Are you between the ages of 18 and 29? Do you have children in that age range? Grandchildren? Employees?

If so—or even if not—you’ve probably heard plenty of complaints about this generation, called the “millennials.” Perhaps you’ve heard they are lazy, dishonest and deviant. That they are druggies and sexually twisted and destined to bring our country to its knees. Yet I read the other day that attracting clients from this generation is critical to advisory firms if they are to survive.

So I’ve spent some time trying to learn what I can about them. What I found was that many experts believe this is the most exciting generation since the one that lived through the Great Depression and fought World War II. Whitney Kenter, a financial consultant in St. Louis, believes that the millennials (born roughly between 1980 and 2000) might be the next “great generation.” They are financially conservative, unselfish social reformers, concerned less about money than about making the world a better place. They are team players, joiners rather than individualists. “This is the first generation with a global perspective,” Kenter says. They travel more, they communicate differently, they move fast and they plan to change the world to make it a better place. They are more community focused and globally oriented.

As part of an effort to better understand millennial clients, Kenter attended a conference in New York designed for—and limited to—billionaires between 20 and 41 years old who want to change the world. It was called the Nexus Global Youth Summit on Innovative Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship. And it was attended by hundreds of young people—princes and princesses and the children of some of the most successful business dynasties, as well as by entrepreneurs. They met for four days in September.

Kenter, who looks about 19 years old herself, says she had to attend this year because next year she’ll be past the age limit. “I’ve never been to anything like this,” she says. “I had a mini-United Nations around my dinner table. Ideas were sparking and flying everywhere. It was an amazing, fabulous experience.”

The conference was part of a study by Kenter and her mentor, Katherine B. Lintz, founder and chief executive of Financial Management Partners, a multi-family office with a base in St. Louis and an additional office in Denver. Kenter, 40, joined the firm in March 2009. “We wanted to take a step back and look at our own biases so we could come to each client meeting with a better understanding of that client,” Kenter says.

Lintz, a former history major, has long questioned the idea that history is linear and that each generation plows new ground. Instead, she believes there is something beyond nature and nurture that forms the outlook of humans: That it’s the generation they were born into and what happened to it as it aged. “We studied the millennial generation and looked at what was happening in the world when they were children, when they were teenagers, when they passed into adulthood,” Kenter says.

The two began their study with a book familiar to Lintz called The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy—What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous With Destiny. The book is one of several about generational change written by William Strauss and Neil Howe. This one outlines their theory of history, which is that it moves not in a straight line but in circles. They make a convincing case. In books such as Millennials Rising, Strauss and Howe argue that this generation is unlike any other in history. “Over the next decade,” the book says, “the Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged—with potentially seismic consequences for America.”

The outlook of a generation is determined by events during its childhood, youth, adulthood and old age. To understand the future, Strauss and Howe say, you need to learn about the internal dynamics of this circle. “You have to see history from the inside out. The key lies in finding the link between the seasons of history and the seasons of a human life.”

The definitions of various generations differ. Here are the rough dates accepted by Howe and Strauss: The GI generation was formed by the Great Depression and fought on the front lines during World War II. Dubbed “The Greatest Generation” by former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw in his book of the same name, he claims these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the right thing to do. When they came back, they rebuilt America into a superpower. They were followed by the “Silent Generation,” born between 1925 and 1945, and the baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1964. After that came Gen X, born from 1965 to 1979—a group that came of age during an increase in divorce and working moms, so it was also called the “latchkey generation.” Now come the millennials, born from 1980 to 2000. (Each of these dates is debated among historians, since there is not always a sharp break between generations.)

“History moves in a progression of ebbs and flows whose schedule is regular, yet not precisely fixed,” write Strauss and Howe. The circles can be divided by the seasons, generations, centuries and, on the most basic level, by the length of a long life—perhaps 85 to 100 years.

Kenter and Lintz look at the generations in terms of their investing experience and outlook. Boomers came of age in the early 1980s. “Everything they’ve invested in has gone up,” says Kenter, a member of Gen X who started investing in the 1990s. “I haven’t made any money in anything.”

The millennials look at investing in terms of the higher good, she says. They look at a quadruple bottom line. The first: Did their investment make money? The second: How did the investment affect the world and the environment, or, as environmentalists might ask, what kind of carbon footprint did it leave? The third bottom line is: Did the investment, or the corporation in which it was invested, make workers happy or unhappy? The fourth: How did it give back to the community and to charity?

“So many conversations that advisors have with clients focus on the return,” Kenter says. “I can have a much better conversation with a millennial client if I go in knowing this.” Because millennials want to know how an investment impacts the world, not just investors.

By achieving a better understanding of the investment outlook of various generations, Kenter says, “I don’t get frustrated with a 29-year-old who sold his first Internet company and cares more about the social results of his investment than with how much money he made.”

Financial Management Partners has 28 employees, 10 of whom are millennials. As a family office, the firm has an important interest in what different generations are thinking.

Kenter says that Lintz “has been on the forefront of the multi-family-office movement since before it was even a term and has long been an advocate for holistic advice for families.” The firm accepts only five to 10 new clients a year, Kenter says. “We have a client acceptance board that determines whether the family is a good fit for the firm and that we can add value to this family. We have a teacher on staff who works mostly with children.” Other staff members focus on family members in the late teens and early 20s. The firm has also spawned a number of women’s groups that get together to focus on topics like IRAs or puts and calls.

“We believe everything goes back to education,” Kenter says. “So that’s where we put our focus.” 

Mary Rowland can be reached at [email protected]. She has been a business and personal finance journalist for 30 years and has written two books for financial advisors: Best Practices and In Search of the Perfect Model.