Millennials: Self-starters or just selfish?

Much has been written in recent years about the so-called millennial generation, which roughly encompasses people born between 1980 and 2000.

They are the “digital natives”, having grown up with Facebook, smartphones and Snapchat, and are said to experience a paralysing sense of panic if separated from their mobile devices.

Depending on which reports one chooses to read, millennials are selfish, change careers every year or so, have no brand loyalty and are insufferable narcissists.

Given the number of carefully edited selfies that now populate social media channels and clog up the interwebs, the narcissist tag seems hard to deny.

But are older generations jumping to conclusions, and using stereotypes to write fancy reports about? Or are they simply jealous of the freedoms that millennials appear to enjoy (and demand), as Arye Kellman of posits?

Kellman, a young presenter and creative director at CliffCentral, quips that he “often takes a ‘Millennial Day’”. Which basically means that he works from home and only does the essentials – like monitoring his Twitter feed, for example, and showing up for his daily podcast at 4pm, where the central theme is “uncensored”.

For Kellman, the millennial label contains many truths, and can certainly guide exasperated employers and managers.

“For previous generations, there was no time to think about what they really wanted to do or who they wanted to be, whereas millennials have been raised on these questions,” he says.

“They’ve been given the space to explore new ideas and new ways of doing things…which can come across as fickle and selfish, and I get that.”

He adds: “For me, although I may be at home, I’m constantly working – I don’t need to have a set time to come into work.”

But for Richard Mulholland, a popular speaker and founder of presentation company Missing Link (and a non-millennial), it’s all just rubbish, really.

“The segmenting [of millennials] is an extension of generation theory as a whole,” he says. “Now, while this construct made sense in the past – there was a good, clearly understandable reason why an entire generation could have been labelled ‘baby boomers’…that reason was World War II. Even Gen Xers, their kids, could be somewhat explained. However, from then on, there’s no grouping that makes sense, it’s just people being born all the time!”

Freedom within a framework

According to Mulholland, the millennial hype has led to a tendency among employers and managers to “pander” to young people, and tiptoe around them in office scenarios.

“For an employer, it’s simple, you then create a culture in which the tail wags the dog…this is nonsensical. If people don’t like how you run your business, let them leave,” he says.

“For the employee though, it’s more nuanced. It turns out that people are not as self-motivated as you’d think. Most people can’t train as hard by themselves as they do with a trainer or friend. If people want to grow, really grow, they need to be part of a team that pushes them, not leave them to their whims.”

When it comes to taking “millennial days” and insisting on the freedom to work from anywhere, he takes the view that while autonomy is indeed important, even freedom needs a framework.

“People need constraint,” insists Mulholland. “Duke Ellington said, ‘I don’t need time, what I need is a deadline.’ So people need parameters, and then the freedom to make smart decisions within those parameters. That said, autonomy is not a right – it’s an earned privilege that is yours as long as you earn it.”

Uncomfortable with comfort?

Over at digital agency NATIVE VML, which is renowned for its young staff contingent and vibrant atmosphere, CEO Jason Xenopoulos also cautions against relying on blanket generalisations.

“I do believe that generational psychographics exist and applying a generational filter to your assessment of a particular persona can help to inform your understanding of them,” he admits.

“With this in mind, while I believe that some of the insights derived about this generation are true, an over-reliance on these generalisations can lead to a dangerous misinterpretation of a specific individual.”

In his view, one of the important truisms attached to millennials is their “obsession with personal growth and development”.

“In order to attract the brightest and most dynamic members of this group, we [employers] must offer real, tangible opportunities for growth and learning,” advises Xenopoulos.

Echoing the sentiment from CliffCentral’s Kellman, he adds that millennials “demand to be treated differently from their older counterparts”.

“They demand clearer, more definitive growth paths, they expect to be challenged constantly, and they get bored the minute they are too comfortable,” says Xenopoulos. 

With regard to the autonomy question, he says that freedom and productivity/results needn’t be contradictory.

“In today’s work environment, interdisciplinary collaboration is key… so no matter how independent or autonomous someone is, they cannot exist outside of the broader ecosystem. As the old saying goes, ‘None of us is as good as all of us.’ In my experience, millennials have a very natural and innate understanding of this and they collaborate more easily than some of their older counterparts.”

This article originally appeared in the 5 May 2016 edition of finweek. Buy an download the magazine here

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