The Millennial Generation Gap Game Show

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I was recently invited to speak to three separate groups of California employee benefit professionals, who were gathered at several events organized by Tom Sher and CSAC-EIA. Okay, I know that first sentence was a mouthful. But to simplify a little: these folks are service providers who try not to pull out their hair as they do their best to explain complicated insurance issues to various local boards, mayors, citizens, and me. Needless to say it's stressful, thankless work that most of the time will only get noticed during those moments when I's are being crossed and T's are being dotted. So, why the long setup? Well, as you might guess, government work like this is not a relaxing fit for our often unfairly maligned millennial generation — and with many of our government Obi-Wans edging toward retirement, it's looking like there may be a looming shortage of up-and-coming young Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias with the temperament and training to replace them. Who knew?

Well, Tom Sher and EIA know. So along with my usual keynote speech, this team asked if I could tackle the issue of this whole millennial generation gap that's springing up: the gulf between those of us who are old enough to remember seeing Star Wars in the movie theater during its original run — without having any idea who Luke's father was — versus those who grew up watching it on DVD, posting their own light saber battles on YouTube, and having nightmares about Jar Jar Binks.

Rather than do a lot of tedious research, I opted to dog-paddle by staging a generational quiz show right in the middle of my presentation. I asked a few people to come up on stage who were under 25, and a few people who were over 50. That way I had the extremes of the generational divide represented. And I had two sets of questions, one for each group.

Potsy, Fonzie, Chachi, Blotto, Tank, or Pinky Tuscadero
Potsy, Fonzie, Chachi, Blotto, Tank, or Pinky Tuscadero

The thing is, each of the questions was ridiculously simple — for half the people on stage. For the other half, they were ridiculously baffling. I've included a couple of examples: for the millennials, I asked them to identify which characters in the first slide were not actual characters from the TV show Happy Days. For the over-50s, I asked them to name the icons for a series of mobile phone apps. Which of those questions you find harder will reveal which group you're closer to. (Answers are at the end, if you're really flummoxed.)

A set of six different mobile app icons
A set of six different mobile app icons

There were a bunch more in that vein — I also stumped the Millennials with Pet Rocks and rotary phones, and asked the Over-50s to decode millennial expressions like "let's bounce," "ghosting," and "bae." And I have to say, it worked better than I ever could have imagined. It was jaw-dropping for each side to discover what the other side didn't know. If their faces came with closed captions, they would have read "Oh, c'mon — you didn't know THAT one?!" almost every time.

A happy family of pet rocks
A happy family of pet rocks

Fun and games aside, here's my key realization: One of the reasons our young workforce aren't gravitating toward government work is that they revile meaningless meetings, and they typically want to feel some sense of deeper purpose in what they're getting paid to show up for. A meaningful quest that's worth picking up their lightsaber for. And although music-savvy millennials might know who the Righteous Brothers are, and maybe even own one of their albums on vinyl (a shared cross-generational technology at last!), they've either lost or never even had "that lovin' feelin'" for the paralyzing pace and monotony that government jobs tend to offer.

This isn't based on stereotypes, by the way — it's partly based on my own millennial nephew, the one I asked to text me some research on this topic. Yeah, I didn't skip the homework after all — I just outsourced it. What we both surmised after a review of the digital Cliff's Notes is that unless government can adjust its pace and its willingness to modernize — and do it yesterday — an entire generation of great and important minds will respond by sending us a snarky link to an outdated YouTube video of some 16-year-old-girl posting a Vine or an Instagram that says, basically, "Hey government work, we're just not that into you." And then who will be left to battle the Death Star of strained resources and bureaucratic red tape as the baby boomers retire in droves? Help us, millennials — you're our only hope.

Yoda with light saber
Yoda with light saber

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(Quiz answers: "Blotto" and "Tank" were never on Happy Days, unless I missed that episode. App icons, top row: LinkedIn, Snapchat, Instagram. Bottom row: Vine, Pinterest, Tumblr.)