Let's Not Give Millennials a Swift Kick in the Pants (Yet): Consider the alternatives
Several years ago I worked for a man who had built a strong business and reputation over his 45 years in the corporate world; he asked me to help him hire an assistant. It was a small company with fewer than 10 employees, so the job wasn't only limited to assistant work, but would include some office management and event coordination to boot.
Hundreds or resumes, dozens of phone calls, and eight face-to-face meetings later, I whittled the candidates down to two: a woman in her mid 30s who had worked consistently in office settings as an executive administrative assistant, and a woman in her early to mid 20s who had held numerous, unrelated positions, including running her own administrative assistance business out of her home and hairdressing.
I liked both candidates very much, but I was more inclined to hire the woman in her 20s. She had an enthusiasm about her that I thought would positively counter the slower, more contemplative style of my boss. Plus, my boss, what generational marketers would call a traditionalist, often had computer issues, and the woman in her 20s confessed that she enjoyed troubleshooting. The older candidate had more job experience, but would she be willing to pick up the slack doing all of the random little jobs that came up? My boss had asked his last assistant for everything from copyediting services to coffee runs. I assumed the older candidate would consider herself past the early, "will do anything" phase of her career.
My boss met with both candidates and had an immediate reaction to the younger one; she had a "non-traditional" resume and was a bit too chummy--she had joked lightheartedly about keeping her potential boss in-line. Plus, she had a small stud in her left nostril--that seemed to be the worst infraction of them all. The other candidate was pleasant and capable, but I didn't get any sense of her personality. Perhaps the younger candidate would help lighten up the often serious tone of the office. So despite my boss's reservations, I hired her. She lasted three weeks. She said to me before leaving that she just wasn't resonating with her boss. He didn't give her any positive feedback, and she needed to be in a better environment. I remember admiring how quickly she made the decision, without months of misery or questioning.
This story came to mind while I read Ron Alsop's latest book, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. Alsop, a writer for The Wall St. Journal, has become a defacto expert on Millennials, having kids in this generation and strong exposure to their effect on the marketplace through his reporting work on business schools and corporate reputation. Though the cultural chasm between Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2001) and older generations is becoming increasingly clear in the marketplace, Alsop makes the distinctions clearer, delving behind the now-stereotypical view of the "entitled" generation and approaching it with an invested, strategic perspective. Even if you think the Millenials need to grow up and endure a few career hard knocks before getting that coveted promotion, realize that in a few years this group will be by far the largest cohort in the workforce, and one that has to be understood, even catered to, if businesses are to survive.
The book is packed with examples of organizations making dramatic changes to accommodate Millennials, from professors providing studens with IM access and multimedia learning experiences to major corporations offering Parent Days where their children work. Helicopter parenting, a term I've only just been turned on to, was coined to describe the doting, "hovering" childrearing style of Millenials' parents--Baby Boomers who want their kids to be competitive and safe in an information-overloaded, post 9/11 society. "Involved" parents are endemic to the Millennial experience. Many in this generation don't cower in embarrassment like I did once when my mother tracked me down in a high-school history class to give me my forgotten lunch. They expect their education and careers to be family affairs, and they expect to be in constant contact with their parents, who become friends, vocal advisors, and in the most extreme instances, reasons why their kids didn't get hired.
Alsop is an objective (if not overly tolerant) writer, who provides story after story of Fortune 500 company managers who had to negotiate with parents over a child's salary, of parents who challenged professors about grades and attended their children's job interviews.
Alsop reports some anecdotes from Thunderbird School administrator Kip Harrell:
A father walked into (Harrell's) office, and before even introducing himself, he demanded to know, "Why haven't you found my son a job yet?" Then there was the student who called Harrell and announced, "I am conferencing in my dad on this call, as he has some questions for you."
Jeffrey Rice, head of M.B.A. career services at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University, was taken aback when an applicant showed up for an admissions interview with his mother in tow ... A Carnegie Mellon University admissions officer spent 30 minutes with a young man and his father, but it was the father who dominated the conversation. To her amazement, the father asked how his son had done in "the interview." She hardly considered it an interview.
