Written by Rosalind Fournier
Portraits by Beau Gustafson
The derogatory terms used to describe Millennials in the workplace are bandied about with such regularity, Millennials themselves can rattle them off with little or no prompting. They’re lazy, entitled, self-absorbed, social-media obsessed job hoppers. You’ve probably read the same perceptions yourself, because they’re all over the news.
“Do Millennials Make for Bad Employees?”—The Atlantic, Nov. 2015
“Do Millennials Have a Lesser Work Ethic?”—Psychology Today, Feb. 2016
And a personal favorite (because British headlines are always more fun): “Crybaby Millennials Need to Stop Whining and Work Hard Like the Rest of Us” —The Telegraph, Dec. 2015
But is it true? Through informal polling in my own work/social circles, I do tend to hear these things. Yet when I reach out to the people who actually hire and supervise these folks—as well as the Millennials themselves—a far more nuanced picture emerges.
There are always going to be the statistical outliers, the ones take a pass on job after job because they think each one is beneath them in pay and status, or won’t put in the hours in takes to get the job done, or embarrass their employer with inappropriate social media posts. But that’s not the broader picture.
Here are five things I learned.
1. Youth is an asset.
I am sitting at a table outside a local Panera Bread with McKinnon Maddox, a one-time professional Call of Duty player and founder of MacMedia, a thriving web design and internet marketing company. His firm attracts a growing client roster that includes a lot of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals—the kind of people you might expect to be wary of trusting their digital marketing to a company owned by a teenager.
Yep, that’s what I said. Maddox is 19 years old—which is as millennial as you can get without slipping into Generation Y. Now, if you are older than the age of 30, this story is going to freak you out a little bit, but here it is. Maddox earned a full-time salary for six years, beginning at age 10, by traveling the country to compete in Call of Duty tournaments. (If you are inclined to watch such things—or aware they exist—you might have spotted Maddox on ESPN.) During the last two of those years, he also started working part-time with the game’s developer, Activision, building websites for organizations in the industry. By then a student at Oak Mountain High School, Maddox tried to balance it all, but eventually something had to give. And so at the end of his sophomore year, he decided it would be best to switch to home-schooling, making it easier to manage schoolwork with his growing business demands, which now included MacMedia. In spite of all this, he still managed to graduate valedictorian.
Maddox had planned to study medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, but again, his passion for business and digital media won out.
“Our generation grew up with stories of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook; Evan Spiegel, co-founder of Snapchat; and Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla as well as CEO/CFO of SpaceX. The amount of exposure we’ve had to entrepreneurship at an early age has influenced the way we work.”
If you’re still scratching your head over how a 19-year-old convinces much-older professionals to hire him, get over it. “My age is absolutely one of my biggest assets,” Maddox explains. “Mine is the first generation that naturally grew up with digital marketing and social media. The older generations can learn it, but it’s not native to them. And our skills in that space are greatly valued.”
2. They didn’t start the fire.
David Armistead is a Gen-Xer who is now director of enterprise sales at TekLinks, a national tech company specializing in cloud services, managed services, and value-added resale. Armistead remembers what it was like to be the new guy on the block—and it wasn’t all that different. “Our generation heard some of the same things,” he says. “People said we weren’t as hard working and all that. I think every generation talks that way about the one that comes after.”
If they behave and work differently, Armistead adds, it’s because Millennials are a product of their environment, specifically the tech and social media environment. They just happen to be a little better at keeping up.
“We could try to stay stuck in the old way of doing business, but we would be the ones left behind,” says Armistead. “So it’s not necessarily the Millennials who are the ones changing the workplace, or that we’re having to cater to their needs. The way
Millennials approach work is a reflection of how our lives are different today.”
3. Companies want what Millennials have.
There’s no doubt companies value Millennials’ savvy when it comes to social media, which is an increasingly important and ever-changing marketing tool. But it’s also true that a lot of company leaders—Gen-Xers especially—want to nurture a youthful culture that inspires innovation, morale, and maybe just a bit of the cool factor that tech companies in particular need to project.
David Gray, president and CEO of Daxko, a provider of SaaS software for member-based nonprofits, estimates more than half of his team falls in the millennial category. “Millennials want to be involved in solving problems, and I think sometimes that can rub people the wrong way,” he explains. “There may be a perception of entitlement that they haven’t earned it yet. But our opinion is that if we’re doing a good job hiring someone, whether they’re a Millennial or otherwise, we want these people to be deeply involved in solving problems and looking for how they can do more.”
