Clinician's Digest


Therapists Answer the Millennial Question

March/April 2017


Simon Sinek reclines in a black leather chair around a small semicircle of mostly 20- and 30-somethings. “I have yet to give a speech or have a meeting where somebody doesn’t ask me the Millennial Question,” he tells Tom Bilyeu, host of the online talk show Inside Quest. Millennials, referring to young adults born in 1984 and afterward, he clarifies, confound their older workplace associates, who aren’t sure how to help this tough-to-manage generation function better. Millennials, he continues, “are accused of being entitled—and narcissistic, self-interested, unfocused, lazy. But entitled is the big one. They’re saying, ‘We want to work in a place with purpose; we want to make an impact’—whatever that means.” The camera pans around the room to nods, smiles, and a few chuckles from the audience. “‘We want free food,’” he continues, “‘and bean bags.’” More laughs.

Sinek knows a thing or two about generating buzz. Since his bestseller Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action hit bookshelves in 2009, followed shortly by a TED talk on the same subject—currently with more than 5.7 million views on YouTube—the 43-year-old motivational speaker and marketing consultant has spent the past eight years tapping into the public’s curiosity about what makes a great leader, a great workplace, and a well-rounded, happy life. And he’s struck gold. Since Start with Why, he’s authored two other bestsellers, several online courses, and even a children’s book, Better Together: The Little Book of Inspiration.

Few of Sinek’s endeavors have stirred up so much debate this quickly. A recording of the interview from Inside Quest made its way onto YouTube late last year and quickly went viral. Currently with more than 5.7 million views, it’s already matched Sinek’s acclaimed TED talk in popularity.

Sinek’s interview may have started with laughs, but the next 16 minutes are serious and impassioned. “Millennials are suffering, and it’s our fault,” he says. The audience and interviewer fall silent. Young adults are facing a mental health crisis of mammoth proportions, including a sharp uptick in suicide rates, school dropout rates, drug overdoses, and reports of depression, he warns. Research studies corroborate some of Sinek’s claims but not others. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the suicide rate rose incrementally but consistently between 2010 and 2015 for those between ages 20 and 34, from 13.9 to 15.5 suicides per 100,000 individuals. But when it comes to education, a higher percentage of today’s young adults are completing a bachelor’s degree than their predecessors, according to a March 2014 survey from Pew Research Center. Most studies find Millennials no more prone to illicit drug use than their older peers; however, in depression statistics, Millennials are leading the pack. A January 2017 Forbes piece by Sarah Landrum reported nearly 20 percent of Millennials say they’re depressed, compared to 16 percent of Boomers and Generation Xers.

There are four reasons for negative trends, Sinek argues: failed parenting strategies (“they were told they could have anything they want in life, just because they want it”), the addictiveness of technology and its effects on relationships (“they’re growing up in a Facebook/Instagram world . . . and deep, meaningful relationships aren’t there because they’re not practicing the required skill set”), impatience (“they’re used to instant gratification. . . . You want to watch a TV show? Binge!”), and workplaces that don’t cultivate qualities like cooperativeness, confidence, and patience (“we put them in corporate environments that care more about numbers than they do about the kids”).

While Sinek’s reflection criticizes Millennial behavior, it’s also compassionate toward these “wonderful, fantastic, idealistic, hardworking, smart” individuals who he says were simply dealt a bad hand. “The worst part about this is they think it’s them. They blame themselves. I’m here to tell them it’s not them,” Sinek says, shaking his head emphatically. “It’s the total lack of leadership in our world today.” The older generations, he continues, now have a duty to help this younger one “build their confidence, learn patience, learn the social skills,” and find a better life balance. “Quite frankly,” he adds, “it’s the right thing to do.” Audience members nod in approval.

