issues with the other generations X & Y and the baby boomers. As someone born in 1981 I’m technically Generation Y, but my values are anything but.

The danger of making generalisations about generations is that it negates nuance. It removes our individual stories and strips context away from our own deeply personal experiences. It colours everyone with the same brush regardless of social, economic and political references. Is a 23 year old in Warsaw as much of a Millenial as a 20 year old Californian? Is a social media active 40 year old really Generation X? Was David Bowie really a baby boomer? Are these just convenient terms to divide and conquer? Mods and rockers, hippies and punks, goths and yuppies? Does my mum really share the same values as Cherie Blair or Margaret Thatcher? Do either of those women even share the same values as each other?

Take a randomised sample of 100 20–30 year olds working in say London, San Francisco, Rome, Munich or Athens. What do they really have in common? For every person who’s parents lovingly bought them a house with the equity released from careful financial planning, you will find the exact opposite. You will find someone sharing a bed with a friend because rent is too expensive for even a private room. You’ll find someone working 3 jobs to afford to pay for their child to be clothed, fed and housed. You’ll find a truculent Twitter addict with a penchant for selfies who thinks eating their lunch from a Starbucks container is equivalent to “slumming it”. You’ll find a conflict survivor who has fought tooth and nail to be accepted because of their slightly unusual accent and religious convictions. I have met all of these people.

If you then shift that age bracket up by 10 years, and even another 10 years, you’ll find different stories but that’s about the extent of the commonality.

Generational stereotypes are a salinisation of individuality leveraged by an innate need for humans to find order, even when it doesn’t exist. They’re a conspiracy theory dreamt up from privilege on the assumption that we all experience the world in the same way, providing we share the same collective history. If someone is over expectant then they’re probably a baby boomer or a millenial. If someone is a reliable work horse, grateful to have a job then most likely Gen X. Who knows what Gen Y even means in real terms?

Supposedly these categories are useful because it they instruct us on the most appropriate management styles and hiring approaches in work settings. Isn’t that just a cop out though? A convenient truncation? Why not go for a beer, coffee or tequila and actually understand the individual’s story? It’s unlikely to be the same as the next persons. Our value is in our uniqueness.

I thankfully out-grew Narnia, custard creams and my Conservatism. I now work in HR and Recruitment: my job is essentially facilitating careers. I’ve recruited across a wide range of industries and levels, from 16 year old shop assistants up to 50 year old board level directors. Of course, the needs for each are different and the type of experience varies hugely from role to role. I’ve interviewed enough VPs in crisp blue shirts to be certain that those guys wouldn’t know how to style an outfit. I’ve interviewed enough store assistants to know that perhaps they’re not the best candidates to integrate a global business. But I could be wrong. I’m happy to be wrong in fact.

What I do know for certain is that stereotypes are dangerous, even if they are the scent of a subtle truth. By assuming that everyone born between a pre-prescribed set of years is likely to have a certain set of attributes is about as disastrous as managing or hiring by horoscope (IMAGINE “This company really needs some more Scorpios!”). It admonishes our accountability and withers our belief that we are unique, important and useful. It violates our worth. The qualities I look for in candidates from any generation, for any role, in any industry are generation agnostic: Honesty. Integrity. Empathy. The rest you can teach.

In hiring, buying into generational stereotypes are, at the very best, lazy and counterproductive. I interview and hire 23 year olds on an almost daily basis, and they are no more expectant than the 30, 40, 50 or 60-somethings I also interview. Atleast not the ones we hire. Labelling has always been a dangerous method. Managers will sometimes say “typical millenial” or “that’s so true of all baby boomers” when critiquing their candidates or direct reports. What they really mean is “I haven’t got to know them, so I’m now relying on the preconceived beliefs of others in order to assess them”. A clearly disconnecting way to work and a great saboteur of relationships.

I do concede that my own experience may not be completely typical, but I would argue that that is absolutely the point. My parents are certainly not unique in their human experience of having to adapt and change to their environment. The world changes rapidly around us and very few don’t move with it. My families own ineligibility to fit into the rigid confines of 21st century sociology and new age business definitions is as slippery as anyone else’s story. We all struggle in our own way but we all cope in our own way. Our own way. An individual experience.

“Life is a vale of soul-making” said Keats in 1819 at the tender age of 23. He was born just before the turn of the 19th century.

Lack of internet aside, he sounds suspiciously too worldly and wise for a Millenial. Is that what he was?

Stefanie Williams talia jane Catherine Lam