It felt like a scene from the show The Office.
The two-day diversity training had just begun in the lobby of the Philadelphia Marriott. It was nice to escape the cubicle for a few days, but as a white male, it was impossible not to feel just a little deficient in the diversity department.
Our HR leader (a middle-aged man with the same general lack of charisma as Toby) announced the first topic of discussion: Age Diversity.
A quick glance around the room confirmed that I was the only one under 30 in the group. I was the only “millennial.” Sweet. Bonus points for me.
The HR manager went through the general traits of each generation. Baby boomers were structured and successful. Generation x’ers were hardworking and self-starting. So what about my generation? Well, to demonstrate the traits of a millennial, he told the story about a recent college graduate who requested that her parents be allowed to sit in on her job interviews. Basically, he painted the picture that millennials are spoiled brats.
“Fantastic,” I thought. “This is what corporate America thinks of my generation.”
But where older generations see coddled, lazy, disrespectful punks, I see the founders of Facebook, Dropbox and Instagram.
So where is the disconnect? What is it that corporations don’t understand about millennials?
1. We aren’t living for retirement
Why aren’t millennials living for retirement?
First, because we don’t expect to be retiring anytime soon. Our grandparents retired in their 50s or early 60s. Our parents are still working in their 60s. When will we be able to retire? Our 70s? Our 80s? Never?
And if we’re going to be working practically our entire lives, it might as well be something we enjoy, right? It isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon.
Second, we know that even if we do retire, it isn’t that great of a deal. Why work like crazy your entire life to eventually have (at best) a middle-class retirement, where you have unlimited time, but limited ability to do what you love?
So, the American Dream today isn’t about finding some elusive future happiness. The American Dream today is to live each day to its fullest. Not in an irresponsible way. But in a way that you find and maintain a level of happiness throughout the entirety of your life and career.
That’s why companies that want to attract millennials pay careful attention to the day-to-day atmosphere of the workplace. They offer human-grade coffee. Warm lighting (none of this lab-rat florescent lighting). Casual work attire. Basically, they create an environment that feels like a home away from home. Millennials know that this is the space where they will live out most of their lives. Why not make that place feel more like a home?
2. We’re less concerned about hierarchy.
Maybe it’s because our parents are also our friends. Maybe it’s the decentralized nature of the internet. Or maybe we just watched too much MTV growing up. Whatever the case, millennials just aren’t big fans of hierarchy.
I remember my first month in corporate America, fresh out of college, attending a business planning session. The president of the company — notoriously short-tempered — was shooting down an idea presented by my colleague. It was clear to me (and likely to everyone else in the room) that the president had simply misunderstood the idea. But rather than correct the president, the colleague simply stood there, taking it. This seemed bizarre to me. So I spoke up and tried to clarify the misunderstanding. No big deal.
Stunned silence followed. People could not believe I had stood up to someone five levels my senior.
For weeks after this, colleagues came up to me. They always looked around the room before they talked, as if they were making sure they hadn’t been followed. They secretly gave me high fives, but told me to watch my back. Too much of this bravery on my part could become a “CLM” (career limiting move).
I’ve seen this play out again and again. College kids come into organizations fresh out of school ready to set the world on fire, only to run into this blunt truth about corporate America: most offices are run more like third world dictatorships than like a democracy. Loyalty is valued above performance, and this kills innovation.
To build a company where there is a higher potential for innovation (and for attracting millennials), get rid of the hierarchy and formality. Listen to people based on the merit of their ideas, not on the position they hold. Get rid of the physical reinforcements of hierarchy. Tear down the cubicle walls. Make the corner office a shared meeting room.
3. We care about doing something worthwhile
The critics are wrong. millennials aren’t lazy. We just hate doing work that doesn’t matter.
With the startup I’m working on now, I get to witness some of the most engaged millennials on the planet: web developers and programmers. Beyond their day to day jobs, most of them are also working on their own side projects or collaborating on projects that they find interesting. It’s not uncommon for them to work until 2 or 3 in the morning – not because they have to but because they want to.
On the flip side, much of the work inside of corporate America feels like it doesn’t matter (and truthfully much of it doesn’t). Time sheets. Paperwork. The “TPS report.” Endless, non-productive meetings. Sorting through email clutter. These should be kept to a minimum.
So how do you get millennials to care about what they’re doing?
Google has a brilliant strategy. They insist that their employees spend 20% of their time working on whatever they want to work on. It could be a new idea. It could be fixing an existing problem. It’s whatever interests and motivates that employee.
You can’t argue with the results. A few products started in this “20% free time” are Gmail, Google Autocomplete, AdSense and Google News. Not too shabby for side projects.
Of course these are generalities. Not everyone within a generation shares exactly the same traits. And maybe for some millennials this article won’t ring true. Maybe you do want to have your parents by your side during your job interviews. And that’s fine.
But whatever the case, it is clear that millennials are choosing to play by a different set of rules. And if corporate America doesn’t adapt, they’ll miss out on the biggest opportunity for innovation in, well, a generation.