by Edward Cone
“I got the award for not sucking as bad as last year” – Elijah Cone, circa 2005, upon receiving the Most Improved Player trophy for his middle-school soccer team.
My son’s words popped into my head this week after I read yet another hot take about how Millennials grew up on participation trophies and wouldn’t know hard work and real achievement if those things bit them on the butt and anyway they are just so weirdly different from us old folks and, also, HEY YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN.
It has to stop. This othering of young adults is malignant in spirit and wrong on the facts.
And nattering about Millennials as if they were zoo animals or space aliens is disrespectful to the fastest-growing segment of your workforce. It will end up costing your business.
Everywhere I look I see Millennials doing great things, from social work to Snapchat to the US Navy and the NBA. The younger members of our team at OE are scary-smart, conscientious, and self-effacing. My son? He knew he wasn’t a star just because he got that (actually somewhat legit) trophy -- but he stuck with it and ended up playing (sparingly) on an undefeated, state-champion varsity team; even then, he never confused his abilities and accomplishments with those of more-gifted teammates.
Anecdata, I know, but true nonetheless. Maybe you prefer actual numbers? There are some linked on this list of things to think about before you write (or read) another dumb post about Millennials.
1. This whole generational fingerprinting meme is suspect in the first place. Yes, each of us is influenced by the technology, politics, culture, etc., of our time, and there are moments when big generational changes ripple outward. It’s happening now in sizable chunks of the world, courtesy of urbanization and globalization. But there’s a definite whiff of marketing and book-selling (along with other flavors of BS) about the whole endeavor.
2. People change. It took the Baby Boomers seven years to go from Woodstock to the Me Decade. This is the natural order of things. “Millennials” usually means everyone between the ages of 18 and 34. How does that make sense? A person approaching 35 has different experiences, obligations, habits, and preferences than a 23-year-old, so lumping them together is kind of silly. You get a job, and after a while your perceptions of work merge with those of other workers (see our study of Millennials in the workplace).
3. They weren’t all alike in the first place. The neat segmentation of populations by birthday is more like astrology than science. Millennials have all kinds of diverse interests and experiences -- as do the generations ahead of them. A young computer geek may have more in common with a middle-aged computer geek than she does a jock of the same age (and, yes, generalizing along those interest lines is risky, too).
4. Walls exist only where we build them. Diversity means respecting differences but also recognizing commonalities. True fact about Millennials: You can talk to them! And listen, too. Relationships and organizations are not static. Information flows both ways. I will never be a Snapchat adept like my kids, and my younger colleagues may respond to my totally on-point M*A*S*Hreference with blank stares, but I (and my company) work differently than we did just a few years ago because we adapt to the technology and culture that younger people grew up with.
5. Millennials live in the world their elders made. Millennials aren’t forming households! They eschew corporate jobs and navigate from gig to gig! They have a ton of debt! Well, duh. These headlines are not symptoms of a generation-shaping virus, but rational reflections of the economy and culture Millennials are inheriting from their parents and grandparents. Look in the mirror for a minute before you judge their choices.
Our research (including the chart/link above) also shows that younger workers are no more idealistic than their older colleagues – or, flipped the other way, that we want the same good things they do. Work that has meaning. Life with balance. Making a difference in the world. It’s almost as if these are human traits, not generational ones.
Edward Cone heads the technology practice and is Deputy Director of Thought Leadership at Oxford Economics. He also specializes in healthcare and talent trends. The photo atop this post is a slightly dated image of the author and the two Millennials he knows best.