Outside the Whale: Thumbs Up for Millennials

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Editor’s note: The author of this column is the longtime general manager of Canton Community Television, which produces The Student Station.

Before donating my older magazines to the “exchange” at the Foxboro library, I go through them to see if there’s anything I should read before letting it go. It’s a bad habit — flipping through something stale that you never got to when it was fresh — but I’ve learned with age to forgive my ineffectual routines.

TV production students film a CHS volleyball match for The Student Station.

TV production students film a CHS volleyball match for The Student Station.

Recently, though, I kept a magazine I intended to recycle and did read an old article. It was April’s Psychology Today and the article was titled “The Beat (Up) Generation.” It was about the “Millennials,” born between 1982 and 2004. It talks about their altered work ethic and how my generation — the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 — are “freaked out,” as we used to say back in the day, by this generation’s “work ethic.”

Millennials don’t necessarily see work as sitting all day in a cubicle that is flooded in florescent light while you wait to take orders from a gate keeper who got their position through some arbitrary hierarchal system. Rather, they have a much more linked-in attitude that doesn’t draw distinct lines between work and play but that integrates both, much as their mobile devices integrate all aspects of their lives.

I hadn’t thought much about that Psychology Today article until I went to Canton High School with fellow baby-boomer technician David Wells. Canton High’s video production class was slated to cover its first game of the television season for The Student Station, a girls’ volleyball match, and we were on our way to help.

The first game is usually the most difficult because the equipment has been sitting all summer in storage. But this game promised to be especially challenging. Video production teacher Mr. Ed McDonough had been bounced off the windshield of a car in a pedestrian accident the previous weekend. He was home and doing well, but his injuries would take some time to mend. Ernest St. Jean, who had taught this class at the studio before retiring, said he’d help by substituting. We were worried about Ed. Worried that we were all rusty. And worried how this night might go.

When we came to the studio, all the cameras and equipment were set up and ready to cover the game. The students had come to the gym early and positioned the equipment. Some of the set-up crew had left so they could go to other clubs and meetings that they were also obligated to attend this late afternoon. They had called for back-up on their phones (or is it “texted” for backup?) so that they could be replaced by a crew member who could seamlessly take their place.

They split their jobs, have interchangeable leadership roles, and, perhaps getting their values from the generosity of knowledge on the internet, they share their expertise with each other, creating greater flexibility for themselves — a value I wished my generation had developed when I was young. Back then, it was hard to learn new job skills because so many Baby Boomers protected what they knew. It was, as time later proved, a futile attempt at job security.

For Millennials, sharing information and skills is organic. If they need to know something they’ll Google it. They’ll watch a video on YouTube. They connect — to a machine or to each other. And then they’ll pass on what they’ve learned by making their own YouTube video and sharing it via the wide world of the internet with strangers whose only connection is that they have similar curiosities.

Millennials seem unafraid to leave what they know for something new that they don’t know. The Psychology Today article said Baby Boomers see this as the Millennials’ need to be quickly rewarded or they will give up and move on. But maybe my generation’s “stick-to-it-ive-ness” was really grounded in fear of leaving what we understood. What we could expect. What we considered ourselves “expert” in. Perhaps Millennials are not intimidated by the unknown because they have a smart phone, an internet, and contemporaries who can help them learn what they do not yet understand.

When the volleyball game was done and it was time to clean up, the student producers took command. This kind of confidence in leadership so young is disconcerting to my generation. We see it as arrogant. But I suspect too much confidence is better than too little. The world will quickly teach the over-assured where they have overstepped, and reality will rein them in fast enough. An overly confident person may bump up against the limits of his skills, but a timid person rarely steps out to meet his potential.

My generation was often dismissive of older people. “Never trust anyone over 30” was our mantra. But these kids are the “diversity” generation, with a trained attitude of accepting people regardless of how different they are from themselves. Elders may not get their automatic admiration, but we are not automatically disregarded either. We are asked to earn their respect, which may not be an awful philosophy.

We Baby Boomers gave literal birth to this generation — these “entitled” Millennials that Psychology Today says need constant praising and rapid rewards. But with their acumen around technology, their willingness to share information, and the interconnectivity that the technologies of the future will continue to bring, their combined knowledge and shared expertise may release a capacity never seen on the planet before. If we give them their chance in the world before we make an irreparable mess of it, these entitled, praise obsessed, “narcissistic,” overly confident Millennials might just be the most important contribution my generation has ever made.

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