But Sinek’s argument isn’t without its detractors, many of whom accuse him of generalizing and Millennial-bashing. In Benjamin Hardy’s January 30 article in Inc., fellow motivational speaker Richie Norton slams what he calls Sinek’s “Millennial Myth.” Millennials, Norton says, “are skilled with technology, determined, diverse, and more educated than any previous generation,” and according to an August Economist piece he cites, will often do as they’re told by managers, even when they don’t agree with them. Also in January, Cracked writer Mark Hill’s article, “This Millennial Rant Deserves a Trophy for Being Most Wrong,” accused Sinek of peddling pop psychology and ignoring the real causes of Millennial suffering, including rising healthcare, housing, and education costs. “Millennials aren’t stressed out because their Facebook posts aren’t getting enough likes,” he writes. “They’re stressed out because the economy is shaky and society’s reaction is ‘Stop texting so much and learn to love life, you self-centered kids!’” In response, Sinek told The Daily Mail in February that only “a very small minority” of Millennials had accused him of vilifying them. “If anything,” he explains, “I was coming to their defense.”

Of course, the notion that older generations view younger ones with a degree of confusion or contempt isn’t anything new. In the 1970s, writer Tom Wolfe and historian Christopher Lasch popularized the term “the Me Generation” in describing the younger Boomers. And even as far back as 1904, the American Psychological Association’s first president, Granville Stanley Hall, warned of a schism in the behavioral trajectories of adults and adolescents at the time. In his The Psychology of Adolescence, he wrote of a younger generation that displayed “a lessening sense for duty and discipline.” So does Sinek’s argument convey anything novel about Millennials per se? And is this young generation really on the brink of crisis?

“Nothing Sinek said felt foreign to me,” remarks Alexandra Solomon, a clinical psychologist and professor at Northwestern University, who says the video has made the rounds at her office. Working frequently with young adults dealing with relationship issues, Solomon agrees that Millennials’ desire for instant gratification can be problematic, and adds that they seem to find it much harder to tolerate uncertainty. “Doing seems much more important than just being for this generation,” she says. “Most of the Millennials I treat are stuck on a hamster wheel of needing to achieve in order to feel worth.”

Like Sinek, Solomon believes technology such as social media and dating apps—extremely convenient and addictive, she emphasizes—have contributed to the decline of meaningful relationships. She says many of her clients express frustration and exhaustion in their repeated, prolonged attempts to connect through a medium that doesn’t promote much human-to-human connection. Even when they do choose to meet in person, many of her 20-something clients scoff at the notion of sitting down for a full meal with a date, claiming just getting a quick drink will allow them to effectively evaluate a potential partner. “Millennials,” she explains, “often feel like their first judgment is the most accurate,” again noting the tendency toward instant gratification and impatience.

Solomon says that creating a space where Millennials can meditate on their perception of themselves is at the heart of her therapy work. More than others, “Millennials are flooded with messages from digital communication,” she explains. To start, she helps overwhelmed clients explore their relationship with the very devices flooding them. “What is your phone to you?” she asks. “What ways do you use your phone, and how often? What comes up for you, and what do you learn when you use it less?” Exercises like these, she says, “allow clients to finally hear themselves” in spite of the messages bombarding them, and recognize when they need to supplant digital relationships with real ones. “They learn to have patience for things like attraction to unfold,” she adds. “I tell them they may need an entire entrée—or four—to know whether the person in front of them is someone special.”

Eric Owens, a clinical psychologist and professor at Westchester University, agrees that technology is disproportionately hurting Millennials. “When your brain is still developing and your ego is still developing, and you see everyone else in a perfect world where they’re smiling and happy, and you don’t feel that way, it hurts.” But Owens adds that on the whole, the Millennials he works with aren’t unhappy or more entitled than previous generations. Nor are they on the verge of crisis. “These are characterizations,” he says. “For instance, much of what we interpret as bullheadedness or self-centeredness may actually just be Millennials focusing on their own goals.”

However, Owens says there’s some merit to the notion that helicopter parents have made it difficult for Millennials to transition easily to workplaces with older colleagues, suffering from what he calls “a disconnect between drive and the autonomy to make it work.” In these cases, he finds reality checking to be an effective intervention. “If a client gets passed over for a job or does poorly on a test and feels they deserved better, we’re going to talk about why they feel that way,” he says. “We’re going to see if their expectations are realistic, and if they are, what’s keeping them from reaching their goals. That’s a big part of the therapy process, whether we’re talking about work, romance, or family.”

