Millennial makeover: Sometimes belittled generation steps up to leadership roles

March 1, 2017 GMT

They’re here, they’re apparently staying put and their impact on the community may come as a surprise.

“They” are the millennials, that massive generation of Americans born between the years 1981 and 1997, now between the ages of 20 and 36 and, at an estimated 75 million or so, both the largest generation in the U.S. and the predominant age group within the nation’s workforce.

Yes, the entire millennial generation – the group that grew up in the Digital Age, got cell phones as teenagers and popularized such current mainstays of American life as texting, posting and Googling – is now of adult working age, or very close to it.

As the Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers who preceded them continue to age, millennials will increasingly become the dominant influence in the workplace and in American society.

Sometime in the not-so-distant future, they will become the dominant age group in city and county government and community affairs. That means millennials someday will be running things.

You surely know a millennial, you may be the parent of one or more and you now may be working alongside a few. And, if you are yourself a millennial, you are likely reading this sentence on a laptop or via your smart phone connected to WiFi, as part of the first generation for whom all these technological innovations nearly always have been a fact of life.

If you aren’t one of them, you almost certainly have heard or read a thing or two about them that probably made you suspect that this group might not always be that great to have around, especially at work or serving in the community as potentially contributing adults.

Generational stereotype

“Lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow” is how a Time magazine article, entitled “The Me Me Me Generation,” described millennials in 2013.

You may want to rethink that characterization, at least as far as a handful of millennials in this part of Wisconsin are concerned. At least a few regional millennials – Craig Braunschweig (Reedsburg), Zach Dahl (Sauk City), Anastasia Kinney (Portage), Kyler Royson (Wisconsin Dells) and Seth Westberg (Mauston) – and, they insist, others like them, have begun to step up in their respective communities.

With little fanfare and even less evidence of the “me me me”-centeredness of which their cohorts have been accused, some members of this unofficial group already have launched innovative, thriving businesses, others have contributed and even led important local initiatives and some of them already have been elected to public office – or are running for it – in their communities.

They’re also raising children, donating their time to local causes and endeavoring to contribute in significant ways.

In keeping with at least a few positive millennial traits, every member of the group seems to have mastered the art of multitasking, all of them are extremely busy and they care deeply about the meaning behind their efforts.

Reedsburg’s young leader

“I’d rather be contributing to society instead of milking it for all its worth,” said Braunschweig, 26, by way of explanation as he perhaps sums up what could be the exceptionalist millennial creed.

Braunschweig, like his aforementioned exceptional cohorts, is contributing a lot in his hometown of Reedsburg, where he is running for city council in April’s election; in Rock Springs, where he serves as head librarian at the Rock Springs Public Library; and in Baraboo, where he serves on the Sauk County Board of Supervisors.

For Braunschweig, that’s just the top of the proverbial iceberg.

When he’s not working at the library, serving on the Sauk County Board or running for Reedsburg City Council, Braunschweig serves as president of the Reedsburg Historical Society and treasurer for the Friends of the Reedsburg Public Library, serves on the Reedsburg Zoning Board of Appeals and Reedsburg Area Development Council and Reedsburg Historical Preservation commission and is a member of the Reedsburg Kiwanis and Lions clubs and Reedsburg Old Settlers.

He also has co-authored a book – about Reedsburg’s history, of course – as part of the “Images of America” historical series.

“I get bored pretty quickly if I’m not doing something,” Braunschweig said after reciting the above list of organizations and activities to which he belongs.

Millennials like Braunschweig, some local business leaders admit, might not be so bad to have around after all.

Sarah Pittz talks about Placemaking during the Reedsburg Area Chamber of Commerce’s meeting and awards banquet at the Voyageur Inn on Feb. 16

“They care about authentic experiences and quality of life,” said Sarah Pittz, a millienial-watcher across Sauk County who during the past year has led the Sauk County Placemaking Initiative, which began as an effort to attract millennials to the area. “I don’t think anybody is going to say, ‘No, I don’t like those things.’”

All about ‘quality of life’

A sterling example of a local contributor to a community’s “quality of life” is Royston, 28, who is a co-owner and co-operator of JustAgame (JAGF) Fieldhouse – the massive site for year-round, indoor organized sports in downtown Wisconsin Dells.

Kyler Royston, center, discusses the color scheme of new downtown Dells benches with fellow Business Improvement District member Kelli Trumble as fellow downtown business owner Brian Holzem, left, looks on during last week’s spring-like weather.

A Dells native, Royston joined the family business after graduating with a degree in business management from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011, and since then he’s had his hand in just about every emerging downtown event.

As a member of the Dells Business Improvement District committee, Royston serves on the subcommittee that is developing the new Dells Farmers Market set to debut this spring, he was part of the local group that brought the first Kilbourn City Live music festival to town last October (with a return scheduled for this fall), and he stewarded a super-sized version of the Dells’ annual Fourth of July celebration last summer (with another super-sized one planned for this July).

Royston also has decided to throw his hat into the local political ring, registering in January to run in April for the Dells Common Council, and he serves on the board of the Wisconsin Dells Education Foundation.

Along with his brother Jade (also a millennial), Royston is helping to grow the downtown Dells business their parents founded, growth that includes the development of Eye in the Sky Sports, which offers live streaming video at high school sporting events across the state and at JAG.

Joining Royston in the race for Common Council in April is another Dells millennial, Ben Anderson, who is running unopposed while Royston is running against incumbent Mike Freel.

