The Problem with Millennials …. Is that there isn’t one

millenial “Where are you?” I asked into the phone. “I’m at home”, replied my millennial employee (we’ll call him Jed). “But it’s two o’clock in the afternoon…  Why are you home?” I asked, astonished. During my first job I would NEVER have left early, or even thought about it for one second. “I finished my work on my list. So I left,” Jed answered. “Just because you completed your list, doesn’t mean you get to go home.  There is always more to be done, including educating yourself on our industry and our particular business.  If you find yourself with nothing left on your list, find me and we’ll figure out what you should work on next.” Jed and I were now clear.  I thought this situation had been handled, until the next morning when I came into work.  Jed had left me a little something on my chair.  It was an article, entitled Why Millennials Value Their Free Time.  I calmly walked into Jed’s office, stood squarely in front of his desk and said,  “Jed buddy, I saw the article you left me.  We all value our free time. Millennial or not.  I just need you to know Millennials aren’t special.” This happened 10 years ago, but has stuck with me throughout my career as companies struggle to deal with Millennials, treating them as if they are an exotic pet, that has very specific handling instructions. Notice, I didn’t come into his office and call him lazy and selfish.  Instead of bashing him or labeling his work ethic in reply to his subtle, yet somewhat bold way of informing me of his values and priorities as a Millennial, I chose to do something different. After informing him that Millennials weren’t special, I asked him a simple question: “Have you ever had downtime on a job before?”   His answer?  “Not really.” Jed literally didn’t know that he was expected to keep busy, or that he was both allowed and encouraged to self-educate.  Keeping yourself busy without someone guiding you was a foreign concept to him. He didn’t even realize that most people were being promoted for not only how they accomplish their day to day tasks, but for how they accomplished tasks that were not on their “lists”.  Things that were normally not “theirs”. Rather, promotions were based on how one chose to constructively fill their time. How does this come to be a problem for any person, let alone a company? Millennial, or not?  I mean, I knew how to “work” and what was expected of me (as well as everyone else at the company) while being paid at a job since I was 12.  I was a Paper Boy.  Back in the days when kids (mostly boys) delivered newspapers door to door.  Yes, I’m that old….  Most of the past generations all had jobs starting at 12 or 14 (or earlier!) that taught us through experience the basics – building a foundation of expectations. Heck, when you were a Paper Boy you were basically a sub-contractor, to the newspaper company, running your own small business. My first thought was, I should sit this young man down and explain to him what the expectations are, for having a “real” job. Not like the job of doing homework or odd tasks in his parents home that he probably only has been accustomed to.  Tediously explain in detail to Jed every single thing that contributes to having a “real” job.  Things like we start and leave at certain set hours, lunch should be 60 min at most, balancing the checkbook should be done at home and not at work as it is a personal task and not one the company should be paying you to do, and on and on and on. However I quickly stopped my train of thought, realizing this line of thinking wouldn’t solve anything.  All it would do is put a wall up between Jed and I, of the Great Wall of China type proportions. I needed to figure out what the exact problem was I would be trying to solve. The problem wasn’t that he was a Millennial, the problem was he had no foundation of knowledge or previous experience for what was expected at both the work place and of him personally as a contributing, paid employee. See this is when problem solving gets tricky.  It’s easy to simply look at the results of something and react to it, like just telling Jed that he was lazy and needed to grow up. Telling him that this is not how we work around here, and he better shape up or ship out – go find another place to work.  But that would have been incredibly disrespectful to a long list of entities; Jed, myself, the role the company had put me in, and the company itself. OR On the flip side I could have told Jed, “I’ve read the article you left me and you’re right.  Free time is incredibly important.  We should, and will, do away with the standard 8 or 9 hour work day if that will make you and your co-workers happy.  You can leave anytime your work is done for the day.  Be it 2 hours, or 15 hours, as soon as your list is clear – go enjoy!”  However, that also would have been hugely disrespectful to Jed, myself, the roles both he and I were in, as well as the company. Unfortunately, these are the predominant ways companies are dealing with the “Millennial Problem” as it being referred to. Either they try to change the employee with commanding and controlling techniques, or they go the other way and change how their companies are run to meet the “needs” of Millennials (I’m looking right at you Google, Facebook, and GE). Neither one of these go-to approaches actually solves the “problem”.  In fact, I believe they make the problem worse. I’ll say it flat out, Millennials are not lazy as a group, or as a generation. They simply grew up with a different set of expectations and a different set of standards then the GenXers or Baby Boomers did.  They are not lazier.  They are not more entitled.  They are not more of a special exotic pet than previous generational groups. Everyone that is out there charging $25,000 in consulting fees telling businesses what they can do to attract and keep Millennials is doing the business world, and the young people entering the work force, a huge disservice. Millennials are no different then us…..they are us. We just grew up differently. They just grew up differently. Millennials aren’t the problem. According to The Fiscal Times, one of the “problems” however is this: “Nearly three-quarters of hiring managers complain that millennials – even those with college degrees – aren’t prepared for the job market and lack an adequate “work ethic” See Todd! This proves they are lazy!!! Well no, no it doesn’t. Then it proves our colleges and high schools stink!! Students should learn what a work ethic is while attending college and high school! Well no, actually they shouldn’t. The job of colleges and high schools, in my opinion, is to educate students. Not train students on how to work, or what is expected of them at the work place. Claiming that because college graduates lack a work ethic, it has to be a college or University’s fault, is both reactionary and simple minded. So then hotshot, what is wrong with Millennials? Nothing is wrong with Millennials.  