One of the comedy gags that never fails to deliver in TV sitcoms is when two or three people are making disparaging remarks and then another person chimes in: “You know I can hear you, right?” Very often, that’s how Millennials and Gen-Xers feel.
I have never believed most of the common wisdom spread about Millennials (and Gen X and Gen Z). And after about fifteen years of hearing “advice” focused on these younger generations, I think I finally figured out where the advice goes bad: It is extremely superficial and meaningless. Let me explain.
First: The generations.
Thankfully, writers and researchers have figured out that there’s a huge difference between early baby boomers (born 1946-1957) and late baby boomers (born 1958-1964). I’m a late boomer. Gen X was next, born 1965-1980. Then Gen Y, which is commonly referred to as the Millennials because they were born 1981-1996 and came of age in the new millennium. Gen Z was born about 1997-2012.
Depending on when YOU were born, you may also refer to some or all of these people as, “Kids these days.” And, in fact, many refer to everybody younger than themselves as Millennials just so they can complain about kids these days.
Second: The bad advice.
So, what’s the advice I keep hearing and disagreeing with? For the most part, it’s a common laundry list of things business owners and HR departments need to take into consideration when hiring kids these days. I know you’ve heard some or all of these stereotypes:
- They’re always on their phone
- They grew up with computers (“we” grew up before computers)
- They don’t ever remember a time without cell phones
- They embrace technology and aren’t afraid of it
- They are very value-driven and want to work for a company that shares their values
- They want more flexibility and autonomy
- They insist on work/life balance
- They want opportunities to grow in the job and in their career
- They bring fun and creativity to the workplace
Somehow, the assumption is that you need to change your job and your business to “fit” what these people want. That’s not necessary. It’s not what these people want. And it’s not good business advice either. If you have a business model that works, you need to work your business model.
Third: My experience for the last forty years.
Let me just give you a bit of my personal history before I tell you why all that advice around Generations X-Y-Z is both superficial and harmful.
When I was in college and graduate school, and during the year in between, I was constantly working with high school and college students. So-called young people. I worked with high school-based clubs across many states. I taught college for ten years. And then I spent several years in a job where my staff consisted of about twenty-five college students.
In other words, I worked with young people a LOT for about fifteen years. I found them to be fun, energetic, smart, creative, dedicated, motivated, and very hard workers if they thought they were working on something that mattered.
When I started hiring employees into my own company, I tended to favor young people, largely due to my extremely positive experiences. I offered paid internships, which resulted in some truly amazing hires. And I hired “fresh” technology grads who just earned their first professional certificates. Time and time again, I found that young, motivated people were great employees. As recently as January of this year, I am still hiring young people for my business.
Fourth: A different perspective on Kids These Days.
Given my decades-long positive experiences with young people, I have never bought the advice given in endless PowerPoints about Gen X, Millennials, and (more recently) Gen Z. But this week I sat through two more presentations where this same advice was repeated again and again.
And I finally figured out where all this advice goes wrong.
I talked to a couple of young people in the audience during these presentations and asked them what they thought about it. Their response is exactly what you would expect: They hate being discussed as if their entire generation is a problem that needs to be dealt with.
Every generation is always on their phone or laptop. Look around the next meeting you attend. Every generation wants a job that matters, flexibility, opportunity to advance, and a positive culture. Read Drive by Daniel Pink: People want autonomy, mastery, and purpose. All people of all ages.
And that whole “values” thing? Early baby boomers literally invented the modern protest movement. They marched for civil rights at a time when that meant you might get your head beat in. Yes, they grew up to be money-grubbers like their parents. Then they invented values-based investment funds. But they spent their youth ending a war, marching for the Civil Rights Act, and making causes a central part of our national psyche. So young people driven by their values is nothing new to the boomers.
Here’s where I think the advice goes wrong: The stereotypes used for Generations X-Y-Z are all based on superficial observations. Yes, they grew up with computers and I was a college graduate before I got my first computer. But I grew up with television and my parents without. They grew up with radio and their parents without. Technology changes with each generation. That’s just the nature of time and technology.
That fact does not change anything about who these people are as individuals or how they will perform on the job. Once you get past the fact that each generation is more comfortable with its generation of technology than their parents, you can look at things that actually matter.
When you dig into what these young people do for hobbies, how they spend their weekends, and what they want to achieve in the next five years, they are extremely normal, average people just like us old people. The primary difference: They’re younger. But they’re still passionate about their hobbies and jobs. They want relationships and careers and kids. They want their kids to be better off than they are.
Once you get past the superficial elements, young people are really just like everyone else – except they’re younger.
The oldest instance I know of someone complaining about “young people” is Aristotle. More than 300 years before Christ was born, Aristotle complained that young people are stupid, but they think they know everything. That basic observation may be true today. But that’s only to say that was always true, in all ages, and will always be true.
Please consider, the next time you find yourself sitting through a PowerPoint filled with advice for hiring “Millennials” that it’s all really just advice about all young people in all ages. And, to be honest, it works pretty well with old people as well. Everyone wants to work at a good job, with good culture, that helps bring meaning into their life.
And all that talk about generational differences is just superficial.
My two cents.
Your comments welcome.
Spot on, Karl.
Especially your description of boomers, and what we did during the trajectory of our lifetimes.