I’m a millennial. My birth date puts me at the older end of the range, but I still qualify. As a higher education professional, I also spend a lot of my time with millennials. We’re everywhere, and let’s face it: no one likes us.
We’re “needy” and “self-absorbed” and “lazy”. On top of all that, we expect to be rewarded at every turn. We are a generation raised on participation trophies that served to undercut our work ethic.
But this millennial is calling baloney on all of that.
To break this one down, we need to first focus on our parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers, because they were the ones giving millennials the participation trophies that everyone seems bent out of shape about. Personally, I don’t blame them for handing out participation trophies for one single second.
When I was growing up, we understood the difference between winning and losing. We were taught how to be good sports and try our best. I don’t think that was just my family, or my friends, or my town either. We weren’t all that unique. Like my peers, I was raised up right by my Baby Boomer parents and I knew darn well that I wasn’t going to win at everything.
Truth be told, I distinctly remember there being special trophies for winners, too. And not everyone got them. We were fine with it.
But what our Baby Boomer parents also did was make sure we knew that there was value in trying. So if everyone earned the Girl Scout badge for friendship because we all showed up to learn what it was to belong to something bigger than ourselves, that was good. If everyone on the basketball team received a certificate for completing the season and committing to the team, great. Why is everyone so worried about a piece of fabric, or plastic, or paper?
You know what we did with those participation trophies as kids? We hung them up in our rooms. We found a special place for them on a special shelf. When we woke up in the morning we’d see that reminder that we accomplished something. You can say we shouldn’t need physical reminders of our accomplishments, and that’s fine, but we were kids! We were figuring out our place in the world and wrapping our brains around who and what society valued. If our Baby Boomer parents taught us that we were ALL valued, I applaud them.
Now that my generation has aged out of the school system and is in the working world full force, the generations before us are turning up their noses at our trophy cases. We’ve never had to work hard a day in our lives! We expect everything to be handed to us! That’s the argument against the participation trophy—that as a generation we just don’t get what it means to try, and fail, and then eventually succeed on our own merits.
If you paint the generation with broad strokes, it may very well be that we like to be affirmed and boosted up. At the same time though, we like to affirm and boost each other up because that’s what we know. How is that so bad? We are walking around giving each other participation trophies all day and building up our collective self-confidence. Greater self-confidence results in people who are willing to try new things, take risks, and go after their dreams. The shock, the horror!
As a millennial who is also a parent, I hope I learned a thing or two from my Baby Boomer parents about teaching my own children the value of showing up and doing their best. Winners are not inherently better than “losers”. (And perhaps this makes me even more millennial-y, but YUCK on the whole word “losers”.) If my kids show the world their best selves, try hard, and are kind to others, I absolutely will give them recognition for it. That recognition will remind them that those qualities matter.
I might even print out a certificate or make them a little trophy out of pipe cleaners.
I bet they’ll love it.