On behalf of Millennials: #sorrynotsorry
You know the familiar refrain: Millennials are lazy and narcissistic, overly sensitive to criticism, and so dependent on smart phones that we can't have a real conversation. It's so familiar that even we Millennials join in with vehement insults of our own—followed by hasty expressions of how distant we feel from the rest of our entitled generation.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why to we allow others to state these stereotypes and leave them unchallenged?
There is a lot written about who Millennials are, empirically; and it turns out many of the myths are not true. But there's little written about how it feels to be a Millennial and how we can turn a better understanding of Millennial culture into improving our public organizations.
Realistic cultural empathy, according to Dr. Gary Weaver, is intellectually putting ourselves in another's shoes; when we do this competently, we can better explain behavior and anticipate responses. When it comes to walking in Millennial shoes, we might start with two major events: the Great Recession and the War on Terror following 9/11.
The Great Recession
As a Millennial, I got to grow up in good times: the dot-com bubble was expanding and any house that was bought sold for more. But when I graduated in the spring of 2008, into a job market where over a tenth of those ages 20-29 couldn't find work (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), it felt like the fruits I'd believed would come of my educational labors had vanished overnight.
Millennial Unemployment During Recession
America is a "to do" culture: we ask, "What do you do?" to make small talk—not, "Who are your ancestors?" as we might if we were a "to be" culture. Without a job to do as young adults, Millennials, I would argue, have culturally shifted more toward being. We have volunteered at record rates, traveled overseas, invested in personal growth and hobbies, gone back to school. We moved back in with our parents.
We've also had to delay many of the major milestones commonly associated with stability and happiness: buying a house, getting married, having children. At the same time, we watched the retirement accounts of our parents free-fall, further evidence that hard work through traditional socioeconomic structures does not guarantee one's future.
In addition to the emotional hardship, there has been a material cost as well. Millennials have higher student debt than any previous generation. I watched my friends find themselves stuck in internship after internship, with no job ever materializing, then eventually going back to school to get a Masters and wait out the Recession. Adding to our debt, school is more expensive now than ever before—even as getting accepted has, ironically, gotten harder. My alma mater, for example, has a lower acceptance rate today than 15 years ago, while the cost has increased by over 60 percent.
Brown University for Millennials: harder to get in, harder to pay
The pressure on Millennials is further intensified by our parents, who spent almost double the number of hours per week on childcare in 2000 than they did in 1975 (according to Suzanne M. Bianchi et al. in Changing Rhythms of American Family Life). While Gen-Xers may have played on their own until the dinner bell rang, Millennials are in rapid churn from soccer practice to band to community service.
When it comes to being, social media plays a dominant role in our generation's culture. Social media feeds add to our anxiety or fear of missing out (FOMO) on experiences that could give us a competitive edge, socially or professionally. While Baby Boomers may feel comfortable turning off their personal phones at work, it's unimaginable for me to spend eight hours cut off from my life. This is not necessarily a good thing: Cyber-bullying is alarmingly prevalent and we do disengage with the world when we're peering at our screens.
There's a more nuanced effect as well, which is that social media encourages us to funnel ourselves into narrow identities or brands in order to increase likes. When I post a triathlon photo to Instagram, for example, it gets way more likes than other kinds of photos. ("You just lost 10 followers," says my sister when I post a picture of my cat.)
I am not here to defend social media use. Rather, I want us to approach how we address each generation's social media use (or lack of use) with empathy so that we make policies and engage in conversations that are productive and don't put each other on the defensive.
Intergenerational tension in the workplace, to a degree, traces its roots to how the Great Recession impacted Millennials differently than Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Where Millennials might come across as feeling entitled to telework and flexible hours, it may be that, culturally, we place more weight on the "life" or being side of the work-life balance equation. Graduating into a recession, we have had to reorganize our identities (what Julian Silverman might call acute schizophrenia) at the nascency of our professional life. As technology natives, we may not understand Baby Boomers' emphasis on being physically at our desks when we are used to productively achieving our goals where we want and when we want and having relationships through multiple media.
9/11 and the war on terror
Another defining aspect of the Millennial identity is the war we grew up with, the one our country has been fighting in the Middle East for the last 16 years. America went to war in Iraq in 2001 because 9/11 and because President Bush promised us WMDs. But: Osama bin Ladin was in Pakistan, there were no WMDs, we're still in Iraq—but now also a bunch of other places, and no one can tell us what is the end state that this is all for.
Previous generations have also had to fight wars they didn't believe in. But never at such a scale without also a draft: only three quarters of one percent of Americans have served post-9/11 (according to James Fallow for The Atlantic in 2015), so the human side of the war on terror feels remote to us. This means that we have not come together as a people: not for the war and not against it. So even as we have watched our leaders blunder and our government surplus turn into a $20 trillion debt, we feel remote from the fighting and apathetic about a strategy for the Middle East. How doubly bitter it must have felt when, faced with an asthenic job market owing to the recession, some of us chose to serve as our only viable path to getting through the recession or being able to afford college.
This disillusionment with traditional structures and with authority plays out when we enter the workplace. We, in fact, would rather have the freedom to try things out, even make mistakes, on our own rather than be told what to do. We do want to have a say in meetings and in policy decisions that impact us, green and unfettered though our opinions may be. But isn't that understandable after the last 16 years?
A MORE EMPATHETIC WAY FORWARD
Millennials want to be engaged in today's organizations: we just don't want to do it like our parents' did. Workplaces that can foster the diversity needed for innovation, while still creating enough cohesion so that they can function effectively, will be more successful.
What I invite older colleagues to do when they observe seemingly disrespectful behavior in a Millennial is to pause and say, "Could this be culture?" When Millennials are over-enthusiastic about declaring naïve opinions or when they want to enter their boss' office without knocking and use first names, that behavior doesn't need to be condoned or even allowed to persist; but it does need to be addressed empathetically so that we maintain cohesion and engagement with our workforce.
That could mean the supervisor takes the Millennial aside and says, "You know, I use my staff meetings to convey guidance, I don't see them as participatory forums. May I suggest a different venue we can use so that I may hear your thoughts and feedback?" Or, instead of saying, "Stop being so overly sensitive!" supervisors might recognize the stress Millennials have about a single mistake eroding all future success and try something like: "You are a great employee and you don't need to worry about your future here. I also want your performance to be even better, so what would be an effective way for me to give you feedback on where I want you to improve?"
And of course it goes both ways: if we as Millennials can be aware that, culturally, we come across as cavalier about authority, we can anticipate how our superiors will respond and modify our behavior to create the interaction that we want.
At the organizational level, when recruiting Millennials, we might use incentive packages that include paying off student loans and flexible work arrangements, alongside the more traditional 401(K) packages and premium healthcare plans that more typically appeal to Baby Boomers. We might anticipate that Millennials will want more time away from the office for holidays and family events, as they've developed close and even dependent relationships with their parents. We might resist outright blocking social media sites and instead look to polices and norms that balance personal breaks with fair levels of effort and professionalism.
Developing awareness of an organization's own culture and training employees in intercultural competence is key. As an example, an organization might assess how it culturally lines up on Geert Hofstede's five dimensions (power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism versus collectivism, etc.) and then break those data out by cultural group in order to anticipate conflict. As another example, employees might rank a list of values for themselves personally and then as they perceive the values of their organization. Such an exercise might also help employees develop cultural awareness and navigate conflict.
With deliberate, evidence-based learning, we can avoid succumbing to spirals of shame, frustration, and defensiveness—and instead be constructive and purposeful about how we improve ourselves, our teams, and our organizations.