Everything you know about millennials is wrong
By John Helmer
I have been researching millennials for the best part of a month. I’ve read a stack of research reports and articles, held interviews with an array of experts from both practitioner and academic communities, and even talked to the odd millenial. From this mass of information and opinions a degree of clarity had begun to emerge. And then I talked to Jennifer.
We are discussing her upcoming book (‘What Millennials Want from Work’, January 2016, McGraw-Hill) and I have just asked her what is really distinctive about this generation.
‘Tattoos,’ she says.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘They have more tattoos.’
I listen on, as she enumerates two more distinctive characteristics: a different attitude to technology from Gen X, and a worrying increase in near-sightedness. But that’s it: the list stops there.
‘Interesting,’ I say, slightly foxed by the fact that she has not mentioned any of the usual things people say about this age group – that they’re entitled, cosseted, narcissistic; prefer to work in groups rather than stick their necks out and take responsibility, have no loyalty to employers, etc., etc. ‘Er … anything else?’
‘Nope,’ says Jennifer.
‘So what you’re telling me,’ I say (looking around for something solid to hold onto), ‘is that almost everything people say about the difference between the millennial generation and previous ones is fallacious?’
‘If it’s framed as a difference,’ she replies, ‘yes’.
Listening back to the recording of our interview there is thump, which might well be the sound of my jaw hitting the desk.
‘For example,’ she continues; ‘in the book, we talk about millennials being entitled. Because that’s one of the things that’s said a lot. What we actually find in our research is that you could describe them as entitled – they don’t want to do boring work, they want to say what they want to say when they want to say it, they want to have a life in addition to having a job – but the truth is, the same is true of older people.’
The circle of life?
At this point, perhaps I should explain for the benefit of those who don’t necessarily follow the academic literature that closely, why we should listen very attentively to what my interviewee says.
Jennifer Deal is a senior research scientist at the highly regarded Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in San Diego, California, an Affiliated Research Scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s ‘Experts’ panel on leadership. Her work focuses on global leadership and generational change, and the latter topic is something she has been studying for some 17 years – long enough to start to see something of a pattern.
‘When I started doing research on this, everybody was complaining about Gen-Xers, not millennials – and the complaints were virtually identical!’.
The same pattern was in evidence when, more recently, she looked even further back. After our interview, Jennifer sends me scans of articles published in Fortune Magazine dating from the late Nineteen-sixties dealing with what it called ‘the most interesting generation in US history’ – the generational cohort we now know as the ‘baby boomers’. She has helpfully highlighted a few quotes, some of which I’ll give here:
‘… Young employees are demanding that they be given productive tasks to do from the first day of work, and that the people they work for notice and react to their performance …’
‘…We’re dealing with a lot of tender little egos. They have to be told they’re loved quite frequently.’
‘ … Young applicants insist that they are less concerned with pay than with other job values …’
‘ … With surprising unanimity, business students say that they expect to stay with their first employer for only about three years …’
‘ … Students almost invariably refer to their talks with corporate recruiters by saying, “I interviewed I.B.M. [or whomever]” —not, “I was interviewed.”’
I’m reading a bunch of opinions about boomers from 1968, but they could have come straight out of a blog post about millennials published in 2015.
‘Anyone see a cycle here?’ says Jennifer.
‘Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.’
Every generation complains about the next – and in very similar terms, it seems. What we imagine to be a generational shift in attitudes is often more about life stage.
‘Young people, when they [enter organisations],’ says Jennifer; ‘are new to the workforce: they don’t necessarily know how things work, they want to change things, they want to make things better – and the people who’ve been there for longer are more jaded and don’t think any of this is going to fly … Life stage is a critically important variable.’
So where does this leave us in our view of millennials?
Towards a more nuanced view of millennials
After I have had a bit of a lay down in a darkened room with a dampened towel on my head, I review, and have these two thoughts.
1. Maybe it’s time to tone down the scare-stories
Much of the rhetoric about millennials has a slightly panicky, even apocalyptic ring to it. You would be forgiven for thinking we are facing an unprecedented cataclysm, in which the minds we are trying to train and educate reach us in a unique state of unpreparedness and even decay.
It is quite possible, however, if Jennifer Deal is right, that the differences in attitude to work between millennials and Gen-Xers that many reputable researchers have observed are not really evidence of generational shift. In some instances they may be matters of life stage, in which case the attitudes in question will not be as indelible as tattoos, but subject to change, as the cohort grows and matures.
