To read the articles “The Trophy Kids Go to Work” (WSJ, 10/21) and especially to view programs like “Here Come the Millennials” (60 Minutes), you would be justified if the thought of what life will be like managing and working with this unique generation caused you to roll your eyes and reach for the aspirin bottle.
However, I suggest that you think twice before you prematurely write off the 80 million people born between 1980 and 1995. While most of these individuals have grown up with us as “Helicopter Parents” hovering over nearly every activity of their lives from play-dates through college-enrollment and even job interviews. I’ve seen glimpses of the future and I am encouraged about the potential for this generation.
Much of the content around the Millennial generation focuses on their slightly sheltered upbringing, the emphasis on encouragement that we have provided in the form of constant praise and awarding trophies for just showing up and the widely reported unrealistic expectations that they have about life in the real world of work.
In particular, the 60 Minutes piece (great fun to watch, although watch out if you are showing it to a group of Millennials) goes out of its way to hype the different and potentially selfish expectations that members of this new professional generation bring to the work environment. Things like interesting work, flexible work hours, the freedom to be comfortable, the freedom to remain connected to the technology that they’ve grown up with, are all identified as issues. Additionally, the group has expectations for rapid advancement and the ability to gain access immediately to those residing in the rarefied air of executive suites. Hmmm. So far, I’m not offended, and in fact, quite the contrary, I like the confidence and clarity of purpose that seems to be inherent in this generation.
The very wrong perspective on Millennials is that they are as a group, lazy. Far from it, but they are restless and demanding. Don’t ask them to pursue purposeless work, don’t expect great things if the job demands have them killing time, don’t minimize how important it is for them to be connected and to receive feedback, and most of all, don’t underestimate them.
This is the most technologically advanced generation of individuals in the history of the planet. They’ve grown up using technology to multi-task, to reach large number of people in a hurry and they seem to have a different frame of reference on time than prior generations. Communication is instantaneous, feedback is constant, brand is everything, fads are born, mature and decline in real-time and this group keeps moving, learning and creating. Sounds a lot like the business environment that we find ourselves struggling to understand.
They may not know what they want to do for the next 30 years (an incomprehensible amount of time to think about work), but they do know that they are smart and adaptable and they are clear on what they don’t want to do: waste time like many of their parents fighting a losing battle with loyalty-free corporations. There is little interest in “paying their dues” and frankly after having watched their parents over-pay their dues to be rewarded with life in a world that looks frighteningly similar to the Dilbert comic strip, who can blame them for wanting something different.
Whether I’m engaging with the older Millennials in my MBA classes or watching my own sons and their friends grow up, I can think of countless examples that make me excited about the impact that these people will have on our world. The MBA students are wicked-smart and frighteningly worldly for their youthfulness. The creativity and good character that I perceive in the older teens that I come in contact with are both exciting and reassuring.
My son on his own volition is traveling a great distance this weekend to spend a few minutes at the memorial service for a high school coach who passed unexpectedly. He’s doing this because he knows that this is a simple token of respect and thanks. It turns out that this coach’s former players are coming from around the country to spend a minute to say thanks to one from our generation that took the time to see the potential in them. You wouldn’t recognize this loyalty and sense of responsibility from the content in the popular press about this generation. It’s there, but it requires our own creativity as managers, leaders and parents to figure out how to tap into it.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
I’ll opt for the dissenting view on the Millennials. Where others see management headaches, I see fire, creativity, passion, skill and maybe the capacity to face a world that looks very much the worse for our efforts. Maybe, just maybe, this group will earn the label of The Next Greatest Generation. Perhaps like the coach referenced above, you can still make a difference by helping this generation realize its potential.
Overall, I’m encouraged and hopeful.