CAN WE SAVE THE NEXT GENERATION?

Can We Save The Next Generation by Mike Sullivan, president of The Loomis Agency, the country's leading challenger brand advertising agency and the voice of the underdog

There is a wave coming. It threatens to crush us, no matter what business we’re in, be it advertising, marketing, media, or something else. And we don’t even know it’s coming.

Looking back, there have been warning signals blinking caution for years. But like the generation before us, we either failed to recognize the signs, or chose to ignore them altogether. The problem is loneliness and the effect it’s having on the generations coming up behind us.

For both Millennials (aka Gen Y) and Gen Z (current 18 to 22 year-olds), loneliness is epidemic and not for many of the reasons we might think, like cell phones and social media. Research studies are beginning to shine a light on the issue, but while that’s happening, it’s imperative that we, as business leaders, begin discussing the contributing role we’re playing. And more importantly, the role we can play in helping solve the problem.

THE TRUTH ABOUT GENERATION Z IS SOBERING.

Last week, collegiate educator Rachel Simmons wrote a piece for The Washington Post titled, “Why Are Young Adults The Loneliest Generation In America?” It is sad and it is eye-opening. It’s also a wake-up call for those of us who will be interviewing and hiring this generation beginning in June. Here are just some of the unnerving statistics from the article:

  • A new study from Cigna shows 18 to 22 year-olds are the loneliest generation in America, even more than our nation’s elderly.
  • According to UCLA’s 2015 Freshman Survey that included responses from 150,000 full-time students at more than 200 colleges and universities, over the past 10 years, the number of first-year students who spent 16 or more hours a week hanging out with friends fell by nearly half to 18 percent.
  • The same survey showed that 41 percent of students said they felt “overwhelmed by all I had to do” and logged the highest levels of unhappiness ever recorded among women.
  • The study found 69 percent of the age group felt the people around them were “not really with them” and 68 percent felt as if no one knew them well.
  • Simmons noted students told her that “everyone is working harder than I am” and “I can’t stop.”

“They prioritize activities that achieve goals, not meaningful connection,” she said. “I suspect this is because young adults are far less content to be than to do.”

As the president of a company that builds brands, creates engaging advertising and digital marketing content, plans and buys media, and creates music, these findings scare the Hell out of me. And not just for what it means for our company. As a dad with two kids in that demographic, I can’t help but wonder – have we prioritized the wrong things? Has our constant encouragement and want for this generation to have unlimited opportunity landed on their ears in a way we never intended? These statistics are for college kids, but I’ve seen the same and heard the same from young people here for the past decade and I’ve heard the same from other colleagues.

Digging a little deeper into the Cigna study:

  • Approximately 1 in 6 adults in the U.S. suffer from a mental health condition, and research has noted that mental health issues are one of the most rapidly increasing causes of long-term sick leave. When examining the different issues affecting people with mental health conditions, there is a consistent part of the pathology: they also suffer from loneliness.
  • Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.
  • Generation Z (ages 18-22) and Millennials (ages 23-37) are lonelier and claim to be in worse health than older generations.

Twenty year-olds are lonelier and in worse health than their parents or grandparents? I couldn’t imagine how that was even possible. But then it dawned on me. The answer lies at the feet of the single biggest issue I’ve dealt with as a leader for the past 20 years. Whether I was in a room full of presidents at a YPO event, a room full of C-level executives at the Stagen Leadership Academy, or talking with the youngest people on our staff here at LOOMIS, the one riddle we all struggle with is “how do I balance work and life?”

It’s not a new phenomenon. It’s just that the burden has now rolled far enough down the hill that college kids are starting to feel it. That’s something we need to help them address. But we’ll come back to that later. There’s a bigger, more pressing concern we need to talk about first.

LIKE IT OR NOT, THE FUTURE LIES IN HOW WE CHOOSE TO WORK WITH MILLENNIALS.

While Millennials seem to show many of the noted tendencies toward loneliness, as their employers (and frankly, the companies that need them), there are some very real things we need to figure out first. And fast.

This week, I saw a posting on LinkedIn about a new Millennial study that Deloitte just completed offering insight into what is attracting Millennials to the companies they work for and what is pushing them away. The title of the post was “Firms can’t buy millennial loyalty.” Here’s what it said:

A new study of Millennials in the workplace shows that the generational cohort’s loyalty to employers is deteriorating. The research, conducted by Deloitte, found that while money can attract talented Millennials, it doesn’t necessarily retain them. Factors like workplace diversity and flexible working arrangements are cited as ways to keep these workers loyal. The findings also suggest that Millennial views of employers’ ethics and motivations are eroding, with just under half believing that businesses behave ethically, a drop from 62% in 2017.

As with most posts about Millennials, this one elicited a few comments — 1,750 and counting last time I checked. And they were exactly what you would expect. Some tried to understand why these young employees are feeling the way they are. Some, mostly older corporate types, argued life was tough and these overindulged snowflakes needed to suck it up, get with the program, and work harder. To which one young director answered, “F*** you baby boomer scum!” Only he felt compelled to spell it right out.

