Oldsters vs Millennials: Stop moaning and start talking

"Is it really the millennials who have the problem, or is it us and the weak way we manage them?" asks straight-talking career and recruitment expert, and author of Mind Flip, Zena Everett

You’ve heard it so many times. Entitled, self-obsessed and flakey: the under-30 #avocadotoast generation are unencumbered either by work ethic or loyalty. They might be highly educated but they lack ‘stickability’ and can’t cope with a bit of direct feedback or pressure.

Arriving in the organisation, they might burn with ambition, but have little sense of graft or commitment. They curate their whole lives on social media, and assume they can craft their careers in the same way. That means a work/life balance that eludes everyone else in the business and accessories to make work aspirational: flash offices, weird job titles and time for mindfulness on your payroll.

At the first sign of ‘conflict’ (normal work hassles to most of us), they’ll throw in the towel, take a break to travel and #recharge, then turn up at a more exciting but smaller competitor, who will appreciative their uniqueness. You hire a replacement, who again proves a disappointment and drops out after a year or two. It’s doubtful if you truly recoup your investment on recruitment and training costs but no one wants to do the real numbers to own up to this.

What’s the other side of the story?

Common sense dictates that the employment conditions and leadership styles that worked for one generation might not work for another, very different one.

Could the problem be… you? Is working for you an anti-climax? Does the real job match the promises of your whizzy recruitment process? Is your jaded approach to work too dispiriting to be around? Are your managers really energetic and thorough enough to truly manage at this level?

Take a harsh look at yourself

People in their 40s and 50s often sandwich caring responsibilities and are burdened by hefty mortgages. We look at work through a very different lens; it’s become a means to an end rather than a purpose. We come from parents who lived through wars and rationing, who valued safe employment and jobs for life and saw change as a threat. We’ve internalised these values. Work has become a strait jacket.

We can feel physically fragile, vulnerable to being upstaged by bright young things in the board room, and frankly aware of our mortality and expendable value to an organisation.

Whilst we are working through this phase, in comes these golden kids, all about authenticity and being true to themselves (we are still working out who we are), and who believe that #ChangeMakesYouFly.

They are sceptical about our institutions and structures and they value entrepreneurship. If something displeases them they move on; never suck it up. They see working with big brands as an incubating phase, ready to move off to somewhere with more challenge and freedom.

God forbid they end up like us.

Is a small bit of us pleased to see them walk out to pastures new, to hopefully crash and burn somewhere else? We were right all along: the world doesn