Opinion

A problem with spoilt and demanding millennials? You’re just becoming a grumpy old fart

picMillennials are “tough to manage” according to author and business consultant Simon Sinek, who lists four reasons for the workplace difficulties. In this post which first appeared on LinkedIn, Publicis Media’s Greater China chief strategy officer Shann Biglione dissects the observations and wonders if it’s more a case of the older generation becoming grumpy old farts

If you’ve been on social media lately, chances are you’ve seen Simon Sinek’s talk about millennials in the workforce.

If not, have a look, it’s pretty entertaining, and looooads of people seem to find it insightful. In a nutshell, Simon is offering his perspective on four reasons why millennials are “tough to manage” and “accused of being entitled, lazy [and so on]” at work.

Sadly, it seems that even when being provided “purpose, free food and bean bags they’re still not happy”.

Are they really so special?

We know for a fact that lumping consumers into generations based on when they were born is among the crudest forms of segmentation. Doing so often ends up measuring the common (and persistent) themes associated with each life stage (the young are more idealistic, consume less mass media etc.).

Anecdotally, as someone who regularly works with (and trains) so-called millennials, I’ve found there is great variance between individuals, but would struggle to find a correlation between age group and engagement at work. And bear in mind that I work in China, a country where there was genuine societal transformation in the 80s.

It is not entirely surprising to read in the Harvard Business Review that “a growing body of evidence suggests that employees of all ages are much more alike than different in their attitudes and values at work”.

It adds that “to the extent that any gaps do exist they amount to small differences that have always existed between younger and older workers throughout history and have little to do with the millennial generation per se”.

The 4 Horsemen of the Youth-ocalypse 

So what are these four hypothetical reasons leading us to a situation that may or may not be true? Put on your grumpy old man suit, you’ve heard them before (well, at least the first three): bad parenting, addictive technology, impatience and environment (aka bad management).

Every single one of them has an appeal so intuitive that we’re all nodding and laughing in agreement without even raising an eyebrow, including The Millennials in the audience. But considering how debatable the whole premise is in the first place, maybe we should get our skeptical eyebrows in position.

Bad parenting

Simon talks about mothers and fathers who keep telling their kids “how special they are”, pretending they could get “anything they want to have”. A generation that gets “participation medals for coming in last” to the point “it devalues the medal and the reward”.

Something that produces “an entire generation with lower self-esteem than previous generations”, he rather sweepingly argues.

By that stage I was waiting for Donald Trump to make a cameo and tell us how un-American these parents were for raising losers. Now I don’t have kids, so I’ve looked for studies confirming this.

Every single one I’ve read about child development points to the exact opposite: encouragement builds self-esteem, while negative reinforcement can have serious effects (not fearing failure is apparently important).

This argument sounds exactly like my grandparents who complained teachers weren’t allowed to slap kids at school or hit them with a ruler anymore. Besides, as I said I work in China, and while I usually hear similar (mis)conceptions about millennial disengagement (often attributed to the very significant single child policy), I need to point out that the above description of parenting is the complete opposite of the insanely competitive and labor intensive education that kids go through here.

I’m no expert but maybe we’re not really raising a generation of pussies when we tell them they are special?

Addictive technologies

This one has many people nodding in unison. Boy, do we like to bitch about new technologies. It’s impossible to disagree with someone saying out how annoying it is to be in meetings with people who keep checking their phones.

millennials

Notwithstanding the fact literally everyone does this regardless of their age, it doesn’t make the argument that it is the root of this new generation’s problem any more true. Yes, engaging with social media’s instant responses (receiving likes, messages, shares etc.) releases dopamine, the same chemical that Simon likes to point out “makes tobacco, alcohol and gambling addictive”.

Don’t be fooled by the funny reference to the “magnanimous” colleague who doesn’t check his phone when it beeps. It’s a good truism to rally your audience, because we all like to bitch about the situation. But the syllogism that implies the “like” button…. actually leads to the destruction of a whole generation’s motivation doesn’t seem to be substantiated by research (yet).

