Rise of the Millennials
by Jyl London
Why They Know So Much…Yet Understand So Little
You stand in the “12 Items or Less” cash register line at the local supermarket, waiting to pay for a loaf of bread.
The man in front of you is buying a bottle of wine, which he presents to the cashier—a pimply blonde with streaks of orange, lime and other unnatural colors swirling through her hair, a butterfly tattoo on the inside of her left wrist, and body piercings on parts of the flesh that should never be pierced. Too young to legally ring up alcohol purchases, she signals for help from an older cashier.
A pleasant, personable middle-aged woman suddenly appears. She smiles at the customer and asks, “Hello, how are you today, sir?” as she enters a code into the register. The transaction is made. The older woman thanks the customer for his purchase, and then returns to her other duties.
You are next in line. The young blonde stands at the register and stares at you, saying nothing—not a “hello” or “how are you?” Nothing.
You step forward and present your loaf of bread. She rings it up, bags it, tells you the price, which you pay, and she hands back your change. Your transaction is complete. You pause for a moment, expecting her to say, “Thank you. Come again.”
Nothing, not even a smile. It’s as though she’s a mannequin that happens to breathe.
You smile and offer words of appreciation for her prompt service—to which she grunts, “Yep” or “Uh-huh” or something similar, anything except, “You’re welcome.”
Welcome to the age of Millennials.
They run supermarket registers and department store counters. They loiter in malls in large groups barely saying a word to each other, “too busy” text-messaging other friends. Many graduate from college and take on entry-level positions in office complexes where ties, dress shoes and general business attire are extinct—white collar work environments where young employees freely call their gray-haired supervisors by their first names and the expression “Pay your dues” falls on deaf ears.
They are smart, resourceful, talented, highly educated, team-oriented and well-traveled. Yet the average Millennial does not know how to professionally conduct him or herself in the office. He lacks the training to use proper etiquette at business dinners and other special occasions. He was not taught to value the hands-on experience of older, more seasoned generations. And he does not know how and when to accept “no” for an answer.
The age of Millennials has dawned. Are you prepared?
Born 1980-2000, they are the latest generation of young, bottom rung, entry-level workers in the United States, Britain, Australia and other Westernized nations. Though called by various descriptive names—“Generation Y, Echo Boomers, Generation Next,” and others—a poll revealed that most preferred to be called “Millennials.”
Theirs is the first generation to grow up surrounded by the modern, “instant gratification” technology of digital media. They have no memory of a world without cellphones, digital cameras, email, text-messaging, instant messaging, personal digital assistants, mp3 players, handheld video game devices, blogs, do-it-yourself Internet videos, online virtual worlds, web browsing—you name it.
Millennials are experts at multitasking and possess an extraordinary degree of technical savvy in today’s fast-paced, gadget-filled society. They are also the younger siblings of Generation X and the children of baby boomers, as well as Gen-Xers.
Comprised of an estimated 80 million people in the U.S., Millennials are set to replace baby boomers as they retire from the workforce.
Consider the life-defining events that shaped their young lives:
- The Columbine shooting: A horrific tragedy that twisted minds later used for a blueprint to unleash their own school massacres.
- The 9/11 attacks: Not since Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, had the United States suffered a devastating surprise assault on American soil. As Millennials came of age, they saw the appearance of multiple and convoluted conspiracy theories. They also witnessed a sudden surge in national patriotism, as military men, firefighters, emergency workers, the police and others were hailed as heroes. America’s view of itself and its role as a world superpower changed overnight: Instead of waiting to be attacked, the nation began to employ preemptive strikes.
- Corporate corruption scandals: Business entities such as Enron, WorldCom and others—once titans in their fields—fell to widespread scandal, and the average office worker who had his or her future retirement banking on stocks of these companies suffered the greatest.
- War on Terrorism: What began as a popular campaign devolved into virtual civil war in Iraq. With the rising tally of dying and injured soldiers and the U.S. military losing support back home, any romantic illusions of war were forever smashed.
- Anti-Americanism: As the War on Terror waged on, the international community’s perspective of the U.S. changed for the worst.
- A nuclear North Korea: The White House described the isolated communist state as being a member of the “Axis of Evil.” Feeling threatened by Western powers, especially by the U.S., North Korea’s totalitarian government has been determined to exist according to its own terms.
- Emerging nations: China and India—the first and second most populated nations of the world—began to gain seats at the global table of international affairs. And they are gaining a “voice” as confidence wanes in the U.S. dollar.
