Millennials: your new workforce

Gen Y. New Boomers. The Echo Generation. The Me Me Me Generation. If you were born between 1981 and 2000, I am looking at you, Millennial.

So much has been made of this age-bracket lately, and why not? This group recently passed Baby Boomers as the largest generation in American history. And as Millennials move into their twenties and thirties, they’ll soon be the largest sector in the workforce, positioned to begin purchasing houses, buying cars, starting families, and making other big adult decisions that hugely impact your industry and the economy at large. No small wonder they think they’re special.

There are excellent articles, books, interviews, talks, and other media out there that poke at what defines the Millennial and how he or she came to be that way. The majority quickly take a stance on your garden variety Millennial, arguing that they’re unfairly maligned and the next great generation, or that they’re a solipsistic, Snapchatting menace on the modern workplace. Regardless of where you sit, the tropes are familiar, and we need to all be mindful of their influence on global workforce and culture.

What comes to mind when you imagine your Millennial? Perhaps someone wielding an iPhone, rolling their eyes, living in what was supposed to become mom’s craft room, and explaining to someone at the dinner table everything Reagan did wrong while in office? Millennials are often criticized for being: Obsessed with Technology, Highly Self-Involved, Unwilling to Acclimate to Social Norms, and Politically-Minded. Let’s start there.

Obsessed with Technology

To understand this generation, you have to start with understanding the shift in worldview they unwittingly pioneered. For digital natives, a world with the Internet—a communicative and perpetually connected world—is all they have known. This has grown from a simple place where they could message with friends and spend two hours downloading a song to a place where they can touch a button to order a pizza, stream The Hunger Games, and find a date with which to share both for the evening.

Such immediacy and access has also brought them up in a world where everything is immediately knowable. Millennials will embellish on their resumes fearlessly because they can binge YouTube videos to learn a skill or Google industry terms in a meeting on their phone. Everything is already old-hat, and this keeps them hungry. They’re steadily on the hunt for the best, the newest, the shiniest. If new skills and experiences are not part of the workforce challenge for your Millennials, boredom will prevail and you will lose them.

Analysis: Because of their immersion in technology and marketers frequently reminding them they’re the key tech demographic, Millennials love their phones, social media, and Internet. That makes them a savvy bunch, but it also makes them flighty. When you’re competing for attention with their friend’s Instagram story from the Google cafeteria, you may need an elevated approach to keep your Millennial engaged. Talk to them about it—and actually listen to what they have to say. Should more online education be part of their job? What are you doing to create a workplace culture worthy of their attention? Is your company current in the way it uses technology and social media? Consider these elements, but don’t be afraid to tell them to put away their phone when you’re talking.

Highly Self-Involved

You would be hard-pressed to find a classroom at the end of the last century that did not include at least one poster encouraging students to “be themselves.” Outside of the classroom, films, television, and popular music all affirmed that these youths could be whatever they wanted. Then, well-intentioned parents worked hard to provide for their Millennial boys and girls and simultaneously affirm their special place in the world. All of this, yet people still feign surprise at Millennial self-involvement. The products of No Child Left Behind, helicopter moms arguing their young Einsteins into honors classes and better grades, and—yes—trophies for participation. It would be astounding if Millennials actually had a proportionate sense of self. Instead, you have individuals scoring 30% higher on the Narcissistic Personality Index than other generations, individuals who obsess over social media profiles to the point of chronic depression, and individuals whose most lasting social contribution may be the “selfie.”

Analysis: Millennials were maybe dealt a tough hand here, and in the workplace, that bares some consideration. Non-traditional working hours, opportunities to work from home, more dedicated time for check-ins and supervisor feedback, open discussions about growth opportunities, clear steps to employee empowerment, and—when appropriate—the acknowledgement of tasks well-done (with or without a trophy) should all be on the table. I say this fully acknowledging that sometimes these are not immediately realistic, but they should be part of the conversation with both younger AND older employees. In tandem with this flexibility and support, however, should be clear expectations and benchmarks. Millennials do well with articulated objectives. Make them do the work but make it rewarding and let them see their purpose in the larger corporate picture.

Unwilling to Acclimate to Societal Norms

Millennials are characterized by what many call a delayed adolescence. The phrase “Peter Pan Generation,” is my favorite moniker to emphasize the low number of marriages and childbirths among Millennials. “Thirty is the new twenty,” you have may have heard from your friend in accounting as they ebulliently downed their third Jager bomb… after work… on a Tuesday.

You can partially attribute this delayed “adulting” to Millennials leading healthier lifestyles as well as the increase in life expectancy. It’s also a more mobile and more well-connected world out there, one that is actively encouraging travel and experiences in your 20s (SEE: #YOLO #wanderlust). But mostly, you can attribute this to the model of adulthood and its related conventions having failed Millennials in a big way. As this generation watched divorce rates escalate, spent less time attending religious ceremonies, personally experienced piecemeal educational and parenting practices, left colleges in record-high numbers with record-high debt, and entered a broken job-market brought on by irresponsible financial institutions they watched their own government bail out, their faith in the status quo understandably wavered.

Analysis: We have a fickle generation with limited faith in institutions that just doesn’t want to grow up. It seems like your best bet is to skip the trouble, hiring employees born before 1981 until the next generation is old enough to work in your state. Or. Maybe. Be a thing for Millennials to believe in, to care about. They are bitter, but still ripe for believing. Give them an experience that compels their attention. Offer them something more: work and authority and a voice that demand adult behavior. Be an organization they want to give a damn about and see what happens.

Politically Minded

And finally, you have an uber-connected and highly educated generation, unfamiliar with how to form deep inter-personal relationships with individuals other than themselves, chronically un- or under-employed, and not quite convinced they have reason to trust the institutions that have shaped the world around them. Naturally this begets a political mindset. Millennials have information, time, and motivation, but not enough direct experience or avenues to direct their energies. Volunteerism is higher among Millennials than previous generations, as is the want for “impactful work” to characterize their career. Thankfully, they have an outlet in social media to voice opinions and connect with like-minded thinkers. And while for some this is damaging (or gives way to “slacktivism’), for most it seems to leave them optimistic and eager to get involved. With a little guidance, it seems there is the potential for this generation to really affect some positive change.

Analysis: Let the little martyrs wear a Bernie t-shirt to the office and take care to avoid their personal social media at all costs. And, maybe do what you can to meet them where they live. Share stories from your days on the front lines. Let them be vocal about the important things outside of the workplace and consider structuring a time and place for that in the office. Start a weekly social issues lunch hour or book club. Commit more time to volunteer activities as an organization. Structure after-work activities where people can drink together and tell stories and embrace the Millennial enthusiasm while reminding them they’re not the first generation to care about these things.

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