Millennials: Slackers or the next greatest generation?


“Fast Future: How the Millenial Generation is Shaping Our World,” by David Burstein, Beacon Press, 2013. Hardcover, 206 pages. $25.95. Available on electronic platforms and at local bookstores.

David Burstein has had a busy past and he sees a future coming faster than any of us can imagine, promising social and economic change of a fundamental nature.

Mr. Burstein, 24, a member of what is charitably called The Millennial Generation, has written his first book to explain what makes Millennials tick. He concludes that 80 million Millennials — the largest generation in the country’s history — have the tools and the commitment to manage our future path.

Fast Future is an apologia of sorts for Millennials, the 18- to 33-year-old demographic group who will be running things for the next 20 or 30 years. For we non-Millenials, his extraordinary perspective is also an opportunity to see what’s coming and why, regardless of our opinions of “these kids today.”

Millennials also have been defined less charitably as a classic “Me Generation,” composed of entitled, narcissistic, over-advantaged young ‘uns who can’t cut the mustard in the workplace or within other prevailing social conventions.

Mr. Burstein is a New York City native, raised in Connecticut, who caught the “What If …?” bug early and has been running with it since. “In high school, a bunch of us decided to produce a film festival in our community,” he said. “We used the Internet and other media and got 300 entries. A thousand people showed up for the festival. I was amazed at the power that an idea and the electronic tools can have to galvanize action.”

That led him to organize a nonprofit named Generation 18 and an award-winning documentary film, “18 in 08,” which produced 25,000 new Millennial voters for the 2008 presidential elections.

Mr. Burstein will chat with you about Millennials and our fast future at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven on August 13 at 7 pm.

We caught up with the peripatetic Mr. Burstein by phone in Chicago last Sunday morning. The 22-year seasonal Island resident shows up as a savvy and focused lightning rod for his generation.

“I wanted to write a book from the perspective of people in the [Millennial] generation from CEOs to inner city young people,” he said. “What makes them tick, what they believe. I wanted to provide a definitive guide to what Millennial people are actually thinking. The facts simply don’t support the image of selfish and entitled people. I’m optimistic and hopeful.”

Remember, the Protest Generation of the 60s had a lot of bad press. They were viewed as rock ‘n roll anti-establishment figures, and then they became the first “Me Generation.” GenXers and now Millennials have been called that also.

“So there’s always a lot of bad press. Naming generations is a fairly new idea but it’s always been a cycle — a large group of people being declaimed,” he said.

Mr. Burstein believes that electronic communication is a key to understanding his generation and to understand the power of those tools. “Twitter was talking about Millennials. Should the generation be named? Can you paint an entire generation with one brush? What is the right name?”

The key difference in this generation’s name is that it was not a label placed on it by others but by the generation itself. “The name was decided upon, collaboratively, over time,” Mr. Burstein said. “So I believe electronic media is a more unifying characteristic of the generation. About 95 percent have regular access to electronic media. The ability [to communicate electronically] is a ubiquitous tool that has never been available before.”

And the net effect, he says, is that electronic media “is pushing the power down. Young people can speak up and they are demanding transparency, products that are ethically sourced, democratizing things. That’s an incredible tool for young people who intuitively understand electronic media better than other groups. They were raised in it and know how to use it in the most powerful ways.”

An important characteristic of Millennials, according to Mr. Burstein, is a need to “redefine happiness. It’s interesting. It used to be that the way people lived their lives, going to college if they could, getting and keeping a job for life, marriage, house, car, kids – a long time accepted practice for living. You know, my grandmother, now in her 90s, was a Depression-era kid. She was a telephone operator for 50 years. She never stopped to examine that aspect of her life. The most important thing was insuring a paycheck.”

In contrast, Mr. Burstein said that his research and other published research finds a low home ownership index among Millennials. The generation expects to have 12 jobs in their lifetime. But he argues that Millennials “are not losing sight of the American dream but they are redefining it.

“In surveys, we see little response to the importance of home ownership but strong belief that living in a community they can rely on is important. We find that only 25 percent of respondents rate getting married as important but nearly all regard finding a true life partner as important.

“The single biggest question recruiters say they get from applicants is in regard to the company’s position on social issues: does it encourage volunteerism, what are its social justice programs? And these questions are producing change.

“The corporate and government structure isn’t attractive… Many report that they will take a lower-paying job that allows them to make social contributions.

“Is Dilbert [a popular comic strip lampooning corporate life] dead? Dilbert may not be dead but he’s on the way out.”

As he describes it, the Millennial view of the workplace is more horizontal and less vertical or hierarchical. And the fact that this is happening is affecting other generations who say “Gee, this is interesting how these people think,” Mr. Burstein said.

“Many people don’t understand the generation: the way we use technology, the way we sleep, romance, work. A lot of people say our generation is entitled and narcissistic. I believe strongly that it’s too early to assess.

“I’m not saying all these [positive generational characteristics] are true or that they’ll all work out, but the signs are there. I named the book ‘Fast Future’ because the rate of change is faster than we can imagine. Fast future is going to be the new operating system for the next 20 to 30 years.

“This is not about a generation but a new social order,” he concluded.

Author’s Talk with David Burstein, Tuesday, August 13, 7 pm, Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven. For more information, call 508-693-2291.