Recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about the Millennials. I know that I am not the only one. America's youngest employees have captured the collective attention of our nation in ways that no other generation has in its history.
Most of that focus has been less than flattering. Millennials get flack for all sorts of things, such as their (alleged) me-first attitude, uncouth mannerisms, short attention span, unconventional work habits, distinctive fashion and cuisine preferences, strong propensity towards the use of social media, and even their decision of where to live (many stay with their parents well into their third decade). Naturally, all of this negative light casts a long pall over the 20-somethings that are fast becoming the most powerful and influential generation of workers and communicators that this country has ever known.
But there is a positive side to the millennial equation, one that deserves far more attention than it typically receives. Millennials have learned a lesson that many of us Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers never did, a lesson in priorities that is both surprisingly mature and quite refreshing.
A recent piece by Forbes contributor Liz Ryan extolled the millennial way, or at least some of the logic behind it. In her column, Ryan sought to assuage concerns of baby boomer parents and frustrated executives, telling them that Gen-Y's approach to life and their attitude about employment is healthier and more balanced than we think and something that all of us should have done years ago." Anyone who argues for a more human-centric approach to work," she wrote, "is a hero in our book, and that quality is what millennials are most well-known for. They aren't willing to fall in line and take a lousy job just to get an apartment that's the envy of their friends. What good would the apartment do them, if they hate their job and therefore hate their life?"
Our youngest workers, she writes, were just getting started (or thinking about doing so) when corporate scandal and widespread layoffs punctured their parents' golden balloons. The promise of peace and prosperity in exchange for decades of hard work and sacrifice to the corporate cause went up in recessionary smoke. Now, their children, fresh off of an economic near-collapse that almost shattered their own dreams and still put many of them on hold, remain uncommitted to the corporate credo, an irreverent quality that sends tremors of fear down the spines of upper management.
Of all of the purported Millennial qualities (an over-generalization that I am generally loathe to use -- how can we really capture the collective qualities of millions in a short bullet-list?), this is the one that I find most intriguing. Not only does it fly in the face of conventional wisdom (since when do narcissist, self-centered Gen-Yers possess the capacity to demonstrate mature thinking and real, life-framing perspective?) but also speaks to the impact that upbringing and context can have on a person's thinking.
For decades, American kids were given many gallons of corporate Kool-Aid. They were taught about the "American Way," the notion that if we behaved, worked hard and pursued the right education we could be assured a secure career in a corporate setting. Children were taught to have faith in their country, their lawmakers and their communal executives, who would ensure for them a successful career in their area of choice.
But along came the Great Recession and changed all of that. Layoffs swiftly burst the Gen-Y bubble. They saw their parents -- hard working Americans who had dutifully done their work and climbed the ladder -- out of jobs with nowhere to turn. Their security had vanished overnight, leaving a trail of despair in its wake. The young men and women who were in high school, college or just starting out in the workforce got a very different flavor of drink than what was dispensed to their parents and grandparents. And the taste was quite bitter.
When millennials eschew "corporate security" and pursue their own dreams, they may do so for various reasons. They want to lead, not be led. They want to preserve their independence in the worst way and experiment in an ever-changing, opportunity-filled global environment that plays by a very different set of rules than it once did. But they are also expressing a fundamental mistrust in what was once the most reliable and secure sector of American life, the blue chips.
If corporate America and the elder statesmen of big business want to recruit and retain millennial workers, they need to really understand their audience. They must be willing to be transparent, flexible and offer leadership opportunities early on. They also have to give their new hires the opportunity to make a difference and continually grow, so that they don't feel stuck in a potential career dead-end. Those that succeed in reaching out strategically to the newest brand of worker can hope to harness their enormous potential in a manner that propels them forward and employ an engaged, inspired and incredibly talented workforce well into the future.