Like many of the conversations in America today, this one about Millennials’ work habits and alternative views of how business could and should work has become uncivil and unproductive. But that doesn’t mean we should stop having it.

Of all the comments I read on the post, my favorite came from a woman in Digital Marketing and Technology, Solutions Engineering, and Consulting. She said, “So they want an employer that is ethical, has a diverse workplace and believes work life balance is a priority? I’m a Gen Xer and I want that, too!” I think we all want those things. But because we haven’t figured out how to have ALL of them, it seems indulgent when the generation just cutting their teeth wants the same thing right out of the gate.

I think it’s time we ask ourselves why that is.

OUR GREATEST PROMISE COMES NOT FROM WHAT WE KNOW, BUT FROM WHAT WE DON’T.

Older generations thinking younger generations “just don’t get it” is nothing new. But unlike the past few generations, Gen Y [KS1]  simply hasn’t gotten in lockstep with tradition and accepted that the way things have always been is the way they have to be. For better or worse, they value experiences over money. They don’t accumulate things like we did, preferring the flexibility to move, travel, and be nimble. They want to make their mark, want to make the world better, and don’t think they should have to wait until they’re 35 or 40 to make that happen. We criticize them for their brash views and unwillingness to work themselves into burnout (the way many of us did despite hating it ourselves). Yet in many organizations, Millennials continue to do just that, because “that’s how things are done.”

Unlike us, perhaps their greatest sin has been having the courage to raise their hands early and say, “There has to be a better way than this.” 60-hour a week treadmills can’t be the healthiest, most productive way to work, can it? When Millennials say it, it feels like petulant hubris. But privately, how many of us asked ourselves the exact same questions over and over and over? Through poor health. Through divorces. Through the loss of talented people we still lament losing from our staff.

As leaders, our greatest promise lies not in what is, but in what could be. None of us are going to turn the reins of our companies over to our youngest employees, or completely change the way we do things because they want to change the world. But what if we yoked ourselves to that infectious optimism and instead of working so hard to keep them grounded, mentored them and gave them the support they need to fly?

Simon Sinek once noted, “In weak companies, the dreamers are expected to serve the planners. In great companies, the planners feel inspired to serve the dreamers.” What if that was our new reality with the young people we work with?

In his great new book “The Culture Code,” Daniel Coyle says there are three skills every leader needs to build an extraordinary culture: 1) Building Safety, 2) Sharing Vulnerability and 3) Establishing Purpose. Can you think of any three things that a generation suffering from loneliness and overwhelm need more than that? Can you think of any three things that any of us need more than that? We have the ability to create that kind of culture in our own companies. Just imagine for a second, a place where we foster inclusion and diversity, and show empathy and genuine concern for the people we work with. A place where we’re transparent, open, and when necessary, apologetic. A place where we manage with purpose, live our values, lead by example and place ethics above all else. We have it in our power to create that kind of environment. And when we do, we won’t just attract these super talented kids who are determined to make us better. We’ll actually hang on to them.

IT’S TIME WE LISTENED TO THE VOICE OF THE UNDERDOG 

At LOOMIS, we specialize in helping challenger brands – those in second place, third place, seventh place — compete in a marketplace where they are vastly outgunned by bigger companies, bigger branding, and bigger budgets. It’s a landscape where big brands make the rules and underdogs are forced to find a way to survive and grow over time. To do that, they have to think differently, embrace the unconventional, question the status quo, and look at the world differently than those who hold the power. That’s how David beats Goliath. And how small companies with huge ideas find a way to disrupt everything we thought we knew.

Today…

The world’s fastest growing transportation company – Uber – doesn’t own a vehicle.

The world’s fastest growing hospitality company – Air B&B – doesn’t own a hotel.

The world’s fastest growing fitness company – Camp Gladiator – doesn’t own a gym.

Remember how challenger brands and disruptors compete against impossible odds? They think differently. Embrace the unconventional. Question the status quo. Look at the world differently than those who hold the power. Sounds a lot like the Millennials doesn’t it? How is it that we value these things in young companies but not in young people?

The problems with loneliness and overwhelm cited in the Cigna and UCLA studies at the beginning of this post are certainly worth our concern, but only if we’re resigned to accept them and not do anything to change them. I promise you, right now in your organization (and in mine), there are people of every age struggling with these very same issues. They don’t know how they’ll get it all done and because of that, they don’t see their families enough. They don’t exercise, eat right, or take time for themselves. Some of that is certainly personal accountability. But it may also be driven by a powerful desire to please those who manage them, or clients, or colleagues. At worst, it may happen out of fear for what happens if they ever slow down, or stop.

Regardless of the reason, there’s no reason we can’t be the generation of leaders who finally answers the question of balance. Not by solving it alone, but by being open to new ideas without expectation, or prejudice for where they come from. That’s challenger brand thinking. The kind that can change everything.

MIKE SULLIVAN is the president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog

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