Millennials: The new American dreamers

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  • Average student loan debt is now more than $26,000
  • Millennials will reach success, 'with the economy as their battle, technology as their arsenal, and innovation as their rallying cry'
Millennials: The new American dreamers
Nick Shore headshot

Editor’s note: Nick Shore is the Senior Vice President of MTV Insights and Innovations.

“We are reinventing the American Dream. We haven’t had that opportunity in 100 years”, Philip Lauri, Creative Director of Detroit Lives!, interviewed as part of the new Generation Innovation study from MTV Research

Here in the MTV Strategic Insights team, we have carefully tracked how today’s young generation - raised with much engaged parenting and education, goal-orientation and self-esteem - is reacting to graduating into a world where they hold an average of $26,000 of college debt and face double-digit unemployment levels.

In a recent MTV study entitled “Generation Innovation,” we set off to look at the resiliency of a Millennial generation that is pushing back against a system in need of repair… whether the economy, the environment, the education system and more.

What we found was counter to the often-charged caricature of today’s youth as “entitled” and “coddled.” Instead, we found a vibrant and strong fixer/maker/builder culture where nearly 3 in 4 Millennials believe “our generation is starting a movement to change old, outdated systems.” Put more broadly, if the American Dream isn't working as promised, Millennials will take it upon themselves to create the next “version” of America.

The heady mix of forces driving this generation is only partly due to their sense of needing to fix something broken. The other, even more potent, side of the coin is the primacy they place on their own power of creativity. When asked "what word best defines the DNA of your generation?” the number one response was "Creative" and number two “Self-expressive.” A full 70% of Millennials in the study agreed "Creativity will save us!”

One of the first places we checked on our journey was Detroit. We were fascinated by the dynamics at work with a younger generation busy appropriating, fixing and remixing the American Dream – transforming abandoned factories into hack spaces, disused cycle tracks into playgrounds, distressed storefronts into galleries for emerging artists and untangling arcane local government departments.

Millennials have the motivation and DNA to run wild with innovation, but they also have access to the tools, technologies and platforms to make a real difference. In fact, 92% of Millennials feel “empowered” by technology (versus just 11% who feel overwhelmed by it).

What the generation is busy fixing and making is interesting to watch, for sure. But perhaps most fascinating is HOW Millennials are going about innovation and how the next version of the American Dream may manifest.

Here are the big takeaways:

#1 We do the “chill-hustle”
Far from the stereotypes of an entitled, over-trophied generation who lack resilience, we encountered Millennials doing what they call the "chill hustle." Multi-tasking, working five side projects at once, placing a portfolio of project bets, and making it all "look easy."

Fifty-five percent of Millennials in our study said, “My hustle is more important than my MBA,” while 78% said “even if I have a job it’s important to have a side project that could become a different career.”

They have got what we dubbed “Slashitude,” as in, “I’m a retail associate/CEO/ Techno DJ /food stylist.” Everyone, these days it seems, is a potpourri of evolving and overlapping skills.

#2 We hack
Hacking has jumped from a niche, tech-specific behavior implying something like breaking into someone's database to being a meta-concept approach to problem solving and even business as a whole. To hack is to collectively piece together rapid-fire lateral solutions and workarounds to problems using available resources, creativity and crackling energy. We heard about storyhacks (team solutions to building narrative structures for movies, short films, etc.) and even lifehacks (easy short cuts to those bothersome speed bumps of everyday life like picking up the dry cleaning).

And by the way, heads up, The Friday night hackathon is fast replacing the dance club or party for legions of the young creative class.

#3 We Beta
In the language of the lean start-up movement, you start with an MVP (minimum viable product), get it into the hands of some users, focus intently on feedback, and then iterate like crazy. For 72% of Millennials, “Life’s like an App. There’s always another version around the corner.”

#4 We Swarm
We already know Millennials are essentially a communal generation, and that they move together through social media to leverage change on small and even large scales (think of the social media dimension to the Occupy movement). But what we saw in the Generation Innovation study was the desire for physical proximity around projects - the thrill of sitting together, huddling around a problem, reveling in the serendipity of what Steven Johnson calls “the tangled bank.”

#5 We Bubble
The simplest way to describe this is to say that Millennials have an imaginary sign above their imaginary door that says “Haters not welcome.” Using their diverse but like-minded network, seeking environments that promote creativity, and tapping good old-fashioned intuition, the young people we studied built a kind of safety bubble around their projects. A semi-permeable membrane that allowed ideas, influences and constructive criticism through, but kept out the haters, as they believe nothing kills a good nascent idea faster than a certain kind of nay-saying energy.

In some of the writing on generational theory, each generation is said to conform to an archetype... the rebel, the magician, the loner and so on. And these archetypes repeat in a cyclical pattern over time. The Millennials, like the post-war "Greatest Generation," were predicted to conform to the Hero archetype.

To hear the early stereotypes of this generation, one might have wondered where that Hero was hiding. But if “Generation Innovation” is any indication – with the economy as their battle, technology as their arsenal, and innovation/creativity as their rallying cry – Millennials’ ultimate victory will be, we have absolutely no doubt, quite something to celebrate.

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