How Do You Solve a Problem Like Millennials?

youth in the 70s

You don’t. Because Millennials are not a problem. They never have been. The problem is youth, which is transitory and relative.

Self-serving confession – I am a Millennial. I was born in 1984, putting me at the leading edge of the roughly-accepted generational timeframe (1982-2000). For the past ten years, I’ve been simultaneously entertained with and confounded by thousands of articles bemoaning the Millennial mindset – one of entitlement, an absence of social graces, a cult-like devotion to technology.

“Millennials aren’t motivated by money,” the articles say. “They want to live at work.” “They’re attached to their devices and don’t understand real friendship.” “They need instant gratification.” “They have no responsibilities and can’t relate to those who do.”

It’s just a lot of insulting nonsense.

Hiring managers and senior executives seemingly perplexed by the challenge of managing Millennials over the past decade, I assure you that your problem is not with Millennials themselves. Your problem is with immaturity, often manifested in the form of 22-year-old recent college graduates. And that demographic has been a thorn in the side of the professional working establishment for the past 100 years. The only difference in today’s working world is that thanks to the rise of startup culture, 22-year-olds now have a shot at a much quicker growth trajectory than ever before, and with a tech-savviness impossible to realize in earlier days, they can broadcast their experiences in an all-too public fashion.

Again, the articles painting Millennials as though they are wholly unrelated in their behavior to Generation X or Baby Boomers are short-sighted and somewhat conveniently ignorant of history. The Silent Generation lobbied the same criticisms about “social recklessness” and “irresponsibility” against Baby Boomers in 1970. Baby Boomers rehashed these tired arguments to justify their mistrust of “vapid,” “MTV-obsessed” Generation X.  And now it’s our turn.

The real question we should be asking ourselves as hiring managers is, “how do we effectively attract, train, and motivate young people who are just starting their careers?” After all, a few years can make a heck of a difference in someone’s personal journey. As a director in her early thirties with a mortgage and a family, I have much the same motivations as a 45-year-old. I want money, flex time, a rewarding work experience, and great family benefits. I am not thrilled at the prospect of working weekends, though I loved doing that when I was 22. And 25. And 27. Conversely, there are plenty of 22-year-olds to whom I’ve spoken that don’t even check work email after 6 p.m. That concept seems unthinkable to me, but it works for them. “Perpetually plugged in” doesn’t apply to everyone of a certain age range.

The timeframe may vary from person to person, but the ultimate reality is that you cannot ascribe universal motivations to an entire generation of people. It is a foolhardy and disparaging exercise. There are 50-year-olds who are more laid back than I am, and there are 18-year-olds who are more ambitious and uptight.

Ultimately, the greater the responsibilities and personal challenges you place on individuals, the lower their likelihood of experimenting wildly with their careers or sacrificing their futures for an unstable proposition. This is common sense. It’s why HR leaders will almost always favor a married man who has the same qualifications and profile as an unmarried man. The married man is statistically more likely to stick around for the long haul (or longer haul, at least) and has made a serious commitment to at least one other entity. And it’s why stealth startups attract younger people or people without dependents; they can afford to bounce to another job or couch-surf if that company has a fire sale the next month.

We as hiring managers owe it to ourselves and to our companies to judge people based on their specific situations and demonstrated behaviors – not their arbitrary generational classification. Remember the person you were during your first job out of school versus who you are now. If your problem with Millennials can be solved by the natural progression of time and a healthy dose of wisdom, it’s not Millennials with whom you actually have a problem.

Vinda Souza is Bullhorn’s director of marketing communications. Follow her on Twitter @seriousvinda.


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