What that viral video about ‘millennials’ gets wrong

Simon Sinek’s critique – that’s been viewed nearly 30 million times – is flawed and only really discusses a certain type of person

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Millenials Artical
Illustration Claire Lewis

Few terms have become more ubiquitous over the last few years than ‘millennial’, the (strangely annoying) catchall term used to describe a fairly sprawling generation, maybe aged between 18 and 34. Usually, this word is banned from the site, but for the purposes of this article we’ll use it. Plenty is written about us and provocative, conservative columnists like Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins depict an oversensitive, lost generation easily triggered by casual xenophobia, while others may dismiss us as perpetually-distracted narcissists too busy documenting our lives online to ever truly make a difference.

The latest critique of today’s generation comes courtesy of author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek. His speech, described as a video explaining why millennials are so difficult to work with, quickly went viral following its release in December, garnering over 26million views. His argument is simple: as millennials we are subject to ‘failed parenting strategies’ – we receive ‘participation medals’ from parents who tell us the sky is the limit, techniques which build a false sense of entitlement which ultimately comes crashing down as we reach adulthood and realise that life is, you know, hard.

When these false promises are compounded by our culture of instant gratification as well as the omnipresence of social media, they result in a generation of young professionals constantly dissatisfied by their progress at work. Some perhaps become unable to form meaningful relationships or find it difficutl to find joy in small achievements; our belief that ‘anything is possible’ comes crashing down, a crash to which Sinek attributes the rising rate of suicides and accidental overdoses currently hitting society hard.

It goes without saying that these arguments are wilfully blind to the intersectional trappings of race, class, gender and sexuality; after all, not all of us are born with parents that tell us we are ‘special’, nor do we all have the good fortune of being born into a family that can afford the smartphones to which we will later become addicted. Sinek’s tone, however, is revelatory of the way that cultural critics – few of whom are, ironically, millennials themselves – describe our generation.

“Not all of us are born with parents that tell us we are ‘special’, nor do we all have the good fortune of being born into a family that can afford the smartphones to which we will later become addicted”

It’s crucial to acknowledge that Sinek isn’t a staunch critic of today’s generation – he does acknowledge on various occasions that we’ve been dealt a bad hand. He does, however, seem to ignore the various benefits of social media when discussing how young people reach out to multiple people at once. In today’s world we can essentially build careers online, meet like-minded strangers and consume empowering messages that we may not get from mainstream media. Minorities in particular can use social media to find users that they can actually relate to – no longer do we have to settle for the role models automatically presented to us. Instead, we can seek out queer activists, trans people and fat-positive commentators to inspire us. It may seem a dull flame of hope but, for many of us, this element of self-recognition can literally save lives.

It was back in 2013 that TIME magazine launched the cover of an issue labelled Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation. Its tagline labelled the new generation as narcissistic and entitled – both of which are recurring characteristics attributed to millennials. It’s ironic in a sense – we’re deemed ‘entitled’ yet, in the United Kingdom at least, we’re entitled to far less than our parents ever were.

It seems almost utopian to believe that, once upon a time, higher education was seen as a right as opposed to a privilege. University fees were only introduced in 1998; in the 20 years since they have risen to astronomical proportions, meaning that higher education is now a luxury that few of us can afford. Increasing steadily alongside these fees are property prices; no longer is it a viable reality to be married with a mortgage by the age of 25 as statistics show that the average price of a UK house in 2016 is £198,564 – compared to around £70,000 in 2000.

The same can be said of rental prices, especially within London where a large part of employment opportunities are concentrated. Countless articles outline the city’s abysmal value for money, whereas landlords and tenants looking to rent out their room short-term often charge extortionate money for rooms barely larger than a cupboard under the stairs. In fact, sometimes they literally are advertising the cupboard under the stairs – for £500pm excluding bills, of course. The result is a rise in ‘hidden homelessness’ – those who couch-surf or sleep on the floors of relatives – as well as guardianship schemes and large warehouse shares, both of which can be easily impounded at short notice. No money is a pretty huge problem that most of us face – after all, the political tide within Europe and the world at large is slowly shifting to the far right, an ideology which notoriously favours the wealthy.

“No money is a pretty huge problem that most of us face – after all, the political tide within Europe and the world at large is slowly shifting to the far right, an ideology which notoriously favours the wealthy”

If these various factors can be said to aggravate the risk of mental illness, it is then fair to assume that the government recognises the problem and is prioritising its resources accordingly. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the case – last year it was announced that mental health funding had fallen, whereas a general lack of awareness and understanding means that those suffering from depression and anxiety are often refused therapy or medication due to rigid rules which require a firm diagnosis.

The same can be said of treatment of trans patients – theoretically, a rise in trans visibility should result in improved treatment within gender identity clinics. This, however, is often not the case – the onus falls on trans patients to ‘prove’ their gender identity before hormones are prescribed, whereas trans children are generally forbidden from autonomy over their own gender.

Ultimately, Sinek’s argument centres itself around a series of superficial critiques which completely ignore cultural and societal changes. We’re called entitled, but what are we actually entitled to? Comparatively, very little. We’re deemed oversensitive for standing up to discrimination yet, in the same breath, we’re described as too self-absorbed to ever truly make a difference. Policy-making decisions are left to the political elite – a group which, unsurprisingly, is hardly representative of the country’s diversity.

This looks unlikely to change; a combination of institutionalised discrimination and exorbitant fees means that minorities are faced with countless obstacles to real positions of power. The problem that Sinek outlines is with millennials in the workplace, yet his cursory analysis reveals that the real problem is that only certain millennials – the ones with the overprotective parents and the expensive technology – actually stand a chance at making it into the ‘corporate workplaces’ he describes. The problem is not the millennials themselves; instead, the blame lies within the power structures – race, gender, class – which mute the voices that don’t fit Sinek’s critique.

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