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Flying without a Helicopter
How to Prepare Young People for Work and Life
By Joanie B. Connell
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 Joanie B. Connell, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
What Is Going On at Work?
A few years back, I gave a talk to a law firm about generational differences in work styles. The meeting consisted of lawyers at all levels. Because it was the summer, the law school student interns were invited to watch. I was in the process of going over differences of work styles between baby boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials, when a senior partner (a baby boomer) suddenly shot up from his chair and went on a diatribe about how lazy millennial workers are and how they should not be hired at all within the firm. Needless to say, he got people's attention. The younger associates immediately jumped up and fought back. They were lawyers, so they fought with words, not fists, but it got so heated I began to worry that a brawl wasn't out of the question. The interns looked on from the sidelines, wide-eyed. I had to jump in to defuse the situation. It was one of the more memorable seminars of my career.
In a completely different industry, another executive recently said one of her company's biggest problems with newly hired young workers is that they aren't able to work with others. She said they lack communication skills, something that is interesting because the millennial generation is known for liking to work in collaborative groups. However, in this executive's experience (which is not atypical), teamwork had not gone as smoothly as she would have liked with the new generation of employees.
In a similar vein, the CEO of a large technology company said he has had bad experiences with millennial generation employees. In his experience, the millennials whom they employed did not get the work done, were not willing to put in the time and effort to get the results the company was looking for, and were difficult to work with. He said he encouraged people at his company not to hire anyone less than thirty years old. This may be the new ageism.
A director at a health services provider complained about parents of her employees getting involved at work. She said when she turned down a job applicant, his mother called. Parental involvement at work is a common occurrence today. The New York Times reported on a survey conducted in 2006 by the career website Experience, Inc. Of the four hundred respondents, 25 percent said their parents were involved in their jobs "to the point that it was either annoying or embarrassing" (Belkin 2007). Examples include calling the boss to get time off on holidays, negotiating salaries, and asking for promotions for their adult children. Managers are put off by having to talk to their employees' parents, and they are becoming concerned that their employees are incapable of taking care of themselves.
These examples are prototypical of what is happening in the workplace today. Numerous articles have been published that depict the differences between older and younger workers. For example, The Conference Board is an internationally renowned association that supports organizations and provides best-practice research to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. One of their recent executive action white papers is titled "Will you want to hire your own kids? (Will anybody else?)." The paper features comments from CEOs of several major corporations that focus on how recent graduates are lacking the skills needed for the workplace ("Will you want to hire your own kids? [Will anybody else?]" 2009).
The Millennial Generation
As much as parents oversend the message to their millennial children that they are special, there is no denying that the millennial generation is special in some ways. They are the most tech savvy, most educated, and most prepared generation of all time. That said, they have some critical blind spots that could lead to quick derailment once they are in the workplace. Their preparation for the future is coached, taught, protected, and academically shielded from the real world. This is the crux of what this book is about. My goal is to shift our approach to preparing children for the future from a narrow, academic approach to a well-rounded one. Academics are important, but life is much broader than that.
Countless books and articles have been written on the characteristics of the millennial generation. In addition to their bountiful education and technical skills, research has shown that millennials, as compared to previous generations, tend to want to be more collaborative, are accustomed to working in teams, and have a passion for pressure (Shih and Allen 2007). They change jobs frequently, want lifelong learning, expect on-the-job training, and want to proactively plan their own careers (Kim, Knight, and Crutsinger 2009; Meister 2012; Westerman and Yamamura 2007; Zemke, Raines, and Filipczak 2000). They are motivated by different factors from previous generations (such as advancement potential and free time) more than money or greater responsibilities, per se (Barford and Hester 2011). What really matters to them is getting what they want on a personal level (Fisher 2009). The post-millennial generation wants this even more.
Specific Trends in the Workplace
Early Career Burnout
Twenty-somethings are experiencing work stress and burnout at disturbingly high rates (Jager-Hyman 2009; Khidekel 2010; "Stress in America Findings" 2010). Previously, career burnout was a midlife issue. Now it is happening early on, at the beginning of people's careers. The twenty-somethings are showing signs of burnout by asking for time off or reduced work hours, or are opting out altogether and moving back with their parents. There is also a trend for young people to start their own companies that have more relaxed work schedules. Other signs include the increased use of prescription drugs and alternative relaxation methods, such as yoga and acupuncture, among young workers.