For example, educators complain that their millennial-generation students believe everything they see written on a web page; that they don’t understand how to track down and evaluate the source of the information they are reading. As a boomer at University in the Nineteen-seventies, my personal tutor made very similar complaints about me; that I was credulous, lazy about references, and hadn’t yet learned the art of real scholarship. Real scholarship is something that students have to learn – few pitch up for freshers week with the ability to write citations in Harvard style – and is as much an attitude of mind as it is a set of procedures.
Attitudes are not unalterable. In education, and also in the field of organisational training, a large amount of work goes into altering them. A substantial part of leadership training, for instance – the subject of the insight paper I’m researching – is to do with the changes in personal attitude involved in becoming a leader.
When it comes to leadership, we shouldn’t assume that a millennial will never be able to make individual decisions without first taking a vote among her friends (and pausing for a selfie) – or learn to apply herself to a period of necessary but boring grunt-work in order to reach a slightly far-off goal. These are probably habits that every generation has had to learn, equally painfully.
Seeing millennials as a problem – or a ‘challenge’ to put it in business-speak – tends to cast the situation too negatively. We should give at least equal weight to the new capabilities this generation brings to the workforce – like its prodigious ability to information-gather and network using web technology.
2. The really unique thing about millennials (apart from tattoos and poor eyesight) is their relationship with technology
Throughout my interviews, this theme has remained remarkably constant. Whatever else the experts might disagree on, nobody disputes that growing up with the ubiquitous presence of web technology represents a unique and unprecedented difference in the lives of this generation when compared to that of their forebears.
For Jennifer Deal, it’s one of the few major differences she sees in the millennial cohort. But her view of this difference is not the standard issue briefing on millennials and technology. She make the point that the changes in society and working lives that technology has brought about don’t only affect millennials.
We have been sold the idea of a great divide between ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’. However, the truth that this image fails to represent is that the last three generational cohorts – boomers, Gen X and millennials – have all been influenced by digital technology in different ways. And the story of those differences is instructive.
As a late boomer, I was thirty years old before I first put my hands on a computer keyboard. My fundamental work habits were already formed by then – but I have had continually to change them ever since, as technology has developed.
Gen X grew up with computers in the workplace, and pretty soon had them in their homes. The home computer was a fundamental item of furniture for this generation, and it wasn’t long before the kit they had at home was a generally a good deal more sophisticated than what they had foisted on them at work by the IT department. The first generation of gamers was Gen X, though they tended to be a bit more solitary about it than today’s crop – and the first generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs also, let it be noted, were Gen-Xers.
… And then along come the millennials; wired to the max, technology at their fingertips, constantly connected … Join in if you know the words. However, there is an interesting difference that Jennifer points out between Gen X and Millennials. For Gen X, if you wanted to do anything really interesting with computers, it involved programming. Gen X programmed more. Millennials, by contrast, came to the technology in a more advanced, post Web 2.0 state, and interact with it much more as consumers. Having grown up with internet connection as part of the mix, they are also more social in their use of technology – so much so that we can turn this statement on its head and say that their social lives are mediated to a much larger extent than has ever been seen before by technology.
Nobody I have talked to so far about millennials disputes this as a significant factor – although the precise effects it is having, and whether it is a force for good or ill – are hugely contentious and not really known yet for sure.
Certainly Jennifer Deal, who describes herself as ‘a data person’, is not prepared to get into contentious statements on this particular question: ‘I haven’t seen any data!’. A commendably evidence-based position, in my view.
We don’t need a peer-reviewed study to convince us that millennials have an enhanced facility with technology, and use it instinctively as an enabler in getting through their lives. As we continue investigating this subject through future interviews and discussions, which will culminate in an insight paper on this topic of leadership learning for millennials, our aim will be to show how organisations can make the best use of this facility in sustaining and renewing their organisations, through developing their millennial cohort as leaders.
It is clear to me from talking to Jennifer, however, that we should stop dumping terms like ‘digital native’ on millennials – and amend somewhat the picture we might have formed of them from browsing the blogosphere as so many selfie-stick-wielding, over-entitled ingrates. It is a picture that might have more to do with our own projections as envious elders than with reality.
(Many thanks to Peter Chadwick of IEDP for helping to set up this interview).