Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Kids Are Actually (Sorta) All Right

Every generation finds, eventually, a mode of expression that suits it. Cavemen drew lines on their cave walls. Sixties kids marched. History has dubbed us “the millennials.” At best, we are engaged, upbeat and open to change. We have hopes and dreams, YouTube links and five-year plans. At worst, we are those urban-dwelling, incessant social networkers who just want a trophy for showing up. Hopelessly self-obsessed and dependent on gadgets, we eschew real human interaction.

It seems like every industry is trying to “figure us out.” How we behave, how to reach out to us, and make us feel at home in the workplace. And for good reason: we are reaching an age of independent consumption, starting to have children, and becoming a presence in the workforce. It’s no wonder every company is trying to tap into the Millenial market.

While this line of thinking is seductive, it is misguided. Millennials, like all generational cohorts, have as much that divides as unites. Treating us as a homogenous entity is likely to fail—or worse—backfire. This may be a personal bias as a “Millenial” myself, but as someone who is friends with other millenials and of other generations too, there are certain misconceptions that are particularly frustrating.

Faced with a slow economy, high unemployment, stagnant wages and student loans, it makes reasonable sense that these factors constrict millenials’ ability both to maintain a reasonable lifestyle and to save for things like cars and new homes. The sad truth is the most educated generation in history is on track to becoming less prosperous, at least financially, than its predecessors.

As part of redressing this imbalance, let’s at least start with a greater acknowledgement of the plight of millennials and the role that in many cases, previous generations played in creating it; and in other cases – these imbalances are universal and cross-generational. Many millenials feel like they didn’t create this mess; came late to the banquet and were served crumbs. What’s worse is when these elders chastise us for the bleak situation we’re in.

One of the perks of getting old is that you are allowed to complain about the young. From rizzled business pundits, stuffy employers and media headlines like “Do Millenials Stand a Chance in the Real World?” “Dear Millenials, You’re Ruining the Economy. Move out,” or “The Worst Generation,” abuse the privilege of age as much as anyone ever did. A Washington Post article on “Cracked Cellphone Screens are a pride for some Young People,” sounds like a parody of something to write when you have a deadline in three hours and nothing to say.

Employers, they say, must adjust their management styles to meet the expectations of millennials—those born between 1980 and 2000, also known as generation Y. It is often pointed out that millennials are the first generation to have grown up in the digital era. Though this is a fact, there are several other contradictions not hard to find. Millenials are said to be natural collaborators. Everything from our education in kindergartens to our participation in social media has turned us into team players. But at the same time we reject careerism and are allergic to being managed. Companies need to turn their offices into open-plan playpens to attract and retain these highly-strung, fickle individuals.

Poll data from a global consulting firm, CEB, finds that the millennials among them are in fact the most competitive: 59% of them, in the latest poll, said competition is “what gets us up in the morning”, compared with 50% of baby-boomers. Some 58% of millennials said we compare our performance with peers’, as against 48% for other generations. As for the idea that we are anti-careerist, 33% of millennials put “future career opportunity” among the top five reasons for choosing a job, compared with 21% for other generations. Or to the idea that firms should communicate with digital natives through digital media - more than 90% of millennials said we wanted to receive performance evaluations and to discuss career plans face-to-face. Millennials are more likely to seek and value feedback from their managers than members of other generations are. But this is because we are still young, and not because of the particular generation we were born into. Young people in every generation change jobs more frequently than older people because we are looking for the right one. Young people also look for feedback because we are still learning the ropes.

It would be going too far to say that there are no differences between the generations. Of course variations in consumption patterns are different. However, millenials getting more of their news via Buzzfeed than baby-boomers does not necessarily translate in different attitudes about work. There are some differences across the generations that are more apparent. For instance, those millenials who have been in the same profession for a few years have more conventional attitudes than those who are still in university.

I’m one of those young people always calling themselves lucky: I’ve been employed throughout the downturn, finally in the industry that I wanted to work in. But at my old job, there were several hardships. Stress, pressure, sexual discrimination, verbal abuse – you name it, I’ve experienced it. I have now learned to set the bar beyond which satisfaction supposedly waits. My demographic (under 25, with a steady job with career prospects and decent salary) seems equivalent of a two-headed unicorn. For most people my age, they live with their parents or in shared housing. Jobs are often crappy, if they’re lucky enough to have one or having work exploited for free by dodgy internship merchants.

Young, employed, and with our whole life ahead of us, our twenties are often billed as the most fun a person is likely to have. However, there are two components to this decade: feeling as if you should be doing and having more in what's supposed to be most exciting decade of your life; and a reality which often fails to match up - a situation commonly known as a “quarter-life crisis.” Young people today lucky enough to enter the workplace are aiming high – they want a great job, as well as a brilliant flat and a cast of great friends and if they don't have all this before they hit 30 they feel a failure.

We hear the grown-ups urge us to calm down. Just like when we were praised for almost everything since childhood; our parents often take the blame of this generation’ s na├»ve sense of “Entitlement.’ They tell us everything will fall into place, that if they could give advice to their younger selves it'd be to send the butterflies away and have a good time before age catches up with us. Millenials hear them say these things, but don't believe them. Things don't just fall into place. It is up to us to put them there, and we feel like every second they don’t put themselves out there is a second wasted. Time is wasted the same way we did in college, only now doing so makes us uncomfortable. 

Then there are those who don’t feel uncomfortable at all; who decide the idea of moving into the financial world of big cities and working long hours inside a massive company does not sound appealing. These respondents often come from individuals who don’t necessarily see “better off” as simply a question of wealth. The ones whose parents may be better off financially; but are more concerned with cultural wealth.

For an intelligent study of this demographic, one must also not ignore the socio-political, geographical differences that exist. For example, 93 per cent of young adults surveyed in China said they were optimistic their country's best days were still ahead. In South Korea, only 77 per cent expressed the same sentiment. In India, 81 per cent did. Pessimism dominates in North America, where only 47 per cent expect their future to be bright. In Western Europe, it's only 41 per cent and in Japan, the pessimists make up 81 per cent, the highest in the world.

These issues remind us that the supposed problems with millenials are things people have been worrying about since forever. From a 1910s concern over women delaying marriage till they are a “full 17 years old”; to a 1969s headline on baby boomers threatening to destroy society with their “awful music,” it is easy to imagine that the emergence of millennial trends could even be traced back to the 8000 B.C as “Agriculture frees teens to dream of unrealistic career options.”

Companies are right to be exercised about the millennial generation. Nothing is more important for a firm’s survival than recruiting and retaining the best of new talent. But in their enthusiasm to embrace that generation, they risk de-generating into banality. At best their generalizations are inconsistent; at worst they are destructive. To get the most of young employees, companies need to recognize that individual differences are always bigger than generational differences. Every age group contains introverts and extroverts, high-flyers and low-riders. But they also need to recognize that human commonalities swamp both individual differences and generational variations. We want roughly the same things regardless of when we were born: to be given interesting tasks to do, to be rewarded on the basis of their contributions and to be given the chance to get ahead – whatever that means to the individual.

So let’s stop worrying about “Millenials.” I’m all so bored of it. Thank goodness we’re on to something new - here comes Gen Z.

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