Witnessing 20-something professional athlete Colin Kaepernick divide the country by sitting or taking a knee during the pre-game singing of America’s national anthem has made one fact about our society abundantly clear: People fundamentally misunderstand the mindset of millennials.
That’s not to say Kaepernick and his protest against racial inequality and police brutality doesn’t have its fair share of understanding supporters. According to recent sports business reports, Kaepernick now has the most-purchased jersey on NFLShop.com. 49ers teammate Eric Reid and Seattle Seahawks player Jeremy Lane joined Kaepernick in dropping to one knee during preseason finales. Soccer star Megan Rapinoe later kneeled during the national anthem at a Seattle Reign game. And even President Barack Obama, one of the targets of Kaepernick’s ire, endorsed the player’s decision to stand up (no pun intended) and exercise his constitutional rights. “I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about,” the President was quoted as saying.
Not bad for a second-string quarterback with an iffy-at-best future in the league.
No. 7’s opposition is growing, too, though. From the public damnation of the head of a national police organization to the tens of thousands of football fans who booed him in his last preseason game in San Diego, Kaepernick has become a poster child for all that’s wrong with America’s so-called selfish, entitled youth. Many people are stunned that a guy literally living the American dream (Kaepernick will earn a guaranteed $11.6 million this year potentially just to hold a clipboard on the sidelines) would disrespect veterans, the military and the flag with such a misguided protest.
It’s been enough to give Larry the Cable Guy a fresh case of heartburn.
Further mystifying these upset Americans are Kaepernick’s quotes since launching his protest. For instance, Kaepernick has stated that he realizes that men and women of the military “go out and sacrifice their lives and put themselves in harm’s way for my freedom of speech and my freedoms in this country and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee.” Kaepernick avers that what he did was simply “taken out of context and spun a different way.”
As a university professor who works with millennials every day, and as a business consultant who advises CEOs wringing their hands trying to navigate their millennial mindset (and make up 40% of the American workforce) every day, let me try to explain Kaepernick’s behavior through a little social analysis of his generation. In a nutshell, what Kaepernick is exhibiting what is called the Millennial Mindset, and it is alive and well (and perfectly understood by fellow millennials) in America today.
A 2016 report by polling company Gallup, global experts in analytics and data, meticulously analyzed how millennials want to work and live, exploring what defines the millennial generation as employees, people, and consumers along the way. Among its findings (many of which will be explored in depth in future blog posts) is that millennials have a seemingly contradictory ability to be simultaneously idealistic and unconstrained.
Now, stop and think about that for a second. Idealistic and unconstrained, all at the same time. It’s a powerful, confounding combination.
As it specifically relates to the characteristic of being unconstrained, Gallup found that millennials are “pushing for change in the world,” including in the marketplace and the workplace. The report states that millennials don’t accept “that’s the way it has always been done” as a viable answer. According to Gallup, millennials want to be free of old workplace policies and performance management standards, and they expect leaders and managers to adapt accordingly.
At the same time, Gallup found millennials to be a largely idealistic (and optimistic) group, believing that life and work should be worthwhile and have meaning. “Millennials look for work that fuels their sense of purpose and makes them feel important,” the report stated. “As a highly educated and technologically connected group, they get to approach the workplace with the mentality, “What’s in it for me?” Millennials want more out of life, and they believe they can obtain it.”
Kaepernick fits the idealistic/unconstrained description to a tee. Just because he makes millions of dollars playing (or in his case, not playing) a game doesn’t mean he has to constrain his opinion about the state of America. (For added measure, he also has the freedom and liberty to grow and sport an Afro haircut that is, in my opinion, absolutely fantastic). And just because he protests the national anthem as a means of pointing up what he believes are gross inequities in the system does not automatically mean he doesn’t support the military (past and present) or even believe profoundly in the American dream.
With all apologies to mainstream America (read Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen X’ers and Gen Y’ers), it’s simply not that black and white for millennials.
Here’s my question. Even if Kaepernick’s behavior makes you feel a little uncomfortable, isn’t it just the kind of social protest that made America great in the past? And isn’t his blend of idealistic but unconstrained personal mettle very possibly the precise combination of personal traits needed to make America great again? (Or are we as a country simply depending on a Donald Trump slogan to do that?)
Honestly, what are we really so upset about? Is it that a backup quarterback didn’t stand up for the national anthem? Or is it, perhaps, something deeper? Worse yet, I wonder, is it something that we ourselves created and that we must now deal with?
Maybe the real reason Kaepernick‘ s behaviors have made so many people uncomfortable is that he represents the generation that is now reading from the life script written by our generations – written by us. Like other millennials, Kaepernick’s parents and grandparents strove to give him the very platform and wherewithal he is utilizing now to stand up for his opinion and his conscience. He has a different mindset and approach to life because previous generations made it possible for him to be both idealistic and unconstrained. Doing that for our children was our ideal. But now, suddenly, it seems we don’t like what we made possible.
From where I stand, this generation has all the characteristics other generations wish they had. We just don’t have the guts to say it.
Kaepernick decided to go his own way. And now others have followed.