According to psychotherapist Ron Taffel, author of Breaking Through to Teens: Psychotherapy for the New Adolescence, parents of Millennials lavished their children with praise, cultivating a sense of entitlement that he says some older generations can find “maddening.” But this praise, he adds, went hand in hand with an understandable, unrelenting push for them to succeed in school and extracurriculars. “These parents, scared about the increasing competitiveness of life, demanded way more from their kids’ futures than many previous generations,” he says. “The résumé-building began at a very early stage of development.” Taffel adds that while entitlement often carries a pejorative association, Millennials have a keen sense of social justice precisely because they were so highly praised, and because emotional intelligence and social justice are now emphasized in school. “These kids want to be spoken to respectfully,” he asserts. “They want to be treated fairly. They want to be paid well and take sick days when they need them. And they’re very motivated.” In contrast to Sinek’s view, he says, “I’ve rarely seen Millennials who, despite their vulnerability to disappointment, thought they didn’t have to work for something. We’ve just made them more open and able to articulate how their emotional world works.”

For therapists who are Millennials themselves, Sinek’s interview hits especially close to home. “Never before in history have we seen this level of visibility at such a pivotal point in young people’s identity development,” says Katherine Schafler, a 35 year-old clinical psychologist based in New York whose client base is mainly Millennials. “Forty years ago you might have gone to your high school reunion and done some self-aggrandizing, but you were showing off a highlight reel of the past decade. Now young adults have to explain what they’ve accomplished this week to a large network of people.”

Schafler, however, is quick to add that technology isn’t to blame for social disconnection, as Sinek claims. Rather, she argues, social media is just a different medium for relationship. “Think about when the radio was first invented,” she explains. “Families would gather around and listen, but they weren’t necessarily talking to each other. Quality time is about choosing to spend time with someone in whatever form and having a mutual understanding about what kind of interaction will take place.” Nonetheless, therapists need to help clients “take their emotional temperature” when using social media, Schafler says, so they can assess whether they’re really connecting with others.

The same self-reflection needs to be cultivated when it comes to reining in workplace aspirations, Schafler adds, referring to Sinek’s last two points. “Millennials often compare their beginning to someone else’s middle or end, stacking the deck against themselves emotionally,” she says. But the solution isn’t just a matter of telling them they shouldn’t compare themselves to other people. “My clients don’t really want a pep talk,” she continues. “They just want someone to be present who genuinely appreciates that they’re trying very hard to do something, and someone who can ask them questions they might not think to ask themselves: ‘Why are you doing this work? What’s so important about this to you? What’s going to happen when you get what you want? What’s going to happen if you don’t? What’s going to happen to the people who love you? To the people you love?’”

In short, Schafler says that while therapists may not have a Millennial crisis on their hands—not an irreversible one, anyway—the young adults she hears from need compassion and guidance. “These people are so young,” she says, “and they’re having to pick an identity so early in a decade that should be used to explore yourself. It’s sad to watch someone who’s 25 discover a passion but abandon it out of preemptive embarrassment over what other people may say or think. Each of us has a role to play in dismantling the myth of perfection.”

On January 4, after months of pushback as well as praise in response to his Inside Quest interview, a new video surfaced on Sinek’s YouTube channel. Viewers had wanted to know why his simple answer to the Millennial Question resonated so deeply with that generation. After all, how could a Gen-X, marketing consultant say with such authority that an entire generation different from his own needs help developing life skills? He didn’t conduct any research studies, no formal polls. But Sinek had traveled across the country, he recounts, meeting face to face with high schoolers, college students, and recent graduates where they lived and worked. He asked for their stories and found the answer came from them: they’re the ones calling for help. But Sinek emphasizes that this doesn’t let Millennials off the hook—they’ll still have to do the heavy lifting to learn how to build relationships and overcome challenges. “But,” he continues, “the way we treat them, the way we think about them, and the way we label them needs us to have a little more empathy.”




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