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Time to Dispel Our Mental Models of Millennials?

In training courses where the subject of diversity is touched on, the discussion inevitably meanders to millennials at work. You can almost hear the collective groan among the Gen X and older who lament the attitudes of the new employees. Managers from different companies exchange knowing glances and give each other sympathetic nods when one of them regales the class with stories of how flighty their younger colleagues are, and how this “strawberry generation” is unable to withstand the stresses of the real working world.

Despite what seems like overwhelming anecdotal evidence from class participants, I’ve always felt that millennials are really not much different from their managers in their youth. I recollect the time when I first entered the workforce. At that time, my employer recruited graduates by the batches and we had to undergo a curated training program lasting almost a year. We were a modestly sized group of 6. Singapore was then in the midst of a recession and we were so fortunate to be in a brand-name company that was obsessed with employee training. Even then, only two lasted beyond 5 years in the company. It was not unusual; a pattern that has been largely consistent before us, and well after. Not one of us talked about working there till retirement although the two of us who stayed, did continue for more than 25 years.

The subject of millennials in the workplace has even spawned a whole sub-industry within HR, researching into and giving advice to organisations how to manage this uncertain and unstable group who now invade our workplaces. If there’s going to be more of them than us, how are we ever going to win (whatever win means!)?

Then in researching the subject, I found the article written by Dr Bruce Pfau, a partner at KPMG LLP, published in the hallowed Harvard Business Review which vindicated my opposing worldview. Aptly titled “What do millennials really want in the workplace? The same thing the rest of us do.”, the article says that “a growing body of evidence suggests employees of all ages are much more alike than different in their attitudes and values at work.” It goes on to explain that they are what we were, and over time, will get over themselves and become more and more like us.

In an interview available on Youtube, Simon Sinek, the British/American author and marketing consultant had quite a bit to say about millennials. He attributed the current characteristics of millennials to 4 factors: (1) failed parenting, (b) addiction to technology, (c) impatience and (d) the environment.

Why have we become, if not obsessed, at least somewhat engrossed with the subject of millennials in the workplace? Why is this term even important? Isn’t this really just an outcome of a confluence of several trends such globalisation, advancement in technology, greater and easier access to information and knowledge, higher education, wealthier parents, smaller families (though these may not apply in every country and society). We always had bad parents, perhaps today we have more. Employees always had choices, today they probably have a lot more. As the young of today are, the young of yesteryears were also impatient. We could go on and find that in almost everything, the millennials are so much like us when we were younger, except now they come pre-loaded with a turbo-charger.

Simon Sinek goes on in his interview to suggest that “the company’s responsibility is to pick up the slack and work extra hard and find ways to build on their confidence, and teach them social skills they’re missing out on.” I can’t imagine that this did not ring true as well 20, 30, 50 years ago.

So, what’s a manager going to do, if the millennials that we are struggling to tame, is actually us in a different era? I would suggest that we first do away with this mental model of the “entitled, easily distracted, impatient, self-absorbed, lazy, and unlikely to stay in any job for long” millennial. Harbouring this negative mind-set can only hamper our efforts to get the best performance of our team members. We may find ourselves unwilling to invest more time and effort, if needed, to help specific individuals with their performance and learning needs.

Having a millennial in the workplace is arguably no different than a senior recruit, someone sporting a salt-and-pepper crop with 30 years under their belt, or someone who has 25 long and unbroken years of experience in the same company. Every individual will be different, and each needs the attention of their supervisors so that they can grow in the direction the organisation needs them to, and to contribute as an effective team member.

What do you think?



Xavier Lim is a senior consultant with Organisational Development Concepts specialising in areas of people-centric leadership. He previously held various leadership roles across various functions at Singapore Airlines, and was a member of the senior leadership team at Tiger Airways.


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