What’s the Matter with Kids Today?

Keynote speeches are usually an excellent time to catch up on email. The standard keynote contains one person, one wireless mike, a selection of surging music, and one Powerpoint presentation in too-small type—Topic: How You Can Be as Amazing as I Have Become.

I encountered Cam Marston as a keynote speaker at the 2018 Project Management Institute Global Conference. Marston’s speech was described as “Five Generations in the Workplace.” He managed to lift my head from my laptop, but not in a good way.

The presentation consisted of a barrage of anecdotes about Millennials, Gen X’ers, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation. The anecdotes were presented as insights into different behavior among generations; instead, they were a series of condescending descriptions of Millennials—them—delivered to a room largely full of Baby Boomers—us.

The presentation I heard is not available online, but you can see a representative sample of Marston in action here. He starts with an anecdote about his own son receiving an award for Best Little Brother. Marston then compares his son and his son’s generation to Audie Murphy, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1945 for valor during World War II. Apparently, everyone in that Generation won real awards, and then they didn’t talk about it. Because they were Silent.

Marston then says, “If you’re a Boomer,” —no one in his audience appears to be a Millennial—”then your background shows accomplishment over struggles, while the younger generations will have accomplishments but many fewer struggles.” Marston next anecdote comes with a pseudo-disclaimer, “I hesitate to mention these things because it sounds like I’m setting the rule based on a one-off experience….” After the one-off experience is recounted, he sets the rule.

Marston claims that he is presenting preferences that apply to ninety percent of each generation. Instead, he is presenting stereotypes of each generation, and presenting them in a light that is flattering to the older generations. This is a popular strategy for speakers who seek to be engaging. Taking the expected biases of the audience, articulating them as being supported by research, and then delivering them back to the audience as empirical truths.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman distinguishes two systems of thinking. System 1 is quick, nearly effortless, and operates with no sense of voluntary control. System 2 is effortful and is what we think of as ‘thinking’. System 2 is normally only invoked when System 1 cannot handle the world around us. One system is not innately better than the other. When you learn to drive, you are using System 2, and driving is a struggle. Eventually, driving skills are internalized and System 1 can manage driving, only handing off to System 2 in an emergency.

System 1 is the system that instantly assigns stereotypical behavior to a person based on perception of their age. Cam Marston is reinforcing something embedded in System 1 of many older people: Young people are worse than we are. The situation is not hopeless, though. Cam Marston aside, no one thinks every member of the Silent Generation matched up to Audie Murphy. Similarly, we need to think of each twenty-five-year old as a person first. That is work, lots of work. However, the Baby Boomers should be familiar with the effort.

“What’s the Matter with Kids Today?” is from the musical Bye Bye Birdie, which ran on Broadway for 607 performances. It came out in 1960, when the first boomers would have been fourteen.