Dopamine, as scary as it sounds, is triggered by so many things in your daily life, not least of them real interactions. If anything, it seems the problem is more the kind of content we can see in it (from distressful news to cyber bullying) than the vehicle or the notification system itself.

But even if you take aside the fact that research on addiction only considers dopamine a part of the cause (serotonin is another), there is a great syllogistic deception by insinuating the effects of social media can be as dramatic as classified drugs, something that is far from proven.

Impatience

This is somewhat related to new technology. Simon tells us this generation is growing up in a world of instant gratification (binging on TV shows, next day delivery on Amazon etc.).

They’re being told that “everything they want they can have instantaneously”. But the problem, he claims, is that “there is no app for job satisfaction” (which is absolutely true).

Here he tells us about this kid who thinks of quitting his job after only eight months because he’s “not making an impact”.

While I see merit in the argument that living in a world that is increasingly instantaneous could have an impact on our impatience levels (there is a whole discipline of customer experience planning dedicated to this), there are two caveats.

First, this is most likely transgenerational. In soon-to-be-released research, we measured the desire to embrace disruptive technologies including some that increase this sense of immediacy, and we found that every generation was pretty much as enthusiastic and engaged.

Secondly, it reminds me a lot of the debates heard around violence in videogames, for which research always confirmed that teenagers are able to make the difference between what is virtual and what is real.

We assume that because they binge-watch Game of Thrones they want to binge-grow their career or their relationships. But I haven’t found evidence confirming this effect yet, and there is a good chance they’re able to tell the difference. I think we can assume close to two billion people are not incapable of making the distinction.

Environment

By this Simon means a corporate environment “that cares more about the numbers than they do about the kids”, and “more about the year than the lifetime”.

Honestly, these old CEOs are so entitled and impatient about short term results, I’m starting to think they must be hooked to social media dopamine.

But let’s be very clear: this has nothing to do with millennials in particular. What Simon is describing is lousy management that is impacting us all, and that has people of all generations questioning what the fuck they’re doing here. Sorry kids, you’re not so special on that one.

At one point, Simon says that when asked what should be done by senior people, these kids use their made up toughness and confidence to “sound like ‘this is what we gotta do’… and they have no clue!”. Part of me feels like he’s projecting a little.

Out with the old, in with the new

So let’s assume that the original premise of millennials being so vastly different in their work engagement is true and not just a generational meme.

I’d love to have heard other reasons that would provide food for thought as to what could be happening. If the real world is more of a driver of addiction and depression, maybe it makes sense to look at it.

Just in the US, it’s worth exploring the effects of socioeconomic realities like record levels of student debts, impossible odds to own a first property, global warming, the explosion of unrealistic models of success, the rise of job automation etc., all the while having an enlightening access to travel, knowledge, content creation and so on.

In China, there are plenty of reasons why the youth might want a different model as well, not content with the pretty rigid expectations that are made for them from their youngest age.

Maybe, just maybe, when someone tells us he thinks he’s not able to make an impact, he’s not of low self-esteem. Maybe we’re simply missing the chance to be the generation that doesn’t behave like the grumpy old farts our predecessors were, telling us our parents were too soft, our hobbies worthless addictions, and our behaviour so impatient.

Maybe it’s not about them being “dealt a bad hand”, maybe it’s just us getting old.

In my opinion when someone tells you “there should be no cellphones in meeting rooms”,  or that “we have to create mechanisms where we allow interactions to happen”, please don’t start clapping at Captain Obvious here.

Simon is the perfect illustration of a manipulative strategic planner. Part of a planner’s expertise is to tell you great engaging stories weaving just about enough “insights” to make you feel there is substance to it.

Trust me, the good ones are pros at this, which is why we can get away with appealing commonplaces so often. But we ought to do and expect better. We can’t be complaining about fake news spreading everywhere at the end of 2016 and celebrate talks like this at the beginning of 2017.

So if I could have one wish, it would be for us all in the industry to spend more time looking at the evidence.

Training ourselves to separate the sweet-talking gurus from the real erudites, understanding that we are as susceptible as every other human being to emotional validation overriding our skepticism. This is not a generational problem, it’s just hard, for everyone.

On that note, I wish you all a fruitful and more skeptical 2017.

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