Twenty-something millennial women are particularly at risk of career burnout. They report higher stress levels in numerous studies around the world. Similar to millennial men, they have worked so hard to get to the light at the end of the education tunnel only to find they are merely at the beginning of the career tunnel. They see a dubious future and want to get out but are strapped down with colossal student loans. Unlike men, it seems modern women have been so intent on asserting their independence that they are not as apt to take care of themselves when they are stressed. Some may rather work themselves into the ground than cut back to balance their lives or depend on a husband for support. In any case, they are more stressed and burned out than their male counterparts (Faw 2011).
Millennial men and women alike seem to have higher expectations of work satisfaction than people of previous generations. A recent study of early career burnout found that high work ideals, or high expectations, were a significant cause of early career burnout. High expectations that are not matched in real working life may cause a reality shock that increases the risk of burnout (Djordjevic 2010).
Why do millennials have such great expectations? Millennials seem to have a sense that they deserve the fast track without having to put in the effort. They expect to have interesting jobs that do not impinge on their personal lives. When they are stuck doing drone work, such as answering phones, they balk. "What I see as boredom, they see as burnout," says a thirty-year-old Gen X owner of a marketing firm (Khidekel 2010). The generations before have had to work their way up the ladder, oft en putting in long hours and sacrificing personal time to advance. Some may argue that millennials are too soft and entitled, and they cannot take the pressure. Others might say millennials have already put in the time and sacrifice at school and are now ready for the payoff. What's more, millennials have had terrible luck with their timing. They have worked insanely throughout school with the promised payoff of the dream job, and then the economic crisis hit. No wonder they are burned out and dissatisfied!
When all is said and done, the depressed economy may be adding challenges for young people, but it is not the root of the problem. Millennials have a reputation of impatience and dissatisfaction, jumping from job to job. For example, a supervisor at a call center said the turnover rate for twenty-somethings is every two months. Most companies have a ninety-day probationary period to see if the employee is working out. Over the years, companies have found it takes three months to settle into a new job and see if the employee can handle it. The millennials at the call center are quitting before they've even given it a fair chance.
The impressions millennials are making on the people who are already in the workforce are not entirely positive. They appear self-confident and vulnerable at the same time. They seem to need constant feedback and support—and the feedback has to be positive, even glowing.
One doctor relayed his experiences of giving feedback to residents. He said the young residents are so accustomed to being told how wonderful they are that when he gives them negative evaluations, they leave his office in tears. The millennials aren't used to losing. They have been told repeatedly that "everyone's a winner," and they have been sheltered from defeat along the way. They are under the impression that they are amazing. Look at their résumés, after all. They need to keep this vision of themselves alive to maintain their self-esteem that has been artificially inflated by years of bogus praise.
In addition to praise, managers complain that younger workers need constant reassurance that they are on track. Managers complain they don't have time to give the up-to-the-minute feedback these employees seem to expect. The managers also say these workers aren't able to move forward with their tasks without instructions at every step of the way. They seem to have difficulty working independently and taking a project and running with it.
Managers comment on how "high maintenance" the young workers are. They also comment on the lack of creativity of the new generation of workers. They seem to expect to be told what to do (but not in an authoritative way) and how to do it, sometimes to the point of managers wondering if it would be simpler just to do the work themselves.
Not only are employees depending on more support from their managers and colleagues, but they also are depending on support from their parents at work. It is commonplace for adult workers to text or call their parents multiple times during the workday for support and advice. Managers are also complaining about having to take time to deal with their employees' parents. Parent calls range from simply informing the manager that the employee is sick to demanding a promotion for the employee. Managers and recruiters increasingly have to involve the parents in the hiring process, as well.
When talking with managers at organizations, oft en the first complaint they have about their younger employees is their lack of communication skills. Millennials are used to interacting with each other in short electronic chats and communicating in slang, abbreviations, and memes. Millennials are used to working at a fast pace and are used to getting immediate results. Immediacy is important to them; patience is not (Meister and Willyerd 2010). Neither are the skills of speaking and writing formally. In terms of writing, millennials have a tendency to rush through projects and turn in completed work without fine-tuning or proofreading. They copy and paste rather than write out things. I have heard countless complaints from managers of younger employees turning in work that is literally unusable.