- The “dot-com boom”: The typical corporate environment changed from ties, suits and executive chairs to Hawaiian shirts, flip-flops and bean bags. Small and innovative “dot-com” firms popped up offering staggering salaries and bonuses, and casual “come as you are” offices. Employees who worked for the same company for more than three years were considered “old-timers.”When the “dot-com bust” arrived, workers had grown accustomed to receiving office perks and held on to their “what’s in it for me?” attitudes. Company loyalty became a thing of the past.
- Hurricane Katrina: National news media used a new term: American refugee. The world watched as local, state and federal governments seemed to stumble over each other to help the people of New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.
Next, consider the sexual antics of congressmen, presidents, religious leaders and educators, who taught Millennials not to “judge”—to tolerate the behavior of nonconventional “lifestyles.” In short, taking a moral stand on any issue is now viewed as “hate speech.”
The prophet Isaiah described this modern age: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isa. 5:20).
From Boomers to Millennials
When Allied soldiers and sailors returned home after fighting in World War II, most immediately resumed civilian life by getting married and starting families. From this came the baby boom, children born from 1945 to 1964. America, Britain and other nations experienced an explosive “boom” rate of healthy, lively, happy (at least on the surface) families. The majority of children grew up in two-parent households. Divorce and illegitimate births were viewed as anomalies in the social fabric of the West. Parents, most educators and politicians taught the importance of maintaining family values (which, ironically, few actually practiced in their private lives).
Baby boomers enjoyed idyllic and oft romanticized childhoods during the 1950s, and came of age in the 60s, questioning authority and the status quo. The so-called “love generation” ushered in a new era when both parents pursued careers outside the home; couples experimented with “open marriages”; and the traditional roles of father, mother, man and woman were redefined.
While dad and mom were busy climbing the corporate ladder of success or getting divorces to “find themselves,” the children were left home to fend for themselves. They became “latch-key kids,” boys and girls who made their own breakfast, sent themselves off to school, and returned to empty homes, letting themselves in with house keys they wore on strings around their necks.
Television was their daily babysitter; boredom and lack of parental supervision their constant companion. They learned to cook and iron for themselves, and roamed the neighborhoods making their own decisions.
Because they grew up without the direction and proper instruction of adult minds, they became mature physically, but no one taught them how to think, feel and behave emotionally, socially and spiritually. Born 1965 to 1980, they entered adulthood with a cynical “seen it, done it, been there” mindset and lived by a do-it-yourself mantra.
This was Generation X.
From baby boomers and Gen-Xers sprang a new generation: Millennials. They learned from their parents to value education. In fact, Millennials have long been used to being students, from daycare and preschool, through grade school onward, all in preparation for college.
Unlike Generation X, Millennials are more likely to have grown up in two-parent households where both father and mother worked. However, the parents—perhaps in reaction to the childhood neglect Gen-X experienced—offered advice to their children and encouraged their little ones to freely express their opinions and input on matters. Millennials were treated as “little adults,” as regularly depicted in TV sitcoms and Hollywood movies.
Their view of life changed from that of previous generations because the world itself had changed, now smaller, interconnected—truly a global village.
In the book Connecting to the Net.Generation: What Higher Education Professionals Need to Know About Today’s Students, a survey of 7,705 college students in the U.S. revealed the following:
- 97% own a computer
- 94% own a cellphone
- 76% use instant messaging
- 15% of IM users are logged on 24 hours a day/7 days a week
- 34% use websites as their primary source of news
- 28% author a blog and 44% read blogs
- 49% download music using peer-to-peer file sharing
- 75% of college students have a Facebook account
- 60% own some type of portable music and/or video device such as an iPod
- 90% have had premarital sex
There was a time when one’s childhood was localized to a neighborhood, a school, a small town. Not today. Millennials shop, research, phone, text-message and write to each other at any time, any place. They’ve come to expect receiving what they want—and they want it NOW!
“Hovered Over” Childhoods
Baby boomers have been called self-absorbed. Gen-Xers have been thought of as cynical and non-motivated. Likewise, Millennials are identified by their extremes, their overall strengths and weaknesses. Of course, all descriptions given to any particular generation cannot paint every person with the same brush. There are exceptions.
Many, if not most, Millennials are hardworking, team-oriented and loyal to their employers—however, they maintain a pragmatic view concerning the modern workplace. Having seen employees laid off after decades of loyal service to the company, Millennials decide, “I won’t let that happen to me.”
