The Secret Life of American Millenials

I am not going to tell you how to manage millennials. There are already 549,000 Google results you can look through for advice from all the “experts” on decoding the secret language of my alien species. Instead, I want to help you find empathy for your employees and teammates.

We, the Millenials, (AKA the group born between 1980 and 2000, who is currently upending your “old school” corporate world) grew up beautiful butterflies, each of us a unique and special snowflake. With our participation trophies and our “you can be anything when you grow up if you just believe” mandates, we were destined for success. After all, we still believed in the American Dream – study hard, get a degree, get a job, buy a house, start a family, be happy. This was the plan.

With my AP English class, I watched the events of September 11, 2001 live on TV. The world was instantly changed. The post-9/11 era was immediately marked with suspicion and fear. Travel became dangerous. Home became dangerous. Nothing felt safe. But we still had a plan, and as long as we kept our heads down and followed the plan, we would be okay.

I graduated from San Diego State University in December 2007 and took a job as an administrative assistant for a personal financial planner. Little did I know that I was about to have a front row seat to the biggest financial meltdown since the 1930s Great Depression. I’ll never forget the calls and emails to and from clients who had just watched their retirement savings vanish overnight.

Many of us watched our parents lose their jobs, their homes, their retirement and life savings during the crisis. We watched those who had been with their companies for 10 or 20 years suddenly end up out on the street with very little prospects because there were too few jobs, their skills were outdated, or they were simply too old to bother hiring. The retirement age grew and we were suddenly staring down the barrel of a very long working life ahead of us.

As we approached our own entry into the workplace, our vision of the future became drastically different. We could no longer count on the plan. We couldn’t count on anything. The world was not the safe, fair place we had been raised to believe it to be. The good guys didn’t always win – in fact, they rarely did. Loyalty was not rewarded. No job was secure. A degree wasn’t a guarantee – other than a guarantee of a lifetime of debt. Much of the college-educated in my generation remained unemployed or underemployed for the years following the crash. Some of us (myself included) went back to school to pursue more marketable advanced degrees. Ultimately, we began to view work, and our relationship with our employers, very differently.

I guess the joke was on us.

Here are my thoughts on 5 of the top complaints about Millennials that often appear in my social streams:

  1. Millennials are selfish and capricious. Can you blame us? I mean honestly, where did loyalty to a company (at the expense of our own career progression, income, well-being, health, etc.) ever get us or our parents? Today, Millennials view employment more as a contract than a lifelong commitment. We typically don’t stick around for more than 5 years at a company (and in many circles, it’s actually considered detrimental to your lifetime earnings to do-so, as you are far more likely to receive a sizeable raise and promotion faster by switching companies than by trying to work your way up within one organization).
  2. Millennials think they are smarter than everyone else. Well, let’s be fair. The political and economic global conditions that we entered the workforce under didn’t leave us with a whole lot of faith in the decision-making skills of the generation(s) before us. We were also raised by a generation who was shaped by major civil events (the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.) that left them questioning authority and the status quo. They passed on many of those same traits to us. So, yes, we’re always going to ask “why”? Don’t look at this as a negative quality. By asking, we are constantly looking for ways to improve by increasing efficiencies or increasing effectiveness and impact, not to undermine your authority.
  3. Millennials expect a reward for every small task they complete. Remember my comment about the “participation trophies”? I blame our parents for that one… We do like feedback, but it’s not because we need constant reassurance and praise – it’s because, like I mentioned, we like to know that we’re effectively using our time and energy to accomplish things. One of my guiding mantras in dealing with others is: You can’t change until you know something is wrong. We like to know early and often if something we’re doing is not up to your expectations. This gives us a chance to make you happier and not waste our own time.
  4. Millennials expect everything to be handed to them. Quite the opposite. Much like the Great Depression generation, our generation has had to learn to do more with less. Our wages have not kept pace with the cost of living. Workers in Silicon Valley, one of the most expensive places to live – and also one of the most lucrative – are often stuck with multiple roommates in nominal living conditions because the cost of living is so outrageous. Many in my generation still live at home with their parents, while working full-time white collar jobs, if they are lucky enough to have parents that can offer a place to stay. There are many who are not so lucky.
  5. Millennials are high-maintenance and demand frivolous perks. I don’t need a stocked mini-fridge, a floor-to-floor slide, nap pods, or any of the other bizarre perks that many Silicon Valley companies boast to attract top talent. I (and many other Millennials who are now of family-starting age) need flexibility to be around for my kids. That means flexible work schedule and location. (I wrote more about the benefits to myself and my employer of a work-from-home arrangement, which you can read here.)

Okay, phew, we got those out of the way. Let’s move on to something more productive, shall we? Here are the most important things to know about Millennials:

  1. We want to work on things that are meaningful. Everyone has their own purpose in life. It’s the reason they get up in the morning. It’s the reason they do the kind of work they choose to do. When we watched the economic collapse and lived through the subsequent consequences on our own financial prospects, we realized that money should not rank #1 in our list of priorities. We filled the void left by financial security, which we learned was unstable at best, with a sense of purpose. Purpose is something that we can take with us from job-to-job. It is not tied to a single project or company. It is something that helps us grow as people.
  2. We want to be paid fairly and work reasonable hours. This one requires no introduction. You’ve heard this one since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, it’s still a major issue to this day – and it’s even worse if you’re a woman or a minority! I won’t get into the wage disparity issue here (that’s a whole other blog post!), but big surprise! We want to be paid for our work and to have a life beyond the office.
  3. We need to see your vision for the future. Okay, we may be a little (understandably) insecure about this one. While we have our own vision for our future, driven by our purpose, we also need to see that you, our employer and manager, are also thinking about our future. We need to have open conversations about what’s best for career goals, what interests us, and how you can help us to achieve our own professional goals. We like training. We like development paths. We like attending conferences and networking events. We appreciate opportunities to take on bigger responsibilities as we prepare to take the next step in our careers – and we need to know that if the next step is not with your organization, you will still be happy for us and supportive of our progress.
  4. We treat our careers as a “business of one.” The old employer-run recruiting game is over. More and more Millennials are taking back control of their careers by approaching job interviews as two-way interviews, rather than bending over backwards to try to impress the employer and beg for the job. Check out this article on TechCrunch for some more specific numbers, but the bottom line here is that you should be seeing a pattern: Millennials don’t stick around because you have a stocked snack cupboard. We stick around where we see a productive and profitable future for ourselves. You’d expect the same from any other business you contracted with – why not your individual employees?

To sum it all up, when you feel yourself growing frustrated with one of your Millennial coworkers or employees, try to keep in mind their perspective in approaching the situation and give them the benefit of the doubt. While you may not agree with or understand their tactics, you may actually be working towards the same goals from different directions.

Unless your employee is just an asshole. It’s really absurd to broadly stereotype an entire generation of people based on individual personality characteristics. There are events and geopolitical circumstances that affect everyone living in a particular time period. By understanding these commonalities, we can try to understand what motivates members of a generation, what they value, and why. However, this entire article is useless bullshit if you treat all Millennials like garbage because you had one asshole on your team. Some people just suck, regardless of their generation.

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