In terms of interacting, millennials are accustomed to multitasking and working in a digital time frame, which does not offer much opportunity to reflect or control emotions. They respond quickly and impulsively, which can compromise teamwork. Millennials are known for being less empathic than other generations, meaning they do not feel what others feel. They are also known for being more narcissistic, meaning they focus more on themselves. Narcissists do not see their impact on others as well as non-narcissists. They criticize others and promote themselves. Narcissists are not good team players.
Ironically, millennials are known for being more collaborative; they like working in groups. It seems they would have great communication skills, but from what managers are saying, that is not the case. Impulsivity tends to create conflict in teams, and this is exactly what managers are complaining about now. Lack of self-control, especially in the form of emotional control, seems to be one of the major contributing factors to the communication problems at work.
Building relationships is another challenge for millennials because of their history of communicating virtually more than face-to-face. Research shows that virtual interactions contain less trust than face-to-face interactions. There is less rapport and more conflict and disagreement. People tend to feel freer to say what they want in virtual interactions. They aren't as diplomatic or respectful as in face-to-face meetings.
With the millennials' tendency to interact more oft en virtually than face-to-face, their relationships are more tenuous and less reliable. Millennials will tell you they are, in fact, closer to more friends than older people are. They feel they are connected to their friends because they share interests, ideas, and opinions with them. However, the distance of the screen creates a safety zone for them. They don't have to interact "live" or in the moment. They can compose a witty response on their keyboard and not be caught tongue-tied. They can ignore a message and not be on the spot to respond to it immediately.
More importantly, people have fewer obligations in virtual relationships. Yes, they can feel connected, but what do they owe each other? If someone is sick, will their Facebook friends go out and buy juice for them or take them to the doctor? (Or do they call their parents for this?) If someone has to duck out of the office for an hour on a personal errand, will their Twitter followers cover for them in front of the boss? (Are they colocated?) Are they willing to put their jobs on the line for their Instagram contacts? (And is that even a sacrifice if they can move back home?)
A Comfortable Environment
A senior partner at a law firm told me he was puzzled as to why his junior associates had to stop at Starbucks on the way to court. He was in a hurry to get there early to be ready to argue in front of the judge, whereas the associates were more concerned with getting no-foam lattes.
Gen X started the trend to have a more comfortable workplace. Perhaps this began as a reaction to having a less comfortable workplace, consisting of cubicles instead of offices. In any case, millennials have taken it to the next level. Work has to be comfortable, as well as fun, exciting, praiseworthy, and a growth experience. Companies are introducing new formats for work that include games to attract millennial workers. Really.
The millennials have been entering the workplace with unrealistic expectations. They don't realize they will have to work long hours and do work they consider drudgery. They are used to cushy, fun environments, listening to music on their iPods, and chatting with friends on Facebook, with moms, dads, coaches, and others poring over them to meet their needs and tell them how wonderful and special they are. They expect nothing less at work. The cliché of the millennials is they want a trophy for just showing up. (And why not? They have received trophies for that in the past.) They are accustomed to having a team of adults working to develop them and presume the managers and others at work are there to do just that. When they come face-to-face with the fact that the managers think they work for them, they think the managers just do not get it.
The clash between employer and employee expectations is resulting in some interesting trends. First, as this chapter has unsubtly implied, is that there is a generational divide in the workplace. There is oft en an "us versus them" attitude among the generations. The old think the young are lazy and entitled. The young think the old are incompetent and inefficient. There are many books and consultants to give organizations advice on how to reduce this conflict and work together more productively. I have given numerous workshops on this topic.
Second, the economic downturn has given the employers the upper hand. They can be more selective about whom they hire and fire. They can refuse to meet the demands of the workers, and the workers either have to "suck it up" or leave. Because the baby boomers and Gen Xers don't have such high expectations of the workplace, they are the ones who "suck it up" and the millennials are pushed out or they opt out on their own volition.
Excerpted from Flying without a Helicopter by Joanie B. Connell. Copyright © 2015 Joanie B. Connell, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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