Blog Post

I Asked Managers to Describe Millennials, Here's What Happened Next

Ira S. Wolfe

President, Success Performance Solutions

Truth be told, most millennials get a bad rap. I recently asked a group of managers to describe the young people they interview and work alongside. The adjectives they overwhelmingly shouted out — as if recited — were "privileged, narcissistic, entitled, spoiled, job hopping Trophy Kids" backed up with "irresponsible, unreliable, unrealistic, rude, selfish."

This perception of millennials isn't news. But what happened next may surprise you.

After asking the managers to describe millennials, I opened and read an article from a popular magazine describing the generation of young adults. I heard a few snickers and observed satisfied smiles — the descriptors in the article echoed the managers' own words. The group felt vindicated.

I then held up the magazine to reveal the cover: Life Magazine — from May 17, 1968!

The Generation Gap Repeats Itself

Yes, that's right folks. Nearly 50 years ago, one of the most popular magazines of its day introduced the "Generation Gap" to the world. But they weren't talking about millennials — in fact, millennial children and grandchildren were hardly a blip on their future parents' radar yet. These "privileged, narcissistic, entitled, spoiled, lazy" young workers were the Baby Boomers — the same group currently doing most of the griping about their younger counterparts.

Let's jump ahead about 20 years to the summer of 1990, when Time Magazine ran a cover story about "The Next Generation." The piece depicted this cohort of 20-somethings as:

"Lazy, entitled, selfish, shallow, unambitious shoe-gazers ... [who] have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder ... They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial ... They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. They sneer at Range Rovers and Rolexes. What they hold dear are family life, local activism, national parks, penny loafers and mountain bikes."

Time Magazine wasn't describing millennials, but Generation X — the group of working adults (and parents) who are now 36 to 50 years old. With the exception of perhaps penny loafers, history is repeating itself in 2016. You would think that at least Gen X, the latchkey generation who introduced free agency into the mainstream, might feel some camaraderie with this younger cohort.

The Truth About Millennials

Are you getting the picture? The group of managers and employees who questioned the ethics, values and behavior of millennials were once the object of the very same ridicule. Is frustration with millennials just par for the course as young adults?

Maybe so.

Plato was said to have complained that young people "disrespect their elders" and "ignore the law". Peter the Hermit griped that they "think of nothing but themselves" and are "impatient of all restraint". For centuries, older generations have been reprimanding young workers about their lack of loyalty and work ethic. It seems that Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are just abusing the privilege of age as much as their predecessors.

Millennials may be the "selfie" generation, but they also care about the world around them. They want jobs that affect social change and they give what they can. Contrary to popular belief millennials rate "contribute to society," "correct inequalities" and "be a leader in the community" higher than Baby Boomers did when they were younger.

It's time for workers older than 35 to discount the myths about Millennials. The inconvenient truth is that our society and our workplaces will never return to the way it used to be — technology, automation and globalization have no innate bias. They target all people, regardless of age and without discrimination. Whether you belong to the oldest generation or the youngest, adaptation is necessary. To accomplish that, we should turn the generation gap into an asset and advantage. Let's focus on commonality, collaboration and communication between generations.

Photo: Shutterstock

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