The Millennial Mindset and America's Productivity Crisis

Students Holding Question Mark

Running is painful, but as exercise routines go, it does have its lighter moments. I admit to getting a kick from the New Year’s resolution crowd that hits the trail every January after a year of doing little more than shuffling from the couch to the fridge and back.

Anyhow, a recent run inspired me to come up with three resolutions of my own. Actually, they’re not for me. I’m long past the point where self-improvement is even a remote possibility, as you can tell from my somewhat sadistic observations.

No, these resolutions are for you, or at least some of you. The good news is they’re nowhere near as taxing as getting up off the couch and moving around. You don’t even have to do anything, but rather stop doing some things the rest of us find incredibly annoying. Here they are:

1. Quit trying to deal with a certain generation as if they’re either special little snowflakes or entitled, narcissistic brats and start holding them accountable as unique individuals.

2. That said, those unique individuals need to quit doing such an effective job of living up to those Generation Me stereotypes, put on their big boy pants and get to work.

3. And their coddling parents should quit acting as if they had absolutely nothing to do with the demon spawn they raised and stop blaming gadgets, schools and society in general.

Let me come right to the point. There’s an enormous elephant in the room that nobody wants to see, and watching everyone dance around it like it isn’t there is getting pretty tedious, not to mention irritating.

The problem is that Millennials are not getting jobs or starting companies like their predecessors did. What are they doing? We’ll get to that in a minute, but suffice to say that America’s largest generation is not pulling its weight. And if we don’t start facing that reality and dealing with it, we’re all screwed.

Since the dawn of Web 2.0, the blogosphere and social media, Millennials have been branded as the entrepreneurial generation – a new breed of wunderkinds spearheading a movement that’s sweeping the globe. The hype and the sensational headlines have been overwhelming:

Millennials Are the True Entrepreneur Generation.” “Gen Y Grads More Likely to Launch Startups.” “Millennials Are Snubbing the Corporate World for Entrepreneurship.” “Why Millennials Could Be the Most Entrepreneurial Generation Ever.” “Gen Y Makes a Mark and Their Imprint is Entrepreneurship.” And so on.

But that turned out to be far more myth than reality. As I explain in my new book, Real Leaders Don’t Follow, Millennials have actually been the least entrepreneurial generation to hit the workforce in modern history, perhaps because they see entrepreneurship as a mindset that has nothing to do with actually starting a company. Unfortunately, wishful thinking does not lead to jobs or GDP.

Data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Census Bureau and Kauffman Foundation overwhelmingly show that Millennials are starting far fewer businesses than their predecessors. They’re the most unemployed, underemployed and indebted generation in America, by a wide margin. And they’re a big reason why the labor force participation rate is at its lowest point since 1977.

While it’s true that many Millennials are snubbing corporate America, they’re generally not starting companies but joining the growing ranks of the gig economy: doing a little of this and a little of that as self-employed solopreneurs. A recent report by MBO Partners says that Millennials make up 30% of all full-time independent workers.

Instead of climbing the corporate ladder and building their careers or starting companies and creating new jobs, they’re opting for the perceived freedom, flexibility and control of self-employment. That may sound like utopia for someone who doesn’t mind skating by and living hand-to-mouth, but as an economic trend, it spells disaster.

The problem is that driving an Uber cab, renting out a room on Airbnb or generating online content are not exactly high paying gigs or boons to the economy. That’s why self-employed Americans make up 17% of the working population but generate just 7% of the nation’s GDP, according to the MBO report.

We have an aging population of retiring boomers starting to take advantage of the entitlements they’ve paid into and been promised. At the same time, we have more and more people taking part in a laundry list of government social programs, from healthcare and food assistance to public housing and welfare.

If we don’t start treating Millennials – the largest demographic in our nation’s history – as individuals and hold them accountable for becoming productive members of society, how in the world are we going to increase productivity, return to robust growth, pay down our national debt, and fit the bill for all those entitlements?

When our largest generation is also our least productive, that’s a recipe for disaster. And while there is no magic solution to this vexing dilemma, those three resolutions are a pretty good start.