5 Millennial Myths That Derail Company Culture

Millennial myth busting: Have some danged fun!

The Millennial Generation.

Has anything not been said about (or by) them yet?

Like all generations that came before, Millennials come with an evolved world view and core values, shaped by the time and societal circumstances in which they were born and raised.  Perhaps it is a time-honored tradition for one generation to second-guess and stereotype the next one. And, this generation does face rampant criticism from older generations – especially in the workplace.

This article is not intended to defend or justify the stereotypes.

Rather, my intent is to shine light on their role within massive workplace (and societal) transformation taking place in the Digital Era.  I humbly submit the REAL myth-busting activity is to set aside judgments … and focus on creating a unifying dialogue that fosters more mature leadership in our organizations. To embrace and lead change IS the ultimate competitive advantage.

Basic Facts

  • Sometimes referred to as Gen Y or “Echo Boomers” – Millennials are the generation born between the early 80’s and mid-90’s*.
  • Millennials are the largest generation on the planet as of 2015.
  • They are expected to be 75% of the global workforce by 2025.
  • Many will leapfrog into leadership roles, as Boomers retire + GenX cannot fulfill all roles.

Millennial Myth #1: They don’t want to work hard. 

One Millennial’s answer to this common perception (which I hear quoted often by older generations): “Of course we want to work. We just don’t want ‘work’ to be an isolated act of sitting in a sterile cubicle for 50-60 hours a week, treated like a machine that can be replaced or deactivated when it’s not in use, governed by foolish rules, outdated hierarchies, yucky coffee and 2-week old cake.”

I could not have made this up!

As a Young Boomer (age 56) who has worked as a corporate culture consultant for 20 years (while raising two successful Millennials, age 21 and 24)  …frankly, I view this generation as more alive, energized, and passionate than many of my peers.

It’s true many younger employees are naïve about work commitments, deadlines, being on time.  Many need to learn the value of discipline and structure.  And, most are looking for guidance, coaching and the opportunity to learn and grow and be better.  (they just don’t value it served up as an expectation of compliance to outdated rules.)  Most are hungry to get involved in solving serious problems in the world today.

And, the vast majority will simply not suffer a job they don’t like.  (We’ve seen enough inhumane workplace practices in the name of profit and productivity!)   If they land in a culture characterized by human indifference or toxic leadership – the good ones are “outta here.”  If they are challenged and led well, they will work hard; just not always on your standard 8-5 schedule.

Millennial Myth #2:  They’re lazy and entitled.

Entitled to instant promotions.

More interested in vacation policy and perks, than working hard and producing consistent results.

The list of stereotypes goes on.

Let’s unpack the Lazy and Entitled myth:

Lazy.  Work ethic is shaped by personality, upbringing, role models. There are plenty of Millennials with a strong work ethic.  There are plenty of Boomers and X’ers who are lazy and entitled.

The majority of this generation does carry an expectation that life should be enjoyed and not a trade of one’s life energy for a paycheck.

Who taught them this?

From my experience, work ethic for this generation comes from being passionate about what they are doing. And from realizing in their own way, that a bit of “yuck work” – and learning to pick your battles – comes with passionate pursuits.

Entitled (even for rich, spoiled kids) is often an outcome of age and hunger.  I don’t buy into the notion that Boomers raised an entire Generation of kids to expect something for nothing.  (of course there are exceptions.)

Unrealistic. Youth is about starry eyes and magical thinking.  Sometimes in its zealousness, ideas outpace ambition. And yes, Millennials want work to be a two-way street – a reciprocal relationship based on more than money.  They expect flexibility. They aren’t as motivated by a relentless uphill climb to achieve status they don’t care about, to acquire things they don’t care about.

Hunger. With the rise of the American middle class and their status as the largest college-educated generation EVER … this generation finds low-level, clerical jobs and paying one’s dues not so appealing.  (Especially when trying to pay off giant student loans on a salary that is barely above minimum wage.)  Can you blame them?  When we are not literally hungry or lacking in material basics, we rise to higher pursuits involving self-esteem and self-actualizing. This kind of work still has to be done – and, perhaps looking at shaping the workloads to provide Millennials with a cominbation of some challenging and boring tasks is more effective.

Loyalty.  Millennials watched the death of loyalty in the corporate world. They came of age at the height of massive reengineering and downsizing initiatives.  They don’t expect loyalty from their employer, nor do they believe it is their responsibility to give it.

An organization that can match their fundamental values will earn greater longevity and loyalty: Flexibility, freedom, a voice, challenge.

One more thing on the entitlement topic: With all the hand-wringing about Millennials from Boomer parents, teachers, aunts, uncles and “armchair parents” who never raised kids – Boomer’s cannot disown their show-up at work.  Nor their blatant disregard for “the establishment” they are about to inherit – which comes with serious problems.

An entire generation’s viewpoint did not emerge separate from the example, choices, values of their parents – primarily Boomers.  Their viewpoint is a necessary evolution based on 30 years of quantum societal change and a 200-year human quest to automate work and create more leisure time.

The future will not look like the past.

The best companies will figure out how to integrate the value of ALL generational perspectives.  And, help move towards positive entitlement to things like respect, belonging, and meeting basic needs.

Millennial Myth #3:  Fun and Responsibility cannot co-exist.

Millennials subscribe fully to “All work and no play makes Jack and Jill DULL, DULL, DULL.”

The idea that playfulness must be outgrown (and replaced with discipline) to become a responsible adult has been a pervasive, powerful myth for eons.  (Maybe in the era when we had to grow our food and put it on the table, games or horseplay could literally mean “no dinner.”)

ALL creativity comes from imagination and play. And, creativity is a REQUIREMENT for innovation to flourish in an organization. Dreaming of the future and inventing improvement is literally a different brain activity than being rooted in the present, with its drive to execute consistent production.