They have grown accustomed to looking ahead to potential employment options elsewhere. Despite America’s current economic downturn, jobs can still be found, which means that fearing to lose one’s position is not the same as it once was.
There is another reason that fear of job loss is almost nonexistent.
From conception, Millennials were pampered by “helicopter” parents—fathers and mothers who closely hovered over their children’s every move and personally interceded in their affairs. They were raised during the 1980s and 90s, when “Baby on Board” signs and “My kid made the honor roll!” bumper stickers were prevalent. Millennials grew up being catered to. The world revolved around them. They joined soccer teams and received trophies just for participating. They were told repeatedly, “Everyone is a winner”—which means the value of winning was drastically lowered.
Their lives were micromanaged from one activity to another: soccer, basketball, dance, martial arts, learning to play an instrument. Millennials were made to feel sought after, needed and indispensable. Helicopter parents did not hesitate to try to convince teachers to change little Johnny’s grade. They negotiated with the soccer coach to give little Suzie more game time.
When Johnny and Suzie went off to college, the hovering continued. College instructors received phone calls and visits from intervening parents trying to get better grades for their children. And when Johnny and Suzie entered the workforce in their chosen profession, Human Resources received phone calls and visits from intervening parents. Some sat in on job interviews! Others told their children’s employers that their salary offer or annual bonus was insufficient.
“Our parents really took from us that opportunity to fall down on our face and learn how to stand up,” said Jason Dorsey, who advises fellow twenty-somethings on how to cope with work (60 Minutes). Speaking of Millennials, he said, “We definitely put lifestyle and friends above work. No question about it.”
Since they were rewarded all their life merely for participating, adult Millennials have been conditioned into believing they should be rewarded “just for showing up.” The real world does not work that way—yet because Millennials will soon outnumber baby boomers and Gen-Xers in the workforce, employers are having to change their tactics in how their relate to their employees. Today’s office environment emphasizes fun over work, creature comforts and freebies (free drinks, free snacks, etc.) over structure and self-discipline.
Parents, teachers—even children’s television shows—repeatedly taught Millennials the importance of having self-esteem, to have a can-do attitude, to be confident in themselves. Time and again they were told, “You are special.”
The intentions were good, but the effects were terrible: a generation that expects to be praised for the least bit of effort, yet falls apart at the sound of a raised voice telling young workers where they went wrong and how they can do better.
To be fair, Millennials do respect workplace protocol and corporate structure—IF these are taught to them. The problem is that the “challenge the status quo” mentality of the baby boom generation and the subsequent “slacker” attitude of Generation-X loosened standards that once existed in the workplace. Why should anyone expect more from Millennials when no one taught them the value of striving for excellence and quality in conduct, speech and dress?
Most take work seriously—and balance it with an active social life. Millennials want more than a nine-to-five job—they want flexible work hours, the option to telecommute or have a compressed workweek. They cherish fun time, and expect the workplace to be challenging and creative. Above all, FUN!
Millennials are connected 24/7, from the time they wake up to when they go to bed at night. With email, text-messaging, cellphones and other means of instant communication, the line dividing work from social life has blurred, faded.
Again, Millennials do labor diligently, as long as they know the ground rules and have enough time to “play hard.” Having grown up receiving rewards and praise for every little thing, they expect to move up the ladder of success—quickly!
They “described their ‘dream boss’ as being understanding, caring, flexible and open-minded, as well as someone who is authoritative but respects, values and appreciates his employees” (Network World). In other words, they do not want a supervisor who simply tells them what to do and expects results, or a mentor who hands down firsthand knowledge and experience. Millennials want a coach who will cheer them on, and tell them, “You can make it!” Someone who will give them free reign to explore new ideas and solutions without close monitoring or correction.
“Although they are better educated, more techno-savvy, and quicker to adapt than those who have come before them, they refuse to blindly conform to traditional standards and time-honored institutions. Instead, they boldly ask, ‘Why?’” (Employing Generation Why by Eric Chester).
This is the same generation that craves interaction with their managers and happily receive feedback (which their parents and grade school teachers taught them to seek), especially if it comes with praise and perhaps slight calls for improvement. In return, they expect their opinions and ideas to be heard and respected, despite lack of experience.
Their Strengths and Weaknesses
Most Millennials enter the workforce with better technology skills than their supervisors and managers. They spent their childhood instantly getting and sharing information. Their researching skills, via the Internet, are supreme.
