Portland Leadership Institute - Nourish the Leader Within You
Leadership for the 21st Century

Millennials: When Will They Stop Picking on You?

It's always open season on the youngest generation.  Whether it's accusing members of a lack of a work ethic, being rude to their elders, or today's favorite word, entitlement, it seems like it is fair game to pick on today's youth.  It's getting annoying.

My earliest presentation on generation differences in the workplace was in 1984, when I joined Jay Shimada and Ken Jenkins in discussing "The New Lifestyle Worker."  I had come across the issue in 1975 as I was preparing to teach my first class at the University of Washington, and my major professor warned me that today's students did not have the same work ethic I had when I was their age.  I was 25; they were 22.

So the Huffington Post, which I generally enjoy, published "Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy."  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wait-but-why/generation-y-unhappy_b_3930620.html

Huh?

Let's get the really picky stuff out of the way first.  The original article comes from an unsigned website, http://www.waitbutwhy.com/ without an author's name.  Who wrote this?  How old are you?

(yes, on this site you can see who I am, and this article allows you to see my age)

And the names:  GenY is a name bestowed on the Millennials by the Boomers.  It implies that GenY is an addon to GenX (nothing could be further from the truth), and that the Baby Boom generation has the right to name this group.  Today's 1980s to 2000s have chosen Millennials; anyone who uses a different name is both disrespectful and disingenuous.

And Yuppies??!?  That's from Jerry Rubin and the Yippies.  Millennials are yuppies?  Where does this come from?

Now to content.  The Huffington article suggests that millennials are unhappy, stressed, delusional, frustrated, taunted, inadequate, and generally miserable.

So what does Huffington and waitbutwhy base their statements on?  We have two sources:
  1. Cal Newport, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science, decided in a one year old blog that '“Follow your passion” is an inspiring slogan, but its reign as the cornerstone of modern American career advice needs to end.'  He wrote a book.  What kind of credibility does he have?  A computer science prof??!?  And what's wrong with passion?
  2. Paul Harvey, an Associate Professor of Management, has done significant behavioral and managerial research, published in high quality journals.  Yet his focus is on management, supervision, and entitlement, not on generational issues.  I suspect that this "expert" found an unexpected result about age differences when looking at entitlement, and thought that he saw a true difference in generations.  None of his published articles has the word "generation" in the title.

Let's get to the crux of the issue.  Although there are significant differences in the generations, there are also significant age related differences, not related to a generation difference:
  1. The older generation typically questions the work ethic and "attitude" of the younger generation
  2. The younger generation believes that it can solve the organization's problems, if only the older generation would allow them to do so
  3. The older generation typically believes that the younger generation has an entitlement mentality
  4. The younger generation is convinced that the older generation resists change and stifles creativity
We can go on and on.  The point is that this is not a generational difference, but is a difference of age. 

Tell truth now:  When you were 25, did you not hear this being said of your generation?  Did you not often say this of your seniors?  If you said no to these questions, then you either are the exception, or your memory fails you.

And yes, the younger generation blames the older generation for the mess the world is in.  We (I was born in 1950) blamed the seniors for the Cold War.  We are now being blamed for the economy, among other things.  Youth blames age.

As I say, this is old news.  I recently read "The Swerve," Stephen Greenblatt's wonderful examination of the beginning of the Renaissance.  Greenblatt noted that young authors in 1400 believed Dante to have been not "truly worthwhile."  Talk about a generation difference.

So what do we do?  We need to first have a dialog based on true observation, not on the traditional ageist biases.  The millennials are doing exactly what they are supposed to do, exactly what we trained them to do.  Likewise, the boomers are doing what they are supposed to do.  We need to recognize this.

I am doing what I can.  I give a "Generations in the Workplace" talk about ten times/year.  It gets people talking.

Let's take a realistic look at the Millennials.  I see many of these students as hard working, raising a family, working 30 hours a week at their place of employment while taking a full load of classes, and becoming responsible leaders within their professional organizations.  I also see some barely putting forth effort as they scrape by and get a degree with as little work as possible.  In short, no stereotype describes their work ethic.

Can we make the same type of statements about Boomers?  Probably.

So let's stop the blame game.  Let's get out of everyone's way.  Let's talk to each other at work, find out what our different needs are (e.g., 45 year olds with two kids preparing for college have different needs than single 25 year olds attempting to prove themselves within their organization, yet wanting a long weekend to go skiing).  Let's see how we can help each other become more effective and productive.

And let's stop the critical articles based on specious reasoning and assumptions.



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