When people are in a state of fun, feeling playful, imagination flourishes. Work ethic is necessary!  But when work ethic is accompanied by a joyful, light spirit in the work environment, people accomplish more, more easily. This is the power of cultures that know how to work hard and play often.

A recent interview with Chief People Officer at SendGrid, Pattie Money talks about the difference between Silicon Valley perks, fun, and culture: “I believe work SHOULD be fun! If we can make it easier by offering ways to have fun at work, great. But perks are not culture. In certain industries (ie, tech) this stuff is ticket to the game territory. But it’s not our culture. Our culture is our shared values. We hire, train, and promote for them – while allowing for different expressions of how a person lives our Core Values. One person’s definition of happy (or fun) is not the same as another.”

Millennials believe in mixing it up at work – a good evolution. Mingle the heady stuff with the fun stuff through active play, physical activity, sharing food and drink.  Watch how productivity comes more easily.

Millennial Myth #4:  They don’t want to pay their dues.

The world is changing fast. Why shouldn’t career pace keep pace and evolve?

People give their highest value and productivity when they are challenged, growing, and encouraged to follow their passions.  Millennials didn’t corner the market on this desire – but they have raised a louder chorus for it.

Further, traditional hierarchies are too slow-moving for the Digital Era.  Many Millennials aren’t looking to be “The Boss.” They want challenge. The opportunity to make a difference.  New, meaningful assignments.  There is room for a lot of different roles that fulfill leadership in the  modern organization – leader as coach, leader of team spirit, leader as trainer, leader as innovator.  The possibilities grow when we ask “how can we adapt leadership to the modern era?” versus trying to fit people into the existing definition of hierarchy.

Many criticize the “trophy generation” with its focus on “everyone a winner.”  Incentives for GPA and “doing your chores” come under fire – some say Boomer parents rewarded a generation for blowing their nose.  To which I  ask: Who created the participation-is-winning rules?

Every industry MUST rethink their career ladder. Consider how career growth can look more like stepping stones than a traditional “ladder-up.”  The opportunity to move circular, sideways, or even to a new pond can be very satisfying … versus a one-way straight up climb as the only definition of career success. Re-entry and alumni networks are a powerful solutions that are gaining traction (for those “regrettable losses” who leave and later want to return.)  This may be challenging for HR departments, yet it supports a powerful capability for every modern organization: The ability to lead ongoing and rapid change.

Give a Millennial a new challenge every 6 months and you will see more innovation and longevity from them. The key is to make assignments a reflection of strengths (over resume) whenever possible. And, an opportunity to infuse fresh energy onto a team or project.

Sure, hard work and rewards SHOULD go together.  Millennials are less driven by pure ambition than Boomers.  And, when engaged in meaningful purpose and mission, there will be no shortage of people willing to make the climb.   Desire to make things better, problem-solving prowess, the motivation to expand – those exist in every generation.  For sure, how Millennials RISE to this will look different – and should.

Leaders can serve the long-term goal of attracting and retaining the best talent, by championing “be your best self” in the workplace.  Offering ongoing, meaningful assignments that empower people at their level of capability.  Providing coaching resources.  Helping to shape and hone and evolve the meaning of “work and play and fun” through the environment you cultivate.

Millennial Myth #5:  Get off your cell phone and get to work!

The smart-phone IS work to most of this generation.  And, the world demands more tech literacy, not less. If you’re a Boomer annoyed by the fact your kids and employees text but won’t call, probably time to get over it.  (I’ve facilitated meetings where sidebars were happening ABOUT the meeting between participants IN the meeting – yea, it’s annoying.)  And, we must accept that text / whats_app / snapchat aren’t going away.

Ban cell phones and social media?   You may as well say “Don’t be you” to a Millennial. A power struggle that shuts down dialogue and inhibits the power of choice.

What goes over better are to lead intelligent discussion and establishing practices on presence and mindfulness.  Teach people the consequences of multi-tasking: How it reduces cognitive ability and productivity by up to 40%, and at minimum, shows disrespect to others in your presence.  Coach discipline around task and focus, by asking people to go “airplane mode” on phones and laptops during meetings.  (resulting in shorter, better team interactions).  People can learn that productivity is not tied to a 5×3 inch piece of plastic.  (Ever accidentally forgot your phone at home? Both unsettling and a nice freedom.)

Smart, simple guidelines for when / when not to use your smart phone are essential for most meetings and group activities, to keep attention focused.  Let people experience the benefits of parking the phone during certain activities.

Final thoughts

The internet has leveled and transformed the work of every industry.  The Millennial generation is poised to evolve how, where, when and with whom “work happens” – and how we lead – as a result.

I believe we serve all generations when we focus on passing the baton gracefully.

The best way to do that is to build a culture of coaching.

  • Coaching on keeping commitments.
  • Coaching on conflict and managing “no” with respect.
  • Coaching on stimulating transparency and empowerment and creativity on teams.
  • Coaching on juggling personalities in the workplace effectively.

A coaching-centered culture helps you move faster with the speed of change, attract more customers (Millennials have a lot of spending power), and create a high-impact workplace for the largest – and most influential – generation of our lifetime.

And, a forward-focused exchange of knowledge and ideas between generations helps to remind us we all want the same thing in the end:  A better life.

Do you agree or disagree?  Please share this article and contribute to the dialogue.

*A 2018 report from Pew Research Center defines Millennials as born from 1981-1996, choosing these dates for “key political, economic and social factors”, including September 11th terrorist attacks. This range makes Millennials 5-20 years old at the time of the attacks so “old enough to comprehend the historical significance”. Pew indicated they’d use 1981-1996 for future publications but would remain open to date recalibration.[34]

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