Millennials to Boomers: We KNOW We’re Not Special

Some time ago, David McCullough, Jr wrote a commencement speech for Wellesley High School which, in my opinion, was a dirge and quite frankly inappropriate. Essentially, he told them that they were not special. There was an overlying assumption that millennials feel entitled and special. I didn’t blog it because I thought it was overdone and not at all an accurate depiction of how millennials see themselves. It was actually more of a depiction at how millennial parents see millennials.

Millennials don’t see themselves as special. They see themselves as people that everyone else THINKS sees themselves as entitled.

The truth is that millennials live very fearful lives. In a angry rant against the McCullough rant, Sierra over at the Phoenix and the Olive Branch has a lot to say about what millennials face:

We grew up accruing praise, but not self-esteem. We learned that praise was a parenting strategy, not a sincere reward for merit. We stopped listening when you told us we were smart, brave, beautiful and unique. “You have to say that because you’re our parents,” we told you. You agreed.

So we looked to our teachers to learn where we stood. They couldn’t tell us the truth, either. “Did I get an A because I really wrote an exceptional essay, or because my teacher was afraid to deal with my parents?” We learned to suspect the latter.

When our teachers couldn’t tell us, we looked to our bosses. They despised us: the pampered, electronic generation who doesn’t know the meaning of hard work. When we worked hard, they were surprised. But they cynically assumed we were only working hard to build our resumes. That 16-year-old who went on a humanitarian relief trip to Haiti? Just another yuppie trying to pad her Harvard application. What would it take to convince you that we really care? Even the things we do for fun – playing sports, joining a band, riding a horse, writing a story – you have made into a competition. You’ve taken our creativity and told us that it matters not because it fulfills us, but because we can sell it to a college and reap the returns on our “investment” decades from now. Every little thing we do must be harnessed for profit. And you wonder why we seem to have no spontaneity left.

You have done our work for us, then called us lazy.
You have threatened our teachers, then told us “just an A” isn’t good enough.
You have gotten our jobs for us, and called us underachievers.
You have recorded everything we do, like researchers breeding a better mouse.
You have made us trophy-seekers, then mocked us for our walls of worthless awards.
You have pitted us against each other in a fight for success, which has become survival.
You have given us a world in which even our college degrees are meaningless because there are just too many of us.
You have made us depend on you. When we followed your instructions – went to the best schools, got the best grades, took the most internships and did the most independent study projects, met the right people and got into the right grad schools and chosen the right majors – we’ve ended up stuck in your basement because nobody in your generation is willing to pay us a living wage.
Then you called us the “boomerang” generation that refuses to grow up. When did we have the chance?

Accurate! And I love a great rant, especially a justified one. Many millennials see me for spiritual direction. The thing I think they fear the most is screwing it all up. Many have trouble settling on a decision because they think they have to figure it all out tomorrow. Others fear a mistake they made in their younger years and think there’s no way they can ever be forgiven for that mistake. Others don’t realize the inability they had to be free to make a decision and hold themselves hostage to a life they need not live, knowing no way to change course. Others simply beat themselves up for mistakes or what they see as failure when they don’t meet exalted expectations.

When I hear of what some young people are going through, I’m frankly surprised that they are walking and talking, much less, doing well academically or finding a job.

Listen to more of Sierra here:

We learned something else along the way to becoming “special.” We learned that you depended on us. For validation. For certainty that you did everything right. If we did not succeed, it reflected badly on you. When you told us that you loved us and that we were smart, beautiful, creative, independent, and destined for greatness, what you implied was that we must be all of those things or that you would cease to love us. That our lives would cease to be worth anything. That we might as well die if we’re not the best.

The truth is that millennials are tired of being lied to. They want someone who will tell them the truth, not spin or fluff. They want to be challenged, not coddled. They want to live a life of meaning but also want to be able to make mistakes without fear of retribution. They want people who don’t have a vested interest in their success to actually care about THEIR goals and dreams and not make it some sort of prize for their own mantlepiece. They want the freedom to be able to discover who they are—so simply put they can become all they are called to become.

