[As part of an ongoing series, eJewish Philanthropy will be sharing thought-provoking articles written by Schusterman Fellows in an effort to offer a glimpse of leaders in our midst who are approaching work in the Jewish sector with inspiring levels of care, strategy and heart. You can read the framing piece here.]
By Liz Fisher
“Millennials. Please explain.” That was recently the Facebook status of a friend of mine, a 40-something woman who runs a business and has several new 20-something employees. The responses to her prompt ranged from silly to serious, but were primarily negative: “Ugh.” “I don’t understand them. At all.” Replace “millennial” with the name of any other racial, religious or ethnic group, and those responses would be horrifying.
Indeed, millennials – usually defined as those born between the early 1980’s and 2000’s – are a maligned generation. A recent article by Sophia A. McClennen, Director, Penn State Center for Global Studies, takes on what she calls “The Millennial Myth Mill.” Her overview of the “millennial myth” analyzes the responses to recent student-led movements on college campuses in order to highlight how disparaging other generations can be of the one now graduating college and moving up in the ranks of junior (and in some cases senior) leadership. She notes, “[S]tudent protesters have been described as overreacting, hysterical, entitled and coddled. They’ve been accused of lacking resilience, practicing intolerance and being unable to grasp reality.”
McClennen suggests that we could achieve a clearer perspective of today’s students if we shifted our focus away from false generalities and instead towards the complexity of the economic and civic realities they face.
The reality is shocking:
- By the age of 23, nearly half of black males and forty percent of white males have been arrested.
- One in five female students will be sexually assaulted in college.
- Forty percent of the nation’s unemployed are millennials.
- Seventy percent of college students have student debt – a per-student average of $29,000 that adds up to $1.2 trillion nationally.
- Hate crimes on campuses are on the rise, and over eleven percent of all hate crimes in 2009 took place on college campuses.
- About one-third of all college students are first generation college attendees.
It is common to read these kinds of statistics and assume that Jewish millennials are somehow exempt from adverse societal trends. However, young Jews are not excluded from the challenges of life described above. Rather, many Jewish college students and young adults face these very challenges every day, especially in cities like mine, New York, where twelve percent of Jewish families are people of color. In New York, twenty percent of Jewish households live in poverty and eleven percent of those don’t fall into any of the “predictable poor” groups such as the Orthodox, seniors or the unemployed. 25,000 Jews in my back yard live in poor, single-parent households.
In the workplace, too, the “millennial myth” and the stereotype of the coddled, entitled worker loom large. A recent IBM study confronted many of these perceptions, and included interviews with over 1,700 employees across generations that helped to illustrate commonalities and differences in the workplace. IBM’s findings shattered the image of the overly-ambitious, impatient worker in need of constant praise, finding instead that millennials respond very similarly to feedback as their co-workers of previous generations. They have similar career aspirations and want a manager who’s ethical, fair and transparent, versus one who praises their individual accomplishments. In addition, millennials don’t just job hop at-will but rather do so as a result of traditional motivators.
In the Jewish community, we too share “millennial myths.” Jewish communal organizations suffer from being simultaneously fascinated with and disrespectful of millennials. We are enormously invested in outreach initiatives to young adults because we understand that their engagement in the Jewish community is crucial to our collective future. We truly obsess over their involvement.
Yet, at the same time, the Jewish community has had the tendency to perpetuate the myth that millennials are inherently less equipped to ensure Jewish continuity. In our fretting over millennial engagement, we assume they are incapable of building and creating Jewish communities for themselves. With too few exceptions, Jewish communal conversations focus on: what can we do “for them”? How can “we” get “them” to join “our” institutions? Will “they” be Jewish? We have disparaged a generation for being unengaged and yet haven’t listened to them when they show us how they are engaged; we disparage them for being ungrateful and pay no attention as they work in their own ways to create change in the world around them.
Fortunately, I am happy to see this myth begin to dissolve. As a non-millennial, I am here to say that we must make a concerted effort to bring a sense of genuine curiosity, generosity and humility to our conversations about millennials. It is, as we’ve seen, surprisingly easy to paint them all with a harshly critical brush, even when we all know millennials who we would describe as committed, passionate, hardworking and, in many ways, selfless.
I’m proud that the Repair the World team, alongside organizational partners like Moishe House and Avodah, is empowering millennials to be leaders in our community. For example, this past MLK Jr. weekend, Repair supported hundreds of young adults – from Repair the World fellows, to “Turn the Table” dinner hosts, to volunteer project leaders – in engaging their peers in conversations about racial justice and participating in volunteer work in their local communities.
At Repair, I am privileged to work every day with professionals and lay leaders across the grassroots and the establishment who understand the power of partnering with young adults to co-create engaged, active communities. Indeed, through shared interests and common beliefs, young people are strengthening Jewish life and bringing their peers into the fold.
Confronted every day with prejudice and assumptions, with disparaging remarks and the dismissal of ideas, I’ve decided to put some energy into shifting the conversation. Let’s focus on the strengths of a new generation to confront the very real challenges of our time. Let’s treat millennials neither as our pet project nor as the thorn in our side. Instead, let’s begin a serious conversation about how to create truly multi-generational lay and professional groups working together, to create inspired Jewish community and change the world.