The reason Millennials lack “work ethic” is not because they are lazy, far from it. It is because they lack experience.  Real life, real job, real workforce experience.  For a high number of millennials today, the job they secure out of college is the first “real” job they have ever had — beyond baby sitting, home chores, internships etc.  Let me be clear here, this is not to say all Millennials lack this experience, but it is true for an overwhelming number of them (studies disagree with the exact numbers mainly because of the staggering amount of Millennials entering the work force which increases every year – estimates range from as low as 35% to as high as 70%). Since the “real” job after college is their first job, they simply don’t know what to expect from the work experience.  The only real exposure to business they have known is seeing their parents go to and from work (which many of them are now working from the home place), TV / Movies, and business books.  None of which accurately depicts what happens at work, and just how mundane / routine quite a bit of the work day is.  Most GenXer’s had their first job between the ages of 12 and 17.  Again, I’m in that generation.  We had paper routes, worked at McDonalds, worked at grocery stores, and were happy to have a job so that we could earn money to own and do the things we wanted to.  I had friends that picked corn from July to the end of August for 9 hours a day in the blazing sun. My point is, we developed work ethics by working. There were a ton of opportunities to work, and we picked one. The Millennials do not have the same opportunities as older generations did. Education and going to college still are the measures of success, but more recently there were more extra curricular activity options available.  Time for work has became less and less.  Even if Millennials did have a job while in school, the total hours per week they work are typically 9-12, instead of the 20-30 hours a week my friends and I worked. Now this isn’t a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing. It’s not a “Millenial Problem”. Although the majority of Millennials weren’t working at a “real” job, they were learning. They’re great students, and probably the most ”book smart” generation we have ever had. Business should capitalize on this and use it to their advantage.  As of yet though, they haven’t. Instead businesses are trying to bully them into model employees of their generations, or changing policy to fit “Millennial demands.” Businesses should instead take the time to coach and lay out expectations for their new employees, Millennial or not. I have had great success in sitting down with Millennials (one-on-one or in a peer group) by simply asking and answering questions about why things are the way they are and what exactly is expected of them. Here is an example: Most GenXer’s had two or three graduation ceremonies in their life – 8th grade or middle school, high school, and college. Millennials had or will have at least five to seven in their life – Daycare, Pre-School, Kindergarten, Middle School, High School, College.  Now factor in any clubs or sports they may belong to (dancing, scouts, Tae Kwon Do, etc…) and that number grows. The point is, we trained Millennials to expect a graduation or promotion every few years (and a celebration to go with it!) for just going to class, and now we wonder why they expect to be promoted every few years? Instead we should be explaining that most promotions depend on three things: how the employee performs on their expected work, how they work beyond their job description, and if there is an opening for them to move up into.  When I discuss this with Millennials I coach, while they may not like what I am telling them, they certainly understand it.  Usually the next conversation is “What then do I have to do to get promoted?” And right then and there we create something measurable that the employee can grab on too.  This, in my mind, is treating the employee with respect.  And in-turn, the employee learns to respect the company. I do need to bring up how, sadly instead of setting proper expectations and helping build a foundation of understanding (to help make up for lack of experience), Businesses instead decide to create “Junior”, “Associate”, “Assistant”, “Coordinator” – types of promotion positions that aren’t anything more than a title that goes on a business card.  Its a warm and fuzzy for the employee, at least until the employees asks, ‘So what does this mean?’  To which a good answer never follows. So, can we ALL stop blaming Millennials for who and how they are? They are struggling through the same stuff everyone does as they begin to join the working world.  Charged with figuring out protocols and expectations.  The ONLY difference is that their working experiences are not as extensive or comprehensive as the Boomers or GenXers. That isn’t their fault.  It is ours. Ultimately it is your job to make your co-workers and employees succeed. So take a look at what the problem is, what it is that needs to be solved, and stop trying to change the results. Understand what role you play in helping create the problem.  Then, step up, and help coach your co-workers and employees through the problem. After all… that is what leadership is all about, isn’t it?
Todd Brink is the president/owner of Lean Culture Group, LLCauthor, and internationally known speaker on various topics including work culture, process and personal improvement, and strategic planning. Lean Culture Group, LLC helps organizations grow and improve the bottom line. Lean Culture Group will help you achieve all your goals through the creation of an innovative culture. Key focus areas include: systematic problem-solving, strategic planning, employee development and one-on-one mentoring. For more information on how Todd can help you begin or raise your current improvement program to the next level.  Please email him at todd.brink@leanculturegroup.com or call him at 262-432-8010.