The term “Millennials” refers to the generation born after 1980. They are coming of age and entering the job market in the early years of the new millennium. Currently, a great many people seem to be channeling The Sound of Music and singing, “How do you solve a problem like Millennials?”
The Worrisome Trends
Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker, became a social media sensation last month when his video discussing the management Millennials in the workplace went viral. A new television comedy, The Great Indoors, spoofs the angst of Millennials in the workplace. In the days following the recent presidential election, I received at least six different emails from various college administrators giving me resources to support the fragile psyche of the Millennials I encounter on campus. Is there really such a high degree of psychological dysfunction in this generation?
As a college professor, I come in contact with hundreds of Millennials every day. Generally, my students are wonderful people and I thoroughly enjoy my interactions with them, both inside and outside the classroom. But I also see trends that are worrisome. For example, too many of my students measure their self-worth by their career success. They feel like failures if they are not climbing the career ladder like a rocket. And they expect to be promoted up that career ladder not necessarily based on their concrete performance but upon their emotional desire to advance.
The Cultural Messages
This is not surprising if you think about the cultural messages they received throughout their formative years. Everything they did was acknowledged and celebrated. Aging out of pre-school was rewarded with a cap and gown ceremony. Awards, regardless of their significance, were carefully logged and archived for the all-important resume.
I remember a back-to-school night when my youngest was in third grade. The teacher explained how she planned to teach spelling at various levels, depending on the academic abilities of the students. Several parents became hysterical when they realized that their child could earn a B because they were being given more challenging spelling words than a child who earned an A with easier words. That would be a blemish on their permanent record.
By the time these students reach high school, their extra-curricular activities have been carefully groomed to make sure they have the greatest impact on their college admission application. It is critical that they get into the right school to get the right degree to get the right job to achieve true happiness.
Why Are Millennials Not Happy?
And then they find themselves in college. Every semester after I post the final grades I prepare for the onslaught of emails asking me to bump up the grades. The pleas range from moving them from an A to an A+ to moving them from failing to passing. These requests are not made based on a discovered error in tabulating their scores but rather on the fact that they worked so hard they think they deserve some sort of recognition for their efforts. They are surprised to find out that results matter and effort does not necessarily get quantified and rewarded.
The shock continues when they get a job and find out they are just cogs in the corporate machinery. No one pats them on the back for showing up. The fact that they do their job is hardly noticed. They think they must be doing something wrong if they are not passionately in love with their job and feeling personal fulfillment. They have checked all the boxes. Why are they not happy?
Goals vs. God
The answer is rooted in the fact that human flourishing and joy comes from living life in accordance with the purpose for which God created us. That purpose has nothing to do with our salary or corporate achievements. Why did God make me? The simple answer is God made me to love Him, serve Him, and adore Him here on earth and abide with Him forever in Heaven. St. Augustine phrased it, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
The problem for Millennials is they are the first generation to grow up in a cultural environment where faith in God is expected to be purely private and hidden from public view. They have been erroneously taught that freedom of worship in private is fine, but the free exercise of religion in the public square is dangerous. They have been indoctrinated by academic institutions, the media, and, too often, their own parents that ethics must bend to accommodate personal goals and preferences.
There are no absolute moral truths. Adherence to religious doctrine and dogma is considered anti-intellectual and bigoted. Living life faithful to the will of God instead of single-mindedly pursuing personal worldly goals is a foreign concept.
Coming Out as Catholic
So how do we solve this problem of Millennial angst? The first thing we do is come out of the closet as Christians. I am a Christian. I am a Catholic. I am not afraid to pray before I eat in a restaurant. I am not afraid to say a Rosary as I commute on the Metro or as I wait in the doctor’s office. I am not ashamed to let people know that my weekend availability is subject to my being able to get to Mass.
Once my identity is so boldly proclaimed, I need to live my life in a way that befits such an identity. Do my actions convey kindness, empathy, compassion, humility, and justice? Do I treat everyone with dignity whether or not they respond in kind? Is my online presence one of civility and respect or do I insult and demean others?
We are called to be the Church Militant but that does not mean we are angry and combative. It means that we persistently live our faith and evangelize whether the world welcomes it or not. We stubbornly defend religious liberty. We speak on behalf of the vulnerable and the marginalized. When we are persecuted as “haters” and “bigots” because we speak the truth we do not seek vengeance but offer up our sufferings and respond with love and forgiveness. Most importantly, we reflect the light of Christ to a culture that has been darkened by sin
The Effects of Authentic Witness
Will this make a difference for the Millennials? Maybe. They have seen so little overt Christianity and very little of what they have seen has been joyful. Imagine the possible influence of a growing presence of people who lovingly and joyfully put faith over fortune. They might realize that ideological differences do not necessarily equate with hate and true diversity includes the diversity of thought. Perhaps this generation will see that aligning their lives with God’s plan for eternal joy is liberating, rather than oppressive. The path to true happiness does not depend on economic success, prestige, or a stellar resume.
It is time to take the words of Pope Francis to heart:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. (Evangelii Gaudium, 3)
The pursuit of such a cultural transformation is not only for the benefit of today’s Millennials but also for the benefit of every generation in every age to come.