Millennials and the Potential for Self-Actualization
The idea that reaching one's fullest potential is something worth striving for doesn't get enough attention in our hyper-distracted modern landscape. Many of us are preoccupied with shorter-term, more easily gratified pursuits, but the long game of personal grown is definitely one worth striving for. Millennials, though beset by the economy and the drastic changes in society over the last decades, may be the generation best positioned to successfully undertake this lofty goal and in fact, may be doing so by taking a short-cut. Let me explain why I say this, and what I see as the biggest challenge to their face to self-mastery and how I think they are working around it.
My experience with Millennials and all the literature I've read seem to say the same thing; as a group, these young folks are remarkably optimistic and aspirational. The Pew Research Center describes millennials as "confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change." They have a strong sense of justice and are more concerned with the way the work they do makes them feel and the impact it has in the world than they are with working solely to gain material wealth and trappings. They are extremely agile — they have not come up in an environment where things have been stable and therefore, are comfortable with change in a way that even Gen Xers are not. Many of the traditional career paths that previous generations counted on are are not available to this generation, which has made them creative and resourceful. In short, Millennials are resilient.
The Path to Self-Actualization
Abraham Maslow was arguably one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century. He is most famous for developing the hierarchy of needs, which is essentially an overview of typical human development. This hierarchy can be visualized as a pyramid. At the base are the most basic physiological needs which include the need for nourishment (food and water), sleep, and warmth. These needs are foundational and are the strongest because if they aren't met an individual will not survive. Next, comes another fairly basic the need: safety. Safety and security go hand-in-hand and meeting this need can consist of having a home and income, as well as freedom from potential dangers such as crime and political unrest. After safety comes the more complex social needs of love and belonging, primarily from relationships with family, friends and intimate partners.
The need for esteem is a higher-level psychological need that articulates the human hope of being respected and recognized for accomplishments. The need for esteem includes the desire to feel satisfied with one's self and valued by others. This need is often met in the workplace, or in a team situation and if it is not met, according to the hierarchy of needs, the final need can't be met. The final and most complex is the need for self-actualization. This is a self-fulfillment need that encompasses all the activities, intellectual and creative, that are required for an individual to achieve their full potential.
What characterizes a self-actualized individual? They accept others and also themselves, they have high emotional intelligence, and feel comfortable with change and uncertainty. People who have attained self-actualization are independent and autonomous. They feel comfortable alone, particularly because gratification comes from within rather than from external sources. These people experience present moment awareness and are therefore objective about personal achievement and misfortune. Most importantly, they have a growth mindset and are willing to try new things that will enable personal growth, even when these things are difficult or uncomfortable.
Roadblocks to Self-Mastery
One problem that many millennials face is the difficulty in achieving the highest level needs in Maslow's pyramid. According to the pyramid, esteem must be achieved ahead of self-actualization, and with the absence of linear careers, that enable easily discernible growth through promotions, raises, etc., it is more difficult to move through this level in a clear manner. Although they are highly educated, when school is finished many fail to find a next step to allow for the kind of career progress that previous generations enjoyed. In fact, they face the higher rates of unemployment than any workforce in three decades.
Additionally, many millennials are making choices that seem radical to older generations, not marrying, choosing to be childless, deciding not to own properly or vehicles. In many cases, their global and urban lifestyles make those things feel like hindrances rather than values. Recent research by the Brookings Institution showed that over 87% of millennials disagree with the statement that “money is the best measure of success” and most would prefer to work for a company they feel is ethical or allows them to do work they find meaningful than make a lot of money. With a focus on being rather than on achieving, many millennials seem stuck in the lower rungs of Maslow's pyramid with no way of moving into higher levels. This generation is also much more oriented towards belonging and being aligned with the values of peers than being competitive, they are more cooperative than competitive. They require recognition, which can be evidenced by recent Pew Research Center statistics that one in five of them have posted a YouTube video of themselves while three-quarters have social profiles. Social media helps fill a need for belonging. In short, millennials are blocked in many ways from achieving esteem through typical channels, while simultaneously finding great value in belonging. They seem to be caught up in some of the lower rung values with no clear path to achieving the highest level needs.
A Shift in Thinking
In the traditional pattern followed by Maslow's hierarchy, fulfillment of needs comes in a specific order. Is it possible that for twenty-somethings, aspects of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization happen simultaneously? When I look at the characteristics of a self-actualized person, such as present moment awareness, the willingness to try new things, and comfort with uncertainty, I see consistency with the key values and behaviors of this generation. In some ways, the circumstances in which this group has come of age may have caused them to skip a step and achieve some of the characteristics of self-actualization while still at the belonging or esteem levels of development. They have completely different values than previous generations, and maybe that's a good thing. Perhaps the advanced development in some areas accompanied by the setbacks in others has given them a unique perspective that time will teach us to respect and appreciate.
The largest generation in Western history may just transform the way we understand everything by creating a system that is more value based than transactional, and remind us that rules were made to be re-imagined. They may teach us that experiences really are better than things and that systems we thought were solid, still need adjustment. It's too early to say, but this generation certainly does keep me on my toes!