But many Millennials lack discretion—prudence—what was once called common sense. They know that once an image, sound bite or email is posted to the Web, it’s there forever. Yet the Internet has become a dumping ground for recording the most embarrassing, crude and shocking moments of people’s lives. Some years later, when applying for a job or attempting to move up to a higher position, young teachers, emergency workers and others have their hopes dashed.
Because they caroused at a nightclub and “let loose,” a moment captured by a camera phone for the whole world to see.
Because, after drinking alcohol past the limit of common decency, they sang a hateful rant at a bar, recorded and posted to the Internet as an easily downloadable mp3.
Because, instead of thinking it through and understanding the impact of words, they typed a mean-spirited email that was picked up by the world of bloggers. Once online, it can never be deleted. Never.
Of course, Millennials have many strengths. They have a high rate of volunteerism and community service. They are experts at multitasking. They are social, having learned from childhood to be inclusive, to leave “no child left behind.” They are peer-oriented and enjoy working in teams. They respect authority figures that “walk the talk” (which is becoming rare as each year passes). Unlike past generations, they actually like their parents and are used to including them in their affairs.
Also, Millennials have been raised to be tolerant—of race, religion, even sexual orientation; they were taught “don’t judge.”
But parents and mentors failed to teach them the importance of exercising patience, discretion, prudence. They were not taught to value right from wrong, to understand the difference between one from the other.
Ann Mack, director of trend-spotting for advertising giant J. Walter Thompson, said of Millennials, “Their opinions of monogamy and marriage are products of the era they grew up in, a reaction against a reality-TV world or their unstable childhoods. They are more traditional in their views because they want something better for their own families” (Washington Times).
But who will show them the way?
Building a Bad Reputation
A new industry of consultants has emerged to teach companies how to interact with, train, motivate—and, in some cases, essentially babysit—a generation that does not take “no” for an answer. These consultants teach Millennials (and Gen-Xers, for that matter) how to cover up visible tattoos; how to conduct themselves as professionals in the office; how to exercise proper dining and business etiquette.
The U.S. is not unique in dealing with Millennials. In Australia, a 2007 survey of more than 315 small- and medium-sized businesses revealed that almost 70% reported dissatisfaction with the performance of Millennial employees, particularly in spelling and grammar, and that they did not understand what constituted appropriate corporate behavior (Australia’s ABC News).
The Dallas Morning News reported that an advertising executive stopped hiring newly college-graduated Millennials altogether, unless they held advanced degrees or had work-related experience. Though the ad exec called them creative and tech-savvy, he said that Millennials-at-large lacked the ability to be responsible, accountable and to deal with setbacks. “They wipe out on life as often as they wipe out on work itself. They get an apartment and a kitty, and they can’t cope. Work becomes an ancillary casualty” (ibid.).
A generational expert told the newspaper that Millennials have been “overparented, overindulged and overprotected. They haven’t experienced that much failure, frustration, pain. We were so obsessed with protecting and promoting their self-esteem that they crumble like cookies when they discover the world doesn’t revolve around them. They get into the real world and they’re shocked” (ibid.).
Marian Salzman, an advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson, told 60 Minutes, “Some of them are the greatest generation. They’re more hard-working. They have these tools to get things done. They are enormously clever and resourceful. [But] some of the others are absolutely incorrigible. It’s their way or the highway.”
“You do have to speak to them a little bit like a therapist on television might speak to a patient,” Ms. Salzman added. “You can’t be harsh. You cannot tell them you’re disappointed in them. You can’t really ask them to live and breathe the company. Because they’re living and breathing themselves and that keeps them very busy.”
Millennials are the new generation that does not like to be told to “pay your dues,” and overvalue their worth to the company. Ms. Salzman said, “I believe that they actually think of themselves like merchandise on eBay. ‘If you don’t want me, Mr. Employer, I’ll go sell myself down the street. I’ll probably get more money. I’ll definitely get a better experience. And by the way, they’ll adore me. You only like me.”
60 Minutes also spoke to Mary Crane, a consultant. She said that Millennials “have climbed Mount Everest. They’ve been down to Machu Picchu to help excavate it. But they’ve never punched a time clock. They have no idea what it’s like to actually be in an office at nine o’clock, with people handing them work.” They ooze with talent and abilities, but lack basic day-to-day knowledge of how to professionally conduct themselves—of how to convey elegance and poise—of how to react with grace when under fire.
“You now have a generation,” Ms. Crane continued, “coming into the workplace that has grown up with the expectation that they will automatically win, and they’ll always be rewarded, even for just showing up.”
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