Considering I do a good deal of writing about millennials and am not one, I can see the backlash coming at me too–and perhaps deservedly so. These folks are not who we have molded into being. They are simply themselves.

One millennial who I direct, taught me much about direction with millennials in particular. They were frankly stuck in believing that their worth was dependent on how another might see them. I tried, with limited success, to get them to realize that this isn’t true. That God has already made them valuable simply by the gift of life itself. I mostly journeyed with them in their struggle, not trying to get them to see MY point of view but rather asking questions more about their image of God and their image of themselves.

It wasn’t until they were able to sit with much of these images in mind in silence at adoration that they realized how forgiven they already are and how loved they are by God, despite failure, despite the past, despite confusion. Once realized, self-worth came flooding the psyche and true healing and more importantly, true living could begin.

My lesson is that Christ is the one who awakens people to themselves, not me. I have the honor of walking people towards seeing Christ more clearly so that Christ can do the healing needed for people to become all that they are. My greatest gifts are often patience and listening for the gentle voice of God within these people, that I can point them to more directly–so that they hear that voice of God in their hearts.

In my new book Loving Work, I recommend trying to find out what you are passionate about and try to harness that passion into a drive for the lives, not necessarily their careers. Some are able to do this well. Others have no clue what they are even passionate about because they’ve never had the freedom to think about what life would be like outside the rat race. Most simply can’t yet hear or feel God’s stirring inside them because their lives are too cluttered with what everyone else thinks they should be doing. It blocks most of what can occur in developing a passion and also drives people into a desperation, where they take what they can get because often they have no other choice. We haven’t given them the luxury of a world where they can find their passion, instead we give them a world where they must find work, any work.

Even McCullough, in the midst of stabbing our supposedly inflated egos, urged us not to do anything that we didn’t love or feel passionate about. You know what? We don’t have that luxury. That idea is a relic of days gone by. We are not the generation that finds itself in creative abandon. We are not the generation that goes off in search of personal fulfillment and the satisfaction of a job well done, only to come back millionaires. We are the generation that takes whatever work we can get, that knows no matter how hard we try we might not succeed. We know our lot, and it’s not nearly as bright as yours. Woodstock? Ha. Like any of us could afford to take time off to lie around smoking and writing songs. Don’t accuse us of your ennui: we’re too busy trying to find a job.

A bit much here, one doesn’t need a Woodstock to discern where God is calling them. What one needs is silence in a world of noise. And that silence is often absent and frightening when they engage with it. Others have filled their lives thus far with the clutter of fake praise, empty promises and one more bad Taylor Swift song. They don’t know whose voice to trust and don’t have enough confidence to trust their own.

Millennials post-college now, more than ever, need mentors who will be patient, who will help them REFORM meaning in their lives, because they have often missed that step thanks to those wisdom figures (well, not really) who simply pushed them to believe not in their own specialness, but in the people that their generation hopes they will become.

It’s time for millennials to shirk off the promises that their parents and teachers offered to them and move into the challenge of becoming free. To engage in solitude with who they most wish to become and where mentors will wait with them, in their freedom to be mentors and to not make it all about the mentor-guru. Tony Robbins wannabes beware. It’s not about you. It’s about THEM.

Read the rest Sierra’s whole note. It’s quite something. And then, listen to some millennials in your life. And gently let them know that you’re there for them.

Join the Conversation


  1. What does the Church offer to millennials to help them in their lives? I have definitely seen individual members of the Church and some small groups within the Church offer some help, guidance, listening, compassion, etc, but what does the Church as a whole offer to millennials? Millennials have the odds stacked up against them in the world at the moment; is that the same in the Church? As a millennial, I feel like that answer is yes. Yet, I also feel that the Church could offer a lot to millennials, but it’s not very clear to know exactly what that would be from where I (we) stand.


  2. Well, that’s two opinions. Jean Twenge, social scientist, author of “The Narcissism Epidemic,” says research says otherwise.


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