Simon Sinek Doesn’t Understand Millennials

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’ve seen another viral video about Millennials doing the rounds. This one features Simon Sinek, a 43 year old who has leveraged a BA in cultural anthropology into a lucrative writing, speaking, and consulting career. Sinek, like so many others, attempts to explain what’s wrong with Millennials. His theory is persuasively presented, but nonetheless makes a series of basic mistakes.

You can see why people would find this so compelling and shareable–Sinek always talks as if he were the very first person to think these things, and the crowd shots show lots of pensive people who look as if they’ve never heard these ideas before. But really Sinek is just invoking a series of tired, flawed arguments which are often made by other people (albeit in a flatter, less effective way). He lists four characteristics of Millennials which are ostensibly responsible for their condition:

  1. Parenting–by this he means the tendency of Boomer parents to tell their millennial children they are special.
  2. Technology–by this he means the tendency for Millennials to become addicted to the dopamine rush they receive when they get notifications on their phones and the tendency for technology to replace real relationships.
  3. Impatience–by this he means that Millennials are impatient, accustomed to instant gratification, and don’t want to invest sufficient time and effort into their relationships and their jobs.
  4. Environment–by this he means that corporations are failing to teach Millennials the life skills they didn’t learn earlier on.

His discussions of impatience and environment are heavily inflected by his discussion of technology–Sinek thinks that companies should help Millennials rely on technology less, and he thinks Millennials are impatient because technology accustoms them to instant gratification. So he doesn’t really have four distinctly different things–he has parenting and technology, and then he has two characteristics which are really applied cases of technology.

The core of his argument against technology is that it gives us an addictive string of gratifications which are not in themselves especially lastingly meaningful. Sinek goes on at length about how young people who are seeking outside approval from the world can get it from likes and from chat messages. But this is less new and less profound than it sounds–kids growing up before the internet got validated when their friends called them on the phone, or sent them letters, or hung out with them in person after school. Letters and phone conversations don’t occur in person, but that doesn’t mean the exchanges that happen on those media aren’t real, or can’t contribute to meaningful relationships. The internet also allows people who are far apart to communicate via Skype calls, which is arguably more intimate.

Every time anybody invents any new medium of communication, a moral panic ensues in which the older people who don’t use the new medium much accuse it of being “not real” in the same way that the old media was. Eventually these people die out, and their arguments die out with them. No one now condemns the landline phone, or sending letters. But people once did. In The Phaedrus, Socrates even opposes writing:

[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

This kind of argument has always been silly. If it weren’t for Plato, everything Socrates believed would have been lost to history. The problem here isn’t that Millennials love tech, it’s that the older people who hire them don’t understand how they relate to tech and make sweeping judgments based on very limited experience. As the brilliantly named blog “Hug the Robots” puts it:

The objections to boomer parenting have also been around a long time. Back in 2013, I wrote a post about another viral version of the same argument. It’s wrong now for the same reason it was wrong then. As I said in 2013:

This amounts to a cultural explanation of youth unhappiness. Cultural explanations are seductive–they rely on broad, general claims that can often sound very convincing. They’re also very hard to prove, and consequently, to disprove. We can all think of anecdotal cases that seem to fit the bill of this argument. It certainly sounds plausible.

On closer expectation, however, it’s deeply flawed. The piece fails to ask one seemingly very obvious question–why is it that parents in the 80’s and 90’s thought their children could do so well? These parents saw tremendous improvement in their living standards between when they were born in the 50’s and 60’s and when they began having children in the 80’s and 90’s. These parents rationally projected out into the future continued improvements in living standards and opportunity along the lines of what they themselves experienced. From the perspective of someone born in the 50’s and 60’s, it was entirely rational to expect the 10’s and the 20’s to be as much better than the 80’s and 90’s as the 80’s and 90’s were better than the 50’s and 60’s. Parents expected at the very least linear improvement in living standards.

And that is the elephant in the room–economics. The standard of living did not continue to rise at the rate it once did. Between 1984 and 1999, real median US household income rose by 18.8%. Between 1999 and 2012, it fell by 9%. In the last four years, it’s recovered a bit, but it’s still below 1999 levels:

A college degree is no longer a golden ticket. In 2014, 51% of college graduates were employed in jobs that did not require a college education. 60% of recent college grads were pursuing an advanced degree, or planned to do so in the next year. Millennials are stuck in an education arms race, competing harder and harder for a limited number of good jobs. We believe in the “knowledge economy” that education is essential, and it is. The trouble is that there just aren’t enough of those kinds of jobs for everyone to have one, and the more people try to get them, the more degree inflation there is, and the more years of school are necessary to stand out.

All of that education has a cost, and the students who lose out in the battle for the good jobs don’t just end up with bad jobs–they end up with a big pile of student debt to lock them into misery for years to come. As college gets more and more expensive, the pile of student debt gets bigger and fatter than ever:

It’s these structural impediments which make it much harder to be a Millennial in the workforce than it ever was to be a boomer. Everything is more competitive than ever before. Anyone who attempts to explain Millennial malaise from an entirely cultural standpoint, without engaging with the way the economic structure has fundamentally changed, necessarily provides an account that is at best incomplete and at worst deeply misleading. After all, if you wanted to distract a group of people from their economic problems, one really effective way to do it would be to blame culture instead. Blaming culture turns your success or failure into a matter of your ideas and attitude–it’s not the system that’s the problem, it’s you, and the way you were raised. But in reality there are lots of terrific Millennials out there, all with great college educations, ready and raring to go. It’s our economic system which has failed to put them to good use and leaves them to languish in permanent structural underemployment. At the individual level, nothing they do and nothing they believe will change those fundamental realities. The most a change of attitude could possibly do is allow some Millennials to take jobs that would have gone to some other Millennials, adding an attitude arms race on top of the degree arms race. That leaves the structural economic problem untouched. Worse, it turns Millennials into sycophants, constantly striving to impress their potential employers with how not stereotypically Millennial they are.

We don’t need more moral panics about technology. We don’t need more whingeing about parenting. We don’t need Ted talks about culture. We don’t need people who are economically comfortable telling us what’s wrong with our attitudes. We need good jobs, good wages, and economic growth. Give us economic security, and we’ll have the bandwidth to go get the rest of what we want out of life–with our phones at our sides, bright and gleaming.