If you haven’t heard the gripes about millennials, you’ve haven't been paying attention. Supposedly, they’re entitled, narcissistic, idealistic, lazy, unfocused and spineless to name just a few of the blanket stereotypes you can find around the web. In the workplace, they really get under the skin of baby boomers. But here’s a news flash for boomers: You raised them.
Before I go on to make the argument that the problem with millennials is their age, not their generation, here's full disclosure: Some people might consider me a millennial: They say anyone born after 1980 to be a millennial (I was born in 1982). Others call those who graduated high school after the year 2000 (and their peers) would be millennials. I fall on the border, and as the youngest sibling of Gen X-ers, I received my fair share of Gen X culture as a kid. I can’t say that I identify with millennials more than Gen X.
So who are millennials? The arbitrary dates circumscribing millennials are less important than the historical events they experienced. I would say millennials share these five key historic markers in common:
1. They can’t remember a time before the Internet.
2. Their childhood occurred during a time of peak economic prosperity in the United States.
3. They don’t remember the fall of the Berlin Wall (or have any Cold War memories).
4. They were not yet adults when 9/11 happened.
5. They were deeply affected by at least one other post-1990 event -- perhaps the Rwandan genocide, the Great Recession or even the election of Barack Obama.
More than anything else, that list of events conveys that millennials are young.
Examining the myths of entitlement and idealism. Let’s look at millennial attitudes within the context of a startup business (a topic I can speak to in depth because my startup, Wallaby Financial, primarily employs millennials).
Yes, some millennials will exhibit a sense of entitlement. They might walk through the door expecting foosball tables, video games, beer Fridays, MacBook Pros with solid-state drives and the works. I've seen t his “silver platter” mentality in my very own office. (Those millennials didn’t get a job at my company. Instead, I hired millennials with patience and grit. They work hard. They get a lot done. They outgrow their immaturity in this type of environment.)
Indeed many millennials showcase idealism, encapsulated by such statements as “I care more about the social impact of my work than my salary.” This comes across as blasphemy to their elders who tackled the workplace with a mercenary, money-driven approach to careers and the Gordon Gekko mantra “Greed is good.” But remember, a large cross section of boomers had their idealistic, social cause phase, too. So in my opinion, baby boomers who disparage millennial attitudes are forgetting their own history and their evolution from idealism, anti-authoritarianism and activism to traditional work values.
Baby boomers complain about millennials vociferously because they have reached the pinnacle: They hold the highest concentration of political, economic and cultural power in the world. Perhaps sometime in the future millennials will reach an age when they will start bashing their kids’ generation.
Hire on reality, not generational assumptions. So, if you don’t want millennial entitlement, don’t hire it. If a candidate asks about the type of office or computer he or she will receive, end the interview. If the prospect asks if he or she will travel 25 percent or 30 percent of the time, end the interview. He or she has missed the point. This is a sign of entitlement, an illustration of a lack of strategy in interviewing.
During one interview, I asked a candidate about a technology listed on his resume. He responded that my company does not use that technology and therefore it is irrelevant to the interview. The interview ended there.
By the way, he wasn’t a millennial. People in any generation can be awful, which is why I hire slowly.
Taking criticism poorly is mostly an age thing. I’ve found that millennials (read: young people) have a hard time taking criticism particularly in a startup environment. They are still attached to the days when everyone was a winner and everyone received medals and trophies.
In the corporate world, a middle layer of HR coddling, legal concerns and feedback procedure saves millennials from harsh criticism. But in the startup world, feelings are the individual's responsibility. If some code or marketing copy is bad, the author needs to know it. There’s no time for subtleties and anonymous peer reviews. Although in some core teams, millennials recognize that it's their work being criticized not their personality, character or self-worth.
Vet them all. So here’s the point: Drop the assumptions about millennials because they limit recognition of highly talented individuals who may have been born after 1980 but who share the grit and objective detachment needed on a hard-driving startup team. Vet the millennials, the Gen Xers and the baby boomers, too. There is no sense in developing talent that will not last in the organization. In fact, it’s irresponsible to hire people not expected to make it in the long run.
The issues my company has had to overcome with younger employees are those that any younger person struggles with: how to be a part of a team, how to communicate effectively and how to manage time. These are not generational issues. Some Gen Xers and boomers still have not mastered these skills. Hire people who have those skills or individuals who can learn them.