Alsop provides some explanation behind what this Gen X reviewer thinks is outlandish behavior: Millennials' parents have played such a hands-on role in their child's development throughout their lives, it is unrealistic for them to suddenly relinquish their role upon their child's high school graduation. And yet this is how it worked for previous, relatively well-adjusted generations, no?
College tuitions do give parents some equity in a child's progress, Millennial's parents argue. Says one: " I might not expect or demand as much out of a university if it were costing me $10,000 a year as I do when it is costing me $28,000 a year. I wouldn't put $28,000 in a stock and then walk away and not pay attention to the performance of the stock."
Alsop leaves non-Millennial readers to do the tsk-tsking, offering at most some light commentary on how helicopter parenting may have a negative impact on millennials' ability to be autonomous in the future. I just kept thinking back to scenes from 1971's Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: are we allowing a bunch of complaining, gum-chewing, ingrates into the workforce without any checks and balances? Where are the corporate Oompah Loompahs?
Reading Trophy Kids I tried to remove my own bias against this generation that nudges my own. While many exceptions exist, I have been struck, as a business owner and hiring manager, at the presumptuousness I've seen by some of the more indicative members of this tribe. I've been asked to guarantee salary, benefits, and responsibilities that far exceeded the candidate's experience. I've seen poorly-written cover letters (or none at all) and sloppy resumes written in short-hand. I've interviewed candidates who never sent a thank you note after meeting, or who seemed more interested in what I would do for them than in the company. And to be fair, I've also hired some very talented, gracious, and hardworking people, too. I've had to keep my emotions in check and understand that I could play a coaching role to this generation, bridging the gap between the entitleds and the embittered managers who never had work-life balance and helping us all leverage our strengths for the most effective outcomes. That would seem what us Gen Xers are best at: being the minority voice of reason.
Still, as a "self-reliant and cynical" Gen Xer, I have some concerns about how over-adjusting to Millennials will play out in the long term. I don't have kids now, but if I did, I would be wondering if I am ever doing enough to make sure my child has the edge. We can rail from afar at the obsessive behavior of Millennials' parents, but will helicopter parenting become like steroid use: looked-down-upon in theory, but a necessity to remaining competitive? I always like to imagine myself one day as a laid-back Mom who, like my mother did, lets her child discover her own talents and make her own mistakes. But I see Xer women of post-Millennial children, like my sister, who is expected to complete homework assignments along with her daughter, who must cut out of work early to watch ALL of soccer practice, lest she be seen as less devoted than the other moms, and who secretly trusts that her child's educators are all doing their jobs just fine, thanks, and that working during the day doesn't make her a bad Mom. This Gen-Xer has already over-obsessed about her own career:Why force that same self-absorption down an innocent's throat?
I'm also a bit nostalgic for the times when it was cool to talk about the Xers, when we were the ones that needed to be figured out. In the end, we're just the translators, the small cohort who can speak both Boomer and a little bit of Millennial. Many of us started our careers having to write in long-hand and in full sentences. We had to figure out how to pay our bills and get our shopping done in spite of our jobs, not during them. We had at least a few years when we had to iron clothes in the morning, even wear panty hose (though I think I blocked it out). I feel like I need to remind everyone that Millennials don't have a lock on ambition, or entrepreneurial tendencies. We Xers just knew we had to pay our dues before striking out on our own, or getting that flex time. But the Xers--and possibly some exhausted Boomers--seemed to have imparted these desires to the Millennials without feeling like we deserved to experience them for ourselves, or at least before age 35.
Perhaps that's the key to what Millennials can teach US: to at least pretend we are entitled. Think of what would never had happened without Millennial influence, if Mark Zuckerberg had succumbed to our fogey assumptions that you have to suck up for years before calling the shots? If we didn't have the largest cohort entering the workplace demanding time for afternoon workouts and a shorter commute? We would continue to assume that work is synonymous with personal sacrifice.
I found Alsop's book a fascinating read, and not only because I need to better understand the Millennials, but because it helped me understand how my own Xer biases have gotten in the way of, perhaps, the best way to work.
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