Millennials in the workplace: lost hope or our only hope?

One renowned leadership expert shares his thoughts on how HR can truly understand Generation Y.

As the CLO and CMO of the America’s largest business speakers’ bureau, I regularly meet with CEOs of F1000 and mid-size companies all over the globe. Our conversations generally begin with how well the company is doing and their BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal, pronounced “bee-hag”), followed by a discussion of new initiatives that will differentiate the company and set it on a trajectory towards world domination. Next comes the big “I” conversation, when we brainstorm ways to innovate and outmanoeuvre the competition.  
Regardless of where these conversations begin, within ten to fifteen minutes, they always arrive at the same question: “How do we deal with Millennials?”
The buzzword of the last few years is now a major reality for organizations on a global level. “Gen-Y” or Millennials have mistakenly been stereotyped as entitled, self-centred, unmotivated, disrespectful, and disloyal, all of which contribute to a widespread misconception of their impact on organizations.
It wasn’t long ago that upstarts listened to Buddy Holly, the Beatles or the Sex Pistols, and the business leaders and HR managers of those generations expressed concern that “these damn kids are gonna be a problem” (remember?). Funny how those “damn kids” who listened to Buddy, Ringo and Syd are now the ones complaining about “these damn millennial kids.”
We all have to recognize the irony of the flower children of the 60’s -- who were dropping out of school (and dropping other things too), and protesting against the establishment and their elders -- condemning the Millennial generation. What are these stereotypes based off of? And how many are true?
In this three-part series, we will take a look at the myths and misconceptions as well as the hard facts about Millennials in the workplace.
Leaders and hiring managers, do not despair; all is not lost. Millennials are actually the most educated generation in the history of the world and they have a great deal to offer our society and organizations. It may just come down to understanding and connecting with them. Let’s start with the basics.
“Who are Millennials and why are they the way they are? I just don’t understand them.”  
Born between 1979 and 1994, Millennials range in age from 21 to 37 and make up over 30 per cent of the workforce today. Considering the most common stereotypes of Millennials -- entitled, self-centred, unmotivated, disrespectful, and disloyal -- you may ask, “Why are they the way they are?” It is likely because Millennial children have been raised differently than any other generation before them.
When our great-grandparents and grandparents immigrated here, they often arrived with very little. Mine landed at Ellis Island with mason trowels in hand and endeavoured to build a better life for their children. My great-grandfather vowed a better life for his son, my grandfather vowed a better life for his daughter and my mother vowed a better life for me. Over time, each generation since the early 1900s has earned more than their parents -- the result of enhanced education and opportunities generally provided by parents themselves. This has also resulted in younger generations being a bit “softer” in general on their kids. According to Hara Estroff Marano, this has produced a  "Nation of Wimps".
On the other hand, according to Ben Casnocha, HR thought leader and author of two New York Times bestselling books, Millennials are the first generation in over a century who will earn less than their parents. That does not bode well for consumer product indexes, financial indexes, the real estate market and several other leading economic indicators.
Accounting for this trend, Ben Casnocha points to well-intentioned parents who believe that what worked for them a generation ago should work for their kids. According to Ben, “Theproblem is that our parents grew up being told that they should follow their passion, work hard and success would come. That worked for them in a broad sense and that’s what they kept telling us. Times have changed though; there has been a major paradigm shift in careers, upward mobility and the entire workplace.” This has created a sense of disillusionment among Millennials who feel they were falsely sold a “bill of goods.” As a result, they are constantly on the lookout for a job that both gives them a sense of purpose and is well-paying -- an increasingly elusive thing.
Some experts, including Michael Parrish Dudell (a Millennial himself) suggest that perhaps we were too permissive with this generation. As children, Millennials would often hear, “You’re a star, you are amazing and you can be anything!” Surely, we have all witnessed children’s sports tournaments where all the children are told, “You’re a winner!” despite the game outcome. As encouraging as these words may seem, are they really sending the best message? The pursuit of straight A’s has given way to this new parental attitude of “do your best” (accompanied by a loving smile and a thumbs up).
Bruce Tulgan’s "Not Everyone Gets a Trophy" is an excellent read that will help leaders and HR managers understand the generational gap between themselves and Millennials. In his book, Tulgan also explains how to best manage and engage with Millennials in order to get them “onboard and integrated into your company's culture.”
Now that you know a little bit more about Millennials, you may be asking yourself:
“Why should I care about Millennials?”
Millennials are entering the workforce in droves, and within 15 to 20 years they will be running our organizations. We need Millennials in the workforce today just as much as we will need them in the future. Boomers are in retirement, and it won’t be long before Gen X’ers cash in their 401(k) plans. According to the renowned geopolitical expert Peter Zeihan, many countries are in trouble with their younger workforce because the “usual pyramid demographics” are non-existent. This isn't just a problem for company HR pipelines. Think of all the social security and entitlement programs that thrive on payroll taxes!
According to Zeihan (see images below), the U.S. is uniquely and beneficially positioned, thanks to Gen Y. With Millennials paying into entitlement programs like Social Security, both Gen X’ers and Boomers are in good shape. On the other hand, China’s relatively small Gen Y population could become problematic for the economy (which is perhaps why they have relaxed the one child per family rule), as is also the case in Canada. India has the opposite problem, with a Gen Y population too large for the country to effectively sustain.
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