Millennials and Grit
From Laura at Apt. 11D:
When presented with an opportunity of “gimme points” in history class in the form of easy homework assignments, Jonah said, “nah. I’m done.” He simply didn’t turn in nine homework assignments this spring. It took a while for the teacher log those zeros into the online grade portal. So, we didn’t realize that he was in deep shit until it was too late. After a lot of yelling, he was urged to ask his teacher if he could hand them in late. She said no. Then there was more yelling and a week of grounding.
From Jonah’s point of view, it makes absolutely no difference if he gets a B or a C or even a D in this class. Why work for no reason? From our point of view, ARG! DO THE DAMN WORK! IT ISN’T HARD! CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT! LEARNING! CHALLENGE YOURSELF! HIGH EXPECTATIONS!
There are all sorts of books aimed at parents and educators about the value of “grit” and not eating that marshmallow. These authors maintain that kids who know how to delay gratification and work through obstacles grow into successful adults. Jonah’s method is to weigh the pros and the cons of working hard before exerting himself. Hard work simply for the sake of personal perfection is a fool’s game.
I’m not entirely sure that Jonah is wrong. I come across people every day, who favor Jonah’s strategic effort method. Sure, they aren’t usually the ones who make it to the top of their profession or make news headlines. But they find those jobs that pay well with mediocre expectations and then hunker down until retirement. Sometimes they even accidentally do become wildly successful, because of luck or bullshitting skills.
I was trained as a social scientist and then accidentally ended up in the business world nearly 20 years ago. Despite nearly two decades of trying to blend in, I have failed miserably. I’m always the guy at the meeting that wants to talk about ‘things that you can’t put on a spreadsheet’ like employee morale, demographics, geographic diversity, etc. My coworkers politely smile and then go back to trying to ram square pegs into round holes.
There is a lot of talk these days about Millennials in our workforce. I’m interested in this because the data shows most of my coworkers will come from this group within the next 10 years. While it’s easy to start fierce debates by stereotyping, it should also be fair to make some broad statements based on careful observation. There are a few high-level conclusions that I have reached.
Millennials are impatient
This is probably the thing people talk about the most and what I also see the most in the Millennials I work with. We joke that instead of starting at the bottom of the mountain, they want the helicopter to drop them off halfway up. In general, we just hear a lack of willingness to pay their dues and move up through the organization at the pace the rest of us did.
To be fair, what I also see is a great number of them saddled with school debt, because they were told half-truths by college advisers. Many of them also be in a hurry to be start an adult life. I know more than one that graduated from college, got married 5 minutes later, started having kids, etc and now need a salary equal to their responsibilities. My personal observations of a few coworkers contradicts the statistics. Studies show that Millennials are actually delaying many life milestones, like marriage, in ways that no other generation has.
Millennials want their work to matter
Laura’s story above doesn’t sound to me like she has a lazy son. To the contrary, I know from reading her blog for years that he is a good student and will be attending a good college in the fall. It seems to me that he is saving his energy for things that he believes matter. Putting the minimal amount of work into passing a high school class when you’ve already secured your college admission seems to be one of those choices that Millennials feel more comfortable making. As Laura concludes, just because it makes older generations have anxiety attacks, it doesn’t mean it’s the wrong choice. I think where we worry is that this might become a lifelong habit, and sometimes you just have to see things through to the end.
We are also told in many books, articles, etc that the key to making Millennials happy in their jobs is to make them feel like the work they do matters. In this respect, I tend to agree. That stuff is important to me too. I’m actually amazed how many of our employees, in generations older than me, really don’t seem to care very much. So maybe I understand that aspect of Millennials more than others. The difference might be that I also believe in changing the organization from the inside, where Millennials seem to want the company to have a heart on the day they start their job. When they realize it doesn’t, or doesn’t in the the way they want, they grow disenchanted and leave. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this pattern repeatedly, and we lose some of our employees with the most potential because they don’t seem to have the heart for a fight. This strikes me as odd though, since Millennials are considered to be extremely socially engaged.
Millennials are Grumpy
One survey in the UK called Millennials ‘the real curmudgeons of the office’.
…nearly half of those surveyed claimed that Millennials were the least co-operative and the biggest complainers. [Millennials] were also named as the least likely to take responsibility by 57% of those surveyed…
I don’t think I disagree here either. We all complain. It just often feels like Millennials do it for sport. To me, they feel a lot like Baby Boomers in this way. One of my professors in college, a Baby Boomer himself, referred to his generation as ‘the most spoiled generation in history’. Sometimes, in my most negative moments, I think that crown might get passed to Millennials someday.
All of this, again, is based on anecdotal observation. For every Millennial that seems to fit a pattern, no doubt readers will tell me about 10 more that disprove the characterizations I am making. And to be fair, I’m a Generation Xer, once referred to as the ‘slacker generation’ and according to some we are now, “…the greatest entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history…” I have no doubt that 10 years from now Millennials will have figured out how to navigate the world a bit better and begun changing opinions. The same survey quoted above calls them the ‘most creative’ generation in the workplace, so that’s a good foundation to build on. In the meantime, the challenge is really for those of us above Millennials in the org chart. How do we deal with these employees? How do we build the future of our companies on their habits? What will they look like in 10 years? These are all questions that need answers, but the most important thing is that we recognize the challenge in the first place.