Dells Mayor Brian Landers said he has seen these and other millennials become more active in recent years, and he said he’d “like to see more” because he places a high value on the emerging generation’s unique perspective.

“I’m proud of our community’s millennials – they’ve taken a very strong, active role in their community,” Landers said. “I think by and large they’re more objective thinkers than the past few generations, and they’re not so set in their ways. They don’t always have that very black and white view of the world – which is healthy in many ways.”

Dahl a leader in Sauk City

Worldliness is another reported trait of millennials, as is independence of spirit, and Sauk City businessman and entrepreneur Zach Dahl, 30, who brings a lot of both to his numerous pursuits across the area.

Zach Dahl, of Dahl Financial Group, rents space for the business he owns with his father, Tom, in Sauk Prairie Community Bank in Sauk City. He serves as chairman of the Sauk Prairie Young Connections Group,which aims to recruit, engage, develop and retain young talent in the Sauk Prairie Riverway area.

Dahl, like Royston, works for his family’s business, Dahl Financial Group, as a wealth management consultant, but he also owns and operates a hay-delivery business (Southern Wisconsin Hay) that caters to horse farms across Dane and Sauk counties.

Like Braunschweig and Royston, Dahl is deeply involved in the goings-on of the community and the county in which he lives and works. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Sauk Prairie Chamber of Commerce and is the chairman of and one of the driving forces in Sauk Prairie Young Connection, a Chamber-affiliated organization that “aims to recruit, engage, develop and retain young talent in the Sauk Prairie Riverway area,” according to its web page.

The rest of Dahl’s brimming docket of local involvements includes the local Relay for Life and Dollar for Scholars organizations, the Fire on the River planning committee and the White Lightning Snowmobile Group. He also serves on the board of directors of the Sauk County Development Corporation.

Dahl, like his counterparts in this emergent group of up-and-coming regional standard-bearers, brings a quality that many millennials possess but perhaps has been obscured by those negative characterizations: Their immense energy and abilities.

“There’s talent there,” said Edward White, new executive director of the Sauk County Development Corporation, which soon will commission a study to determine how many millennials actually live and work in the county, after which he and his business colleagues will determine how to both attract and keep.

“They are important – it’s the demographic everybody wants,” White said. “That’s the next-generation workforce, and we want to get them here and keep them.”

‘Help out where you can’

One such millennial who was recently attracted to the region and appears to be sticking is Westberg, 29, who moved to the Mauston area from Sheboygan to accept the position of superintendent of Parks, Forestry and Cemetery.

City of Mauston Urban Forester Seth Westberg discusses the city’s plans to combat emerald ash borer during a tree board meeting in October. Westberg began working for the city last spring.

In true millennial fashion, Westberg wears a variety of hats in the position, which oversees three distinct areas of Mauston’s city government.

Unlike his regional millennial cohorts, Westberg is not yet involved in myriad activities beyond his job, in part because that job is so multi-dimensional. His job duties serving the city boards that govern the three departments he oversees.

“I’m trying to get my feet underneath me,” he said. “I’m kind of learning everything (about his multi-functioning job) from each season.”

But when he does get involved, Westberg said he’ll aim for something along the lines of Big Brothers Big Sisters, to which he belonged in Sheboygan, or perhaps Outdoors Forever Conservation Club, which has an active chapter in Juneau County.

“I try to do things that are meaningful, something I can be proud of,” Westberg said, sounding every bit the millennial. “You help out where you can.”

Family, employer support crucial

Anastasia Kinney, 30, has come to appreciate the value of community support as a millennial who has returned to her place of birth and upbringing after travels to various parts of Wisconsin in pursuit of her education.

Anastasia Kinney, left, helps prepare a meal with fellow St. Mary Catholic Church Outreach Committee members Kathy Nachreiner and Vicki Vogts Feb. 22 in Portage.

That support comes in handy because she is the mother of a 4-year-old (Layla) and must depend on that help in order to meet a list of community obligations that rivals Braunschweig’s.

The business development officer for the Community Banks of Portage and Wisconsin Dells, Kinney serves as an ambassador for the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce, is treasurer of the Portage Rotary Club and member of Elks Lodge 675, and she is a founding member and current chairwoman of LAUNCH, an organization designed to attract and retain young professionals in the Portage area much like Sauk Prairie Young Connection.

“I’m very thankful for the support and encouragement from my family and everyone at the bank,” she said. “Without them, I would not be able to be involved in these awesome organizations.”

She also serves as secretary of St. Mary Catholic Church’s parish council and chairwoman of the church’s Outreach Committee, and she is vice president of the Saddle Ridge Estates Association where she lives.

Portage’s business leaders clearly appreciate Kinney for reasons that should be obvious from the aforementioned list. In early February she received the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce’s Community Service Award for 2016.

Kinney believes her altruistic bent comes from her parents, Michael and Kathleen Kinney of Portage, and the fact that her father is from the “Silent Generation,” which preceded the Baby Boomers who begat most millennials (her mother is indeed a Baby Boomer).

“I was raised always seeing my mom and dad work hard and help people when they could,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a doctor or a teacher. It’s kind of my way to be able to help others.”

Like an increasing number of millennials every year, Kinney has recently encountered the challenge that has a way of changing anyone’s life immeasurably, no matter how intractable his or her generation’s tendencies may be. That challenge is parenthood.

“That is definitely the hardest part,” Kinney said, “wanting to balance career and community involvement and personal life.”