Gray acknowledges the Millennial generation in general is more prone to stay in jobs for shorter periods before moving onto the next—another characteristic that might simply be a factor of how the marketplace itself has changed. But Daxko is working to buck that trend with an environment that fosters creativity and makes the office a place they want to be—replete with casual dress code, on-site coffee shop, plenty of free food, and a collection of scooters (just because, as one staff blogger put it, “It’s hard to feel defeated when you’re riding around on a scooter.”) At least one Millennial at Daxko, still in her early 20s, says she hopes to retire there.
4. Millennials want the big picture.
Like Gray, Alan Register, Birmingham market CEO for BBVA Compass, believes the secret to working with Millennials is to bring them into the fold. Gone are the days when a supervisor could bark out orders to subordinates and expect eager compliance—and Register is fine with that. “My general perception of Millennials,” he says, “is they want to tap into a larger purpose. They want to be impactful in a place where corporate objectives go beyond the bottom line. This is a generation that not only wants to know what they’re doing, but why.”
Register, who considers himself a Baby Boomer, remembers what it used to be like—and the old-school style of leadership didn’t sit well with him, either. “I had bosses in the past who said, ‘Alan, I need to you do this,’ and that was the end of the conversation. But I was always more curious than that. So if anybody ever told me today that I’m that type of manager, that would be the most penetrating criticism I could receive.”
At BBVA Compass, meanwhile, another way the leadership is giving some young hires a look behind the curtain is by inviting them to explore different areas of the bank from day one. Melanie Maddox (no relation to McKinnon Maddox) is vice president of career foundation programs and talent acquisition & development. Her position includes managing the bank’s “leap” program, which began in 2010 and stands for “learning, evaluation, application, and placement.”
“We want them to learn more about different areas of the bank by letting them rotate through and figure out where they would be the best fit,” Maddox explains. “Before leap, that wasn’t how it worked at all, but we’ve discovered that people who just graduated from college may think they want to work in one area, such as finance, but when they see different areas and interact with other groups, they might find they’re more excited about the digital departments. Allowing that flexibility is what makes our program unique.”
5. Contrary to popular belief, Millennials respect experience.
Karla Khodanian spent her first couple of years out of school as an independent contractor and then working for a small startup. She loved the work, though the startup fizzled out after a year—which turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to her. “When I was transitioning careers, I had a lot of job offers on the table. A lot were, ‘Hey, be our head of marketing; be this, be that,” she remembers. “But I was 23, and I knew I needed leadership. I craved people I could learn from.” She accepted an offer from Big Communications, where she is now digital community manager. “I get that opportunity here, because I’m surrounded by older professionals—not much older, mind you—from whom I’m learning daily.”
Though Khodanian lives the uber-Millenniallifestyle—
Like Khodanian, Isaac Jones, associate project manager at Daxko, gives his parents credit for helping him escape the “entitlement” label that plagues some of his peers. But unlike most that I spoke to, he thinks there might be at least a little bit to that.
“This is a generation for whom many of their parents enjoyed a lot of new wealth,” he says. “Now, some of their kids have a skewed perception of how much work it takes to get really good at a job and reach a point where you’re making a lot of money. They want to see quick success.”
“I won’t say I’m completely removed from it,” Jones adds. “I definitely have an issue with patience and processes and wanting to see things happen a little more quickly than they probably are even capable of happening.”
But Crystal Shrum, a software trainer and Jones’s colleague at Daxko, points back to technology as a factor in the millennial mindset that cannot be ignored. “In the world that I’ve seen,” Shrum says, “usually the older generation is more afraid of technology. They’re more change averse. Millennials are more willing to come in and say, ‘Let’s shake this up and try it out, and if it doesn’t work, that’s okay too.’”
She also echoes what a lot of Millennials tell me, that they absolutely don’t work any less than any other generation—they just work differently. “My generation is always on; we’re always connected. We respond to work emails at 10:30 at night, because we have email on our phones, and why wouldn’t we? Someone asked me recently, ‘How do you unplug?’ And I said, ‘I don’t.’ I enjoy being plugged in. I’m in the know, and I’m communicating with everyone.”
Shrum concedes that social media in general can create generational gaps, but she’s learned to respect the differences rather than force every hot new app or trend onto colleagues who might not care. “We have to be careful to not talk down to anyone about hashtags and memes that we found on the internet that everyone in our generation knows about, because we’re all on Vine and Snapchat,” she says. “If we start saying, ‘Hey, have you seen that video, and it relates to this, and older people haven’t heard about that, then you find yourself saying, ‘Let me just tell you everything you need to know…’ It’s a complete derailment.
“So I think my generation should probably stop being incredulous that other generations might not know everything about the internet,” Shrum continues, “and instead be open to learning things they know more about than we do—like professionalism or how to deal with angry colleagues. There are plenty of things we have to learn from them.
“But of course, vice versa, they can learn plenty from us.”
Tags: July 2016