I have a unique job as the creative director of The Agency, leading and learning from a team of over 100 highly creative, inspiring millennial students engaged at all levels of our organization’s integrated communications efforts.
As a creative professional tasked with bringing fresh thinking to bear on sticky problems, risk-taking is a fundamental skill my colleagues and I have to be comfortable with. Like inventors, investors or innovators, you won’t find very many risk-averse creative thinkers succeeding in the marketplace. That’s because we all see risk-taking as a powerful tool to bridge gaps and connect knowledge in unexpected ways, creating new ideas in the process. To us, risk-taking isn’t a risk. It’s our bread and butter.
But that’s not true everywhere. Years ago, as Baby Boomers used post-war prosperity in order to give their children unprecedented security and comfort, the trajectory of attainable success in America was on an upward arc. Thanks to the risks taken by the Greatest Generation, a continually improving standard of living became a standard expectation. With hard work a better life was attainable for almost anyone. But in time, that comfort slowly led to a habit of “staying the course”? so as not to risk ones savings. The vision of the American dream became more subdued.
Fast forward more than 3 decades, and by the 1980s that safe thinking turned into risk-aversion, breeding stagnation for Generation X. Seemingly overnight those born into the smartest, healthiest and wealthiest generation were labeled “slackers”?. Disaffected. Lazy and apathetic.
And Millennials — the children of those original latch-key kids beginning around 1980 — were born into technology, but came of age in a world of uncertainty. Not exactly a great recipe for rediscovering our collective national pride in maverick thinking.
But something unexpected happened. It turns out Gen Xers weren’t cynical and aimless — they matured into a self-confident and optimistic group. In 2002 Time Magazine reported that 4 out of 5 business enterprises were the work of GenX members. They became the greatest entrepreneurial generation in US history, helping create the high-tech industry that fueled the 1990s economic recovery.
And what of the millennials, who were supposedly dealt such a tough hand? Today, as the last of the millennials prepare to go through college and enter full adulthood, we almost have a full mature cohort to examine. And guess what? They’re a generation of risk-takers.
Financial planners might not agree, with more Millennials than ever distrusting traditional modes of investment — but they are doing something more important: They are taking control and molding their lives in new ways. They’re willing to risk things their parents and grandparents held high in order to reach new goals and fulfill different life expectations.
Inspired by the bold thinking of Gen X but cautious of an uncertain future, millennials are changing the rules everywhere you look, by embracing risk-taking as a tool to shape their lives.
Take for example the fact that millennials are more focused on quality of life than a stable, constant career path. They’re changing jobs and changing careers more often than any other generation. Precisely because they’re willing to take that risk to strive for new experiences, or broaden their world view in search of fulfillment and purpose that does not stem from a paycheck.
They’re willing to risk a different perspective on the American dream, waiting longer to buy homes and cars and to have children. And they’re placing more value on their time than their money, often choosing volunteerism and social activism as their primary means of giving back to the communities and causes they support.
Millennials are future-focused and global-minded, and increasingly willing to risk challenging established norms around consumer culture and sacrifice, to lead more sustainable lives.
As a creative director, this is why I see every brainstorm at The Agency as an exercise in optimism. Across facets of our culture too numerous to mention, the largest generation in American history has become a force for change. That force is centered around a uniquely American trait: The willingness to see things differently, to strive for something better.
To take a risk or two.
Jim Harrison, Creative Director