We see a lot of "thought leadership" about "millennials" at Management Today (two terms that deserve air quotes if ever there were). The tone is often one of panic.
It’s as though the business world were being overrun by some alien species, demanding instant promotions, free beer and Facebook breaks - and if you don’t adapt to them soon then your business is doomed because they’re the future, so get used to it.
It’s nonsense, of course. For one thing, millennials aren’t invading anything, they’re already here. The terms millennial and Generation Y, properly used, refer to someone born between the early 1980s and, somewhat arbitrarily, the mid 1990s (don’t get us started on "Generation Z".). They should not be used as shorthand for young people.
Beyond that, presenting the workplace and wider society as being in some kind of binary cultural conflict between entitled, tech-addicted whippersnappers and slow-moving relics is neither accurate nor constructive.
To aide in intergenerational understanding, we got a couple of high-flying millennials at MT’s recent Future of Work conference to cut through some of the stereotypes, in their own words.
On Millennial entitlement
‘We maybe feel entitled in the sense that we want to be part of the conversation,’ said Nicole Tallant, 27-year-old buying manager at Asda and MT 35 under 35 alumna.
‘I had an interview in my first year [in Asda’s graduate programme] to work for the CEO on a project, and he asked us what we would do differently if we were in his position. Everyone was incredibly polite. I went last. I just reeled off these five things I thought he could have done better. I went home that night and my mum said "that’s awful ,you can’t tell the CEO he’s made all these mistakes, you’ll never get the job", but I did. He thought it was hilarious that I had the confidence to say it.’
The other way of looking at entitlement is a lack of undue deference - respect given to status, rather than to merit. That’s not to condone disrespectful behaviour at all, but it’s hard to see why you’d want employees to bite their tongues when they think something is a bad idea.
Bruce Walker, 23-year-old founder of social enterprise WeAreTheFuture, connected millennials’ perceived entitlement to the bigger issue of corporate purpose. ‘Maybe we want to work in a place that has purpose, that’s moving towards something that’s greater, maybe we want to make a contribution. If that’s categorised as entitled, then I don’t care, because I want to work in a place where I can feel I’m making an impact,’ he said.
It would be a rare (presumably unemployed) hiring manager who’d look twice at someone who didn’t want to make an impact. Clearly this could create problems with expectations if fresh-faced graduates assume they will single-handedly transform the company in their first week, but the desire to do so isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. More broadly, if employee demands led to businesses having a wider societal purpose beyond profit, wouldn’t that improve things for everyone?
According to the stereotype, millennials aren’t just after purpose of course. They also want perks. Lots of perks. But it would be a mistake to think that all the dart boards and multicoloured bean bags you hear about in start-up offices are only there because twenty-somethings these days are just overgrown adolescents.
‘The free food and additional incentives in the workplace are actually there because the talent pool is much more competitive, businesses are looking beyond just what they pay in salary as an incentive and the employee being grateful they have a job,’ Walker said. ‘Money is almost a given.’
Some of the apparent differences between millennials and earlier generations will come down to age, and some will come from a greater ease with the wider trends of our time: the adoption of new technology, flexible and gig working, the rise of the inclusive, empowering leader, the relaxing of the work-life divide, the quickening pace of change itself.
Ultimately, though, millennials are individuals, whose attitudes and expectations vary like anyone else’s. If you really need to understand how millennials think or what they expect, there’s no substitute for going out and talking to some. There are plenty of us around.
More from Future of Work 2017: Read why Grant Thornton CEO Sacha Romanovitch cut her own salary by 40%