I took part in a focus group recently that involved lots of grousing by business owners. In New England, where complaining is a beloved pastime, I have become very familiar with what to expect in this kind of setting. I knew it would only be a matter of time before I heard one particular entry:
I can’t get my young employees to work hard. They are so entitled. They need a break every hour, they show up late, and they expect me to coddle them.
As one of two millennials in a roomful of Boomers, I resisted my initial impulse to defend my species. I’ve learned in workforce and education settings (where these sentiments come up all the time) that “clapping back”, as the kids call it, is not likely to convince people.
Though I’m skeptical of any narrative boiling down to “the problem with kids these days”, I’ve given these viewpoints a lot of thought. After all, we have a constantly changing relationship with our technology and society – changes that could scarcely avoid affecting how people relate to work.
So what are some of the work stereotypes about “millennials” (generally, those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s)? The Economist ran a piece on the myths about young workers, summarizing some of the commonly held beliefs:
Everything from their education in kindergartens to their participation in social media has turned them into team players. But at the same time they reject careerism and are allergic to being managed.
As you can see, generalities about young workers usually contain some mixture of positive and negative. A recurring theme is that they are not bound by the typical career path, with the implication that they are less willing than past generations to pay their dues. Variations include needing constant validation or “trophies for everything”, expecting more socially conscious behavior from their employer, and being overly or underly attentive to time spent on the job.
As the article points out, grousing about the work habits of young employees is a perennial fascination, often with slight relation to facts. In fact, by some measures, young people are even more career focused, competitive, and less socially conscious than older workers.
The Economist concludes:
[Workers] want roughly the same things regardless of when they were born: to be given interesting work to do, to be rewarded on the basis of their contributions and to be given the chance to work hard and get ahead.
As it turns out, differences within generations are as large as those between. I find this resonates most with my experience. Some of my friends are focused on getting through the day and feel no connection to their work, others are highly dedicated, even to extraordinarily meaningless tasks. Just like some people tend towards being conflict averse or risk-seeking, how people relate to work has to with individual personalities and desires much more than whether you were born in the 90s.
Regardless of the trends, the perception of a problem with younger workers is very prevalent. Generally, employers are not very good at overcoming these issues. The two most common strategies seem to be complaining or investing in cringeworthy millennial-attracting ploys (“no, there’s no benefits or job security, but we do have an ice cream machine and bean bag chairs!”). This list of “pampering perks” is taken from an article on how to attract young workers, with ideas ranging from the sensible to the idiotic.
Only now is the workforce development system dipping its toes into creating programs for how to manage younger workers comprehensively. As far as generational differences do exist, it is certainly employers’ duty to bridge the gap as well, rather than putting all expectations on young workers to meet their standards. I don’t think we’ll get there with company massages and keg parties.