Erin Lane: Millennials are the new evangelicals

Organizations and churches that take millennials seriously, despite their flakey reputation, may find a second wind.

Millennials are the new evangelicals. They have become the media darlings -- and borderline obsession -- of thought leaders who pontificate on the future of American culture. Forget about well-fed baby-boomers Rick Warren and Jim Wallis, or even the worn-thin Generation-X polemic Mark Driscoll. The millennial generation, compromised of roughly those born after 1978, is begging for attention. And the businesses, non-profits and churches who take them seriously, despite their flakey reputation, may just find their second wind.

In classic millennial fashion, I traded my newly planted roots in North Carolina for a temporary job on the opposite coast, lured by the celebrity of Seattle. Although I’ve become untethered in daydreams of the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” -- set to the backdrop of the local ferries and iconic Space Needle -- this isn’t the fame that has me pink-cheeked and plucky. It’s working with noted author Parker J. Palmer and the Center for Courage & Renewal which he founded fifteen years ago. Through much needed conversations about “rejoining soul and role” in one’s personal and professional life, the organization is asking pivotal questions about how its programs will reach wide-eyed young adults like myself.

I realize that not all twenty-somethings would fawn so easily over a Quaker philosopher old enough to be their (albeit, spritely) grandfather. But Palmer's peach-tinged “Let Your Life Speak” proved most pivotal to my career. Before working as a publicist, I was washed in the anxiety of post-college graduation, contemplating whether to take a job as an event manager at my alma mater’s student union or continuing to loaf off my trust fund and new husband’s salary until I found work that, in the words of Palmer, “I couldn’t not do.” This sort of poetic meandering, unencumbered by the need for basic survival, is undoubtedly a privilege. Such reflective work may even look unfocused or uncommitted. Yet it’s a strength of a generation that is anything but apathetic about its future; it’s “overwhelmed,” says author Courtney E. Martin (start at minute 5:36).

Whether the new generation of wired-in whizzes is psychologically different than its predecessors is up for debate. Benjamin McNutt’s previous post highlighted a “New York Times Magazine” article entitled, “What is about 20-Somethings?” that explored Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s “emerging adulthood” hypothesis -- a developmental stage distinct to millennials. The research characterizes young adults like myself -- supposedly coddled and cuddled and given one-too-many trophies for participation -- as introspective, unstable, and idealistic.

Chief among the concerns of institutional leaders, to McNutt’s point, is our inability to commit. An organization like the Center for Courage & Renewal could easily dismiss our desire to sit “un-plugged” in weekend-long retreats on living an undivided life. After all, the stereotypical demographic of participants in these types of programs is meditative middle-aged women, not texting perma-teens.

Instead, the Center is doing what it does best -- listening. They don’t believe the one-way media megaphone that would paint all twenty-year olds as commitment-phobic Ph.D. students living with their parents (When I told one of my new roommates the Center wanted to help young people integrate who they are with what they do, he sarcastically quipped, “That’s just what Seattle needs. More overqualified young professionals working as baristas!”). Nevertheless, the Center wants to honor the deeply impassioned but often overwhelming commitment of many young adults to lead lives that matter, even if those lives take them backpacking through Europe for a year to find themselves.

Too often organizations disparage our idealism -- and courage to pursue rather unconventional and sometimes transient lives -- as immature impulses that will be corrected with time. But the entrepreneurial energy and integrated philosophy of millennials can be an absolute asset to institutions that often unquestioningly follow their unbending tradition for the sake of self-preservation. I don’t want to be preserved; I want to be ripened by the richness of creativity, imagination and risk.

A “Time” article published in 2007 on “What Gen Y Really Wants” profiled a company that found two-thirds of its employees left the business for similar opportunities elsewhere; they simply felt they couldn’t explore or evolve into new opportunities within the same-old structure. If institutional leaders are waiting for us to grow-up, have children and offer our static allegiance, they will miss out on the feverish energy we’re offering now to those who will take us seriously.

The takeaway here is if you give us your attention -- which requires that you really listen to, learn from and lead us -- then we will give you our commitment. As long as you’re not asking me for it at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night. Then I only have eyes for McDreamy and his sultry cohort of Seattle physicians.