A few months ago, I was at a family function when an older gentleman next to me in the beverage line started some friendly small talk. He was a former associate of someone’s, well into his retirement, and eager to chit-chat.
We stood there and swapped a few pleasantries. Then, about a minute in, a strange look came over him. “Wait. You need to help me,” he blurted. His eyes got big. He started fumbling frantically in his pockets. Oh no, I thought. Please don’t die.
Finally, he pulled out an old iPhone. “This!” Gripped it like a brick, almost at arm’s length. “This thing keeps going off at the same time every day and don’t know how to fix it. Please. Make it stop.”
I took the phone off his hands and showed him how to change the alarm settings. When I handed the phone back, he accepted it reluctantly. He thanked me by way of explaining that his granddaughter was usually on call to help with this kind of thing.
“She’s an expert at this stuff—she uses her phone for everything. I don’t. I tend to look at it as a kind of enemy.”
And in that moment, I felt really bad for him. As a 28-year-old, I see my phone as an ally. It’s an inexhaustible problem solver that helps me remote-control real life. It was sad that this seasoned gentleman, smart by all measures, had to spend his luxuriating years fending off an inhospitable world. A digital world.
The myth of the millennial myth
I’ve found myself returning to this story whenever I hear the argument that millennials “aren’t real,” in the words of The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo. According to him, and the growing number of people trying to make this fashionable claim, labeling any generation is an oversimplification. Therefore, “the millennial” is a myth:
It’s hard to believe this even needs to be said, yet here we are: Macroscale demographic trends rarely govern most individuals’ life and work decisions… Broad trends leave lots of room for individual differences that matter in the real world, and that are often papered over when we talk about millennials as a monolithic collective.
It’s a theory getting almost as popular as its companion, the dreaded Millennial Think Piece, and found in mostly the same places. Comedians especially love declaiming the stupidity of the millennial label. Here’s Adam Conover keeping it hashtag real:
These millennial truthers generally make two contradictory claims. One is that millennials are different enough from one another to resist classification. The other is that millennials are the same as any past generation when they were young, which blurs the lines of taxonomy. Individual yet indistinguishable, unique yet universal—who cares! Don’t label me, bro!
Both claims are pedantically correct, but they miss the point of having generational labels at all.
It’s true that no two millennials are the same. But is it really true that, as Manjoo says, macro trends “rarely govern” individuals’ life choices? Here are two facts about Netflix: it made up 37% of American bandwidth in 2015 and 100% of my evening last night. That’s a personal life choice that exists in the context of a generation-defining technology. So is the relationship every millennial has with his or her phone, and laptop, and favorite social app.
“My granddaughter uses her iPhone for everything. I look at it as a kind of enemy.”
So yes, humans do live our lives inside macro-scale movements. And with no other generation has a movement been more meaningful than with the millennials. If nothing else, we are the world’s first real digital natives: we went through our formative years with the technology that’s still displacing the long-held habits of older generations. That alone earns us a label.
The second argument is that the traits commonly associated with millennials actually just reflect the qualities of a young demographic. This one has more truth to it. I dug into the research last year and concluded that what really distinguishes millennials from other generations is our desire to change jobs over the course of our careers. In terms of other important markers, like attitudes towards self-expression and the importance of technology, we’re not much different than our parents when they were young.
This line of thinking also defends against the baseless accusations of being entitled and lazy. I don’t know a single millennial as lazy and presumptuous as that trope. My experience doesn’t bear that out, and data doesn’t either. So let’s put that idea to bed: if millennials are considered ill-prepared to enter the workforce, or too narcissistic to work hard, chalk that up to a generational bias that’s been around since the dawn of complaining.
But why should the prejudices of older generations invalidate the practice of giving us a name? Here in the year 2016, it refers to young people. It won’t forever. Eventually, we millennials will settle down and change our work habits and all that. What won’t change is the formative experiences we’ve already shared. In order to tell the grand-scale story of the cohort of people among whom I work and live, and will work and live, we need a colloquial name for our demographic. It doesn’t have to be scientific. In that capacity, “millennial” works just fine.
What millennials want
If pundits and comedians are increasingly prone to delegitimize the idea of “millennials,” at least businesses know better.
A Wall Street Journal article last month profiled a number of players in the burgeoning, high-priced market of millennial consultancy. (One of the subjects, Dan Schawbel, did a panel with us in February.) Some of these people earn $30,000 an hour helping businesses talk to their millennial workers.
It sounds like a lot of money until you consider the scope of the issue confronting these companies. This is a demographic that’ll be 75% of the workforce in ten years. At 73 million people, we make up almost a quarter of the United States. Our impact on the workplace is huge.
For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers recently conducted a survey of its millennial employees—over 80% of its workforce—to stem a discouraging rate of turnover. PwC’s findings led them to adopt more flexible, millennial-friendly working arrangements. They moved toward a hoteling system of office space, and in doing so, saved $850 million in annual overhead as a result.
As the largest generation in history and the most important driver of change in organizations today, any accommodations that a business makes to our preferences is bound to be monumental.
But there are plenty of ways to make millennials happy that that don’t cost money. Actually, they’re just good management. Here are five:
Help us get better.
More than any other job perk, millennials want to learn. We know it’s the route to performing better today and gaining new marketability down the line. Businesses that leave development to the employees themselves are misguided. They’ll be out the door soon, looking for a better learning opportunity.
Be genuine about our success.
Millennials are jaded about pretty much everything. Companies can counteract our ever-present suspicion by giving us good managers who genuinely want us to succeed. A real human connection is what establishes the kind of trust employees pass over job opportunities to work for. For businesses, retention problems suddenly get easier.
Tell the truth.
Don’t sugar-coat the truth when you’re communicating with millennials. We want empathy, not the same BS we get from the endless advertisements that bombard us from every direction. Don’t be abusive, obviously, but candor and transparency are actually really refreshing.
Allow personal technology.
Don’t be alarmed by ubiquitous devices, multi-tasking, or a work-from-anywhere mentality. The technologies older generations think of as distractions are the same ones that engage and connect this generation to our work.
Try not to use the word millennial.
I would be remiss to write a defense of the term “millennial” without mentioning that actual millennials never want to hear that word again. It’s not offensive, just overused. “Millennials” do indeed exist in macro, but that individual in front of you hoping for a raise is just a young employee. Build policies for millennials; launch programs for millennials. Engage with and show respect to hard-working young people.
Different at home, different at work.
The “millennial” label refers to a real, meaningful concept. It’s more than permissible to use in reference to a group of people. Without a way to talk about young employees, businesses will not be able to cater to their needs. And doing so, for many businesses, is critical.
Yes, the generations will change. In a few decades, we’ll all be talking about how to engage and retain The Founders, or whatever we end up calling the next generation. (Maybe they’ll get a sponsored name?) And then, just like today, we’ll need to write research reports about how to meet the needs of those strange new people.
For now, it’s us who are taking over. Just ask my friend with the cell phone: there is a difference, at times vast, between the “typical” millennial and someone from a different generation. Those differences extend to our free time, our habits, and our work preferences. That’s just the way it is.