In the workplace, being called a "Millennial" isn't always a compliment. If you believe everything you read, and if you were born after about 1990, you'll arrive on the job poorly equipped for its demands.
You and your peers are seen as fragile: anxious, distractible and spooked by complex tasks like forming relationships and solving non-linear problems. While the scientific consensus on this will take a while to arrive, there's enough anecdotal evidence for concern.
In this column, I want to define the skills that employers want but are not getting from you, so that you can play your part in growing them – on and off the job. In this column, you will also find admiration for the clear-sighted perspectives that your generation offers its elders, along with some conclusions about what all this means for the future of work.
Let's start with a guess about the cause of your relative fragility. Obviously, maybe, it's technological. Yours is the first generation reared within an unforgiving triple helix of digital technology, social media and online games. Unforgiving, because they were designed with addiction in mind. Drip-fed novelty stimulates the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to motivation, pleasure – and addiction. Here are some implications.
First, it's hard for you to get offline, which turns browsing and gaming into third-millennial carnivores of Your Real Life. How many hours do you spend every day on social media? Playing Warcraft? Feel the pain and get an accurate tally anyway. Now add that up over a week, a month and then a year; and take a beady-eyed look at the strays and kittens, figuratively speaking, you abandoned in that accumulation of hours.
If you're most at home online, there's a lot to grieve for, and somewhere, in the periphery of your attention, you'll have registered your losses. Depressed? Anxious? How could you be otherwise? This connection to real life is something older folks struggle with as well, by the way – I'd define the Western craze for busyness as a kind of addictive distraction from the pain of situational awareness. So we're all in this together.
Second, too much time on social media adulterates the quality of your real-life relationships. By and large, you and your peers have an astonishing fluency in cyber-anything. Your online skills, however, don't always translate to fluency in relating to yourself, in the quiet of your own heart, or to others.
Your social-media feed is curated, for instance, to represent an ideal, rather than an authentic life. As Henry David Thoreaux observed, everyone is leading "lives of quiet desperation". If you came of age on social media, it might take longer for this to dawn on you, for you to grok the truth of your own worthiness, just as you are, amid both your successes and your failures.
Your ability to relate to yourself, your internal sense of worthiness, is the starting point for your ability to connect with others. In the automating economy, this capacity to connect is the ground of your professional competence. It's also your best assurance for keeping a job through the years that will span the next generation, and the ones after.
In that spirit, here's a laundry list of things to work on, and to seek help with (from your peers, leaders and employer), if you're younger at work than most of your colleagues:
- asking for and accepting help;
- feeling and regulating difficult emotions;
- expressing vulnerability in a register that signals self-responsibility rather than collapse;
- surviving rejection;
- working out what you want and then asking for it;
- setting limits with other people;
- standing up for what you really believe in;
- balancing your needs with others';
- cutting out the phony posturing in all the domains of your life;
- learning when to speak and when to listen; and
- withstanding boredom and the mundane hours involved in acquiring anything worth having.
The human search for realisation is as ancient as we are. Not so long ago, a commitment to skills like these was called "building character", "becoming a good person", or moving from habits of vice to the routines of virtue. To offer two birds with one open hand, I'm happy to say that these skills are also the building blocks of professional excellence. And that their foundation is self and situational (external) awareness.
But you can't learn them online. Rather, you learn offline the skills you'll need for human relating. With people who are right here, right now.
You arrive in workplaces without the social and analytical skills that we took for granted in recruits even a decade ago.
All of this means that your supervisors find you demanding, needy and fragile. They want you to "grow up" (socially and mentally speaking) enough to withstand, and even thrive, on the rigours of hard intellectual and relational labour. All of us struggle with human relating, and all of us overestimate our level of self-awareness. In certain respects, however, your leaders are not like you. You, neurologically speaking, are not like them. Digitally minted, you arrive in workplaces without the foundation of social and analytical skills that we took for granted in new recruits even a decade ago. Taking your own growth seriously is the best thing you can do to succeed at work; and an organisation that is willing to help you do that is one that will be able to retain you in the future.
Between the back and forth about the fitness of you younger folks for work runs an argument that sees your fragility and says: those most affected by the future weigh up their present priorities differently from those who came before. This American spring, our feeds are filled with the stories of children who have given up their innocent expectation that adults are always wise with power. A loss of faith in formal authority by young people, and a renewed commitment to social and political equality, are the signs of these tumultuous times. They are also an emerging characteristic of young professionals like you.
One of the upsides of growing up hooked into a global mind is an instinct for the bigger picture, both in space and time. The loyalties of Millennials are therefore writ much larger than your current employer may fathom. To speak to your leaders on your behalf: I say that Millennials look for meaning and purpose at work. They want to speak, and they want to be heard. They wish to be coached rather than directed; and they're motivated much more by personal and professional growth than by the prospect of promotion. The connection between the culture of their work and the future of their world is not lost on them.
As it turns out, this mindset is an asset for any enterprise that sees innovation, collaboration and inclusion as mission critical, rather than merely desirable.
There's much more going on the minds of the emerging crop of workers than digitally altered neuro-circuits: too much time online might be an incomplete diagnosis of Millennial fragility. An alternative perspective would lean into your unwillingness to take part in political and organisational life as we know it and be curious about its implications for the current culture of work.
To this extent, Millennials are the workplace equivalent of canaries in a coalmine. If this is true, you and your peers are a gift to the future of work.