This article is the first in a series of six. It is excerpted from Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials by Bruce Tulgan.
It seems that the vast majority of leaders and managers think Millennials have an attitude problem. But isn’t this always the case when a new generation joins the workforce? Doesn’t every new generation of young workers irritate the older, more experienced ones?
At the early career stage of life, young people are just learning to break away from the care of others (parents, teachers, institutions) and taking steps toward self-sufficiency and responsibility. As they move into the adult world with the energy and enthusiasm—and lack of experience—that is natural at that stage, they are bound to clash with more mature generations.
And yet as much as human experience—such as the rite of passage into the workforce—stays the same over time, the world doesn’t. What makes each generation different are these accidents of history that shape the larger world in which human beings move through their developmental life stages. So while every generation rocks the boat when they join the adult world, they also bring with them defining characteristics that alter the rules of the game for everyone going forward.
Millennials’ “attitude” probably is not likely to go away as they mature; their high-maintenance reputation is all too real. Still, the whole picture is more complicated. Yes, Millennials will be more difficult to recruit, retain, motivate, and manage than any other new generation to enter the workforce. But this will also be the most high-performing workforce in history for those who know how to manage them properly.
Meet the Millennial Generation
Although demographers often differ on the exact parameters of each generation, there is a general consensus that Generation X ends with the birth year 1977. Most agree that those born between 1978 and 2000 belong in the Millennial Generation. But by our definition at RainmakerThinking, Inc., the Millennials come in two waves: Generation Y (those born between 1978 and 1989) and Generation Z (those born between 1990 and 2000). Gen Yers are today’s thirty-somethings, no longer the youngest people in the workplace, while Gen Zers are the newest new young workforce, those who are filling up the rising global youth tide in today’s workforce.
Here’s the short story with the Millennial Generation: If you liked Generation Y, you are going to love Generation Z. If Generation Y was like Generation X on-fast-forward-with-self-esteem-on-steroids, Generation Z is more like the children of the 1930s… That is, if the children of the 1930s were permanently attached to hand-held super-computers and reared on “helicopter parenting” on steroids. Overall, the Millennials embody a continuation of the larger historical forces driving the transformation in the workplace and the workforce in recent decades.
Globalization and technology have been shaping change since the dawn of time. But during the life span of the Millennials, globalization and technology have undergone a qualitative change. After all, there is only one globe, and it is now totally interconnected. Millennials connect with their farthest-flung neighbors in real time regardless of geography through online communities of interest. But as our world shrinks (or flattens), events great and small taking place on the other side of the world (or right next door) can affect our material well-being almost overnight. Nothing remains cutting edge for very long. What we know today may be obsolete by tomorrow. In a world defined by constant change, instantaneous response is the only meaningful time frame.
Why are Millennials so confident and self-possessed, even in the face of all this uncertainty? One reason is surely that they grew up in and after the Decade of the Child. Gen Xers were the great unsupervised generation (they made the latchkey into a metaphor). But Millennials are the great over-supervised generation. In the short time between the childhood of Generation X and that of Millennials (especially Generation Z), making children feel great about themselves and building up their self-esteem became the dominant theme in parenting, teaching, and counseling. Throughout their childhood, Millennials were told over and over, “Whatever you think, say or do, that’s okay. Your feelings are true. Don’t worry about how the other kids play. That’s their style. You have your style. Their style is valid and your style is valid.”
For Millennials, difference is cool. Uniqueness is the centerpiece of identity. Customization of the self is sought after with great zest and originality, through constant experimentation. In the world of the Millennials, the menu of selfhood options is extraordinary and the range of possible combinations infinite. For the Millennials, customization is the Holy Grail, and it has always been right there within their grasp. From the first day they arrive in the workplace, they are scrambling to keep their options open, leverage their uniqueness for all its potential value, and wrap a customized career around the customized life they are trying to build.
About the Author
Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website.