Is product tampering to blame for Millennial Malaise?

Slide1I was about to delete yet another article about needy Millennials and their enabling Baby Boomer parents when I was stopped short by a quote naming the original 1982 Tylenol crisis as being the cause. Say what?!?!

Yes, Virginia, according to Tim Elmore, founder and president of a non-profit called Growing Leaders and author of the ‘Habitude’ series of books, DVDs and survey courses, the Tylenol crisis single-handedly changed childrearing forever.

Says Elmore: “It began in the Fall of 1982, when seven people died after taking extra-strength Tylenol laced with poison after it left the factory. Halloween was just around the corner, and parents began checking every item in the loot bags. Homemade brownies hit the garbage; unwrapped candy followed close behind.’

This, says, Elmore, led to Baby Boomer parents obsessing with their child’s safety in every aspect of their lives. So, they kept them indoors, did their homework for them, and began the enabling process that has led to today’s generation of pampered, self-obsessed, live-for-the-moment Millennials. Or, so says Elmore.

I say, ‘Balderdash.’ Or, words to that effect.

While a single event CAN impact a future, entire generation (Think: the assassinations of Lincoln, Austrian Duke Franz Ferdinand and JFK, among others), there is NO way the Tylenol crisis changed child rearing.

My two Millennials were born years after the Tylenol crisis. And, if Chris and Catharine were spoiled, it was because I wanted to provide them with some of the things that I missed growing up in a lower middle class, blue collar world. Tylenol had nothing to do with it.

But, I’d like to hear what Boomers and Millennials alike think. The entire Elmore article is contained here.

I’d also encourage you to read a fascinating e-mail from my long-time friend, and colleague, Chris Tennyson. Chris finally puts to rest the myth about which PR professional REALLY played the key role in counseling Johnson & Johnson’s CEO to do the right thing . As Chris hints (and JFK noted): ‘Success has many fathers. Failure is an orphan.’

Subject: The Truth About the Tylenol Recall
You may have missed this obituary in Tuesday’s New York Times. Lawrence Foster was the head of communications at Johnson & Johnson in 1982-  the time of the much-studied, much-applauded Tylenol recall. Over the course of my checkered PR career I have met dozens of PR practitioners who claim to be the driving force behind the company’s bold decision to pull Extra Strength Tylenol from the shelves and reintroduce the product in tamper-proof packaging.  These PR guys always point out that the company was reluctant to take this expensive course and but for the wisdom of whatever agency the PR person I was talking to worked for in 1982, Johnson & Johnson would never have have done the right thing. I always doubted the veracity of these stories (I have only met more people who claim to have been at Woodstock than people who claim to have counseled J&J through the Tylenol recall). Well, now we know the truth. Larry Foster, VP Public Relations, had the trust of his chairman and  convinced him to do the right thing, based on the long-standing credo of the company.  As an eye witness says in the obit, Foster was “the strongest voice in the room . . .” So now we know the real story. Good work, Larry Foster-  rest in peace. Three quick lessons here: Companies in crisis do better when the internal PR head is trusted by senior management . . . look for first principles and core values to guide you out of crisis . . . and agencies always take more of both the blame and credit then they deserve.

As for Boomers being at fault for what the HuffPo article calls ‘A generation of Helpless Kids,’ we’re neither responsible nor are they helpless.

Having said that, if you don’t feel better after reading this blog, take two Tylenol and call me in the morning.

And a tip o’ the Catamount hat to Peppercommer Nick “The Knife” Light for suggesting this post.

24 thoughts on “Is product tampering to blame for Millennial Malaise?

  1. Amen, Ken. That said, this Boomer is always up for a little coddling. Maybe we should start a counter insurency aimed at producing pampered Boomers? #GimmeAhug.

  2. There are many cultural, technological and environmental situations which have contributed to the fascinating and sometimes perplexing way Millennials perform in the workplace (and in life for that matter), but the Tylenol crisis? C’mon, that was big, but it wasn’t in the same league, insofar as cultural impact, as JFK’s assassination! It makes me chuckle when Boomer and especially GenX managers try to lead Millennials without first trying to understand (cliche alert) what makes them tick. So stop calling them coddled or entitled, learn a bit about them and how to best motivate, inspire and lead them. Leaders and companies who’ve invested in learning how to do so have reaped the benefits. #EndOfRant.

  3. Valid points, Sienna. Your parents clearly did a great job of raising you. One clarification on my originaal blog. When I said I wanted to give my kids some of things I had been denied, that doesn’t mean they were raised in a palatial estate with personal servants. Nor did they receive limo service to, and from, school. Nor did I ever question a teacher’s grade or accompany Chris and Catharine to job interviews. Like everything else in life, I believe in a balance when it comes to childrearing.

  4. Steve, you mentioned that you wanted to give your kids everything that you felt you missed out on; looking through history every parent, ever, has tried to do that. The ’80s and ’90s were just a special time where a thriving economy met with technology in a consumer market. All of a sudden there was more to provide children with.

    My parents succeeded in giving me a better childhood with more opportunities than they ever had; but, I have to agree with your daughter Catharine, they also made me work hard to develop skills and be a well rounded, cultured and humble millennial. I would not be as successful or be able to seize some of these opportunities if they had not pushed me to work hard. My parents took time out of their day to make sure I appreciated everything I had and understood the hard work that went into having it; and that is where I feel most parents go wrong. They are so busy working to provide this material life for their children that they forget to teach them how to appreciate it and work so that they can maintain that lifestyle.

  5. That makes perfect sense, Dmitriy. It’s also one of the many reasons why advertising is in such a steep decline. All of us are buried in information. But, Millennials have grown up cynical in an increasingly cynical world. So, why be loyal when one could argue loyalty no longer exists?

  6. Adweek ran an interesting infographic on the subject not too long ago, Dmitriy. As you suspected, Millennial parents are very conservative in their spending habits. While they remain brand loyal to a degree, they’re much more likely to opt for the low-cost alternative when compared with Gen X and Boomer parents (which, to your point, makes sense since their disposable incomes are limited at best).

    • Or perhaps they’re just smart enough to be able to see through the sales pitches that bombard us every day? Millennials grew up in an ad-heavy culture and as a result it’s entirely possible that they’re less susceptible to those messages to buy, buy, buy the brand product. Then again, maybe I’m biased because I went to a communications school and know what to look for. Just a theory.

  7. Thanks for the comment, Nicole. Good stuff. I guess I was aware of Millennial coddling by their own peers, but didn’t factor that into the equation. Do you think Millennials coddle one another more than, say, GenXers or Boomers do with their peers?

    • I think Millennials coddle each other more so than other generations, but in my opinion, it’s more of a you-like-my-selfie-I’ll-like-yours-back mentality. I think that Millennials are very judgemental of one another, but will coddle with the primary intention of being coddled back. I don’t mean to make a blanketed statement, as there are many exceptions to this, but I have found it to be the case in many instances.

  8. I love your POV on the school bully, PPalmer. Spot on. Keep eating those PBJ sandwiches. And, who says you’re a boring GenXer? I want names.

  9. Just now reading this, I’ve been out all morning picking up the new Xbox for my son and then I was at my daughter’s school helping her class make Thanksgiving crafts. Then it’s off to piano, soccer and gymnastics and hopefully we’ll make it in time for their French class. My opinion? It was the Tylenol. My kids also don’t watch Spongebob or eat chicken nuggets. Ok, I’m kidding…Seriously, all great points from your readers. In my opinion, it’s about balance.

    Last year, I had a conference with my son’s principal regarding a bully in his classroom. This same bully was also in his class last year. The principal asked me why I didn’t request to be sure this kid wasn’t in his class again. I explained to her that I won’t be able to change his boss, neighbor or co-worker, why ask for a bully not to be in his class. My focus was let’s not run from the problem, instead manage it . Her surprised reaction made it clear to me that she wasn’t used to my response. Some of my own friends disagreed with my position. We all love and support our children, and want to do what’s best for them. Sometimes, what’s best isn’t the easiest. I think it’s finding the right balance that may be difficult for some parents. Sure, most of us want to provide our kids with what we didn’t have growing up. Some may overcompensate. Tylenol is not to blame. I don’t cut the crust off the PB&J, but I can still coddle some kids! Spongebob and nuggets are welcomed too. Find a balance. Of course, what do I know? I’m just a boring Gen-xer.

  10. I think it is easy (although impossible) to justify attitudes based on one specific instance. I know it’s cliche, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Millennials didn’t just become coddled because an entire generation of parents were scarred by seven deaths from poisoned painkillers. In an era of instant gratification and validation that ranges from participation ribbons to “likes” on Facebook, this generation is not only coddled by their parents, but also teachers, coaches, peers and even complete strangers.

  11. Really interesting observations, Chris. My parents grew up during the Depression, so they watched every penny, and made sure my brothers and I did the same So, as you say, when I started doing well, I wanted my kids to have the opposite experience. I’m still glad I raised them the way I did, though.

  12. Steve,

    One thing that these types of articles often fail to mention is the economic context in which the Millennial generation was created. Millennials grew up in the era of the “Great Moderation,” i.e. 1982-2007, when interest rate and economic volatility subsided, and asset price growth and wealth creation were unprecedented. If parents spoiled their kids, it was because the greater economy, technology, and job/income growth afforded them the opportunity to do so… and they weren’t going to say “no.” Baby Boomers entered their prime earning years in the 80s and 90s behind a great economic tailwind, and their children benefited greatly from newly available educational resources, ever increasing funding for public schools, more disposable income for extra-curricular activities, and the great disruption of analog technology.

    I was born on the early cusp of the Millenial cohort in 1981. Because my generation grew up in a time of great prosperity and declining crime, we never really suffered through “tough times” like our Depression-era grandparents. Also, our parents mainly chose careers based more on practicality and access than happiness, but wanted us to have as many options as possible. As such our life expectations were unrealistically high as we left school, entered adulthood and encountered the paradox of choice. I think I speak for a lot of my age-group peers that we have to work twice as hard as our parents did just to maintain the lifestyle to which we were accustomed growing up. Unfortanately the economy does not always cooperate.

    • So what happens when Millennials start having kids? Do they spoil them the way that they were spoiled? Do they make them work even harder? Or is it all dependent on how broke the average Millennial is? (Early signs are very broke).

      • They will spoil them not dependent on how broke they are but rather on how much consumer credit they are extended…

  13. Great points, Dmitriy. We’re actually publicizing the work of some amazing, entrepreneurially-minded undergrads at my alma mater, Northeastern University. If they’re the result of parental coddling then, as you suggest, bring on more coddling (but, hold the Tylenol).

  14. The Elmore article makes the fatal mistake of equating causation with correlation, but he’s not necessarily completely bonkers. I agree that the millennial generation is more pampered and self-entitled than any generation ever. But why is this considered a bad thing?

    Steve, you mentioned wanting to provide your kids with the kind of life that you didn’t have growing up. That includes, I presume, exposing them to a nurturing educational environment via a rigorous academic workload, after-school programs and help on homework. Numerous studies have shown that the brain is capable of learning at a much faster rate when it is young. This so-called coddling culture of ours has helped produce one of the brightest generations (at least at the top) ever. Just look at how Silicon Valley is dominated by 20-somethings who have been coding since they were five years old. Sure, there are other 20-somethings who do nothing but play video games in their parents basement, but they are not representative of their entire generation!

  15. Thanks for the feedback. I agree there have been many causes of the so-called Millennial malaise. Teachers, parents, the rise of social media and god knows what else all need to be factored into the equation. But, for every Millennial who texts her mom to complain about a failing grade, there’s another Millennial who’s accomplishing things I wouldn’t have even dreamed of at a similar age. Stereotyping of anyone at any time isn’t just wrong. It’s stupid.

  16. No spoiling went on here. They did their homework (or suffered the consequences), prepared their own resumes, spoke to someone in charge if they had a question or wanted something from someone other than a family member. Consequently, independent, easily make their own decisions. Learn from their own mistakes. We didn’t hover – we did, however, check Halloween candy but that’s about it.

  17. Great post, Steve. I’m never one for making blanket statements about an entire generation, but I have written posts with a similar sentiment for this blog (i.e. Millennials are certainly not helpless, but the coddling (which I think is a bit more common for this generation than for previous ones) also does not help anyone and I think there are many Boomers guilty of coddling and enabling their offspring.

    I don’t think coddling/enabling is a result of the Tylenol crisis, I think it’s because, as you stated, parents wanted their children to have what they did not. To blame parenting actions on one specific event is very interesting on the author’s part . . . and also difficult to prove. If anything, the Tylenol crisis showed that we as humans can make errors, so you should always do your homework and know that science/medicine is infallible.

  18. I was probably spoiled growing up like most of my peers, but my parents weren’t all to blame. My teachers did a good amount of coddling, also. I remember being in Honors English in Junior year of high school and my teacher was going over “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which I’d already read. She pulled every single discussion point and study guide straight from the Cliffs Notes website, and even told us that’s where to go to study for the test. She was considered a hard teacher, too. If my parents hadn’t encouraged me to read for pleasure outside of school, I might not have been able to study Journalism & PR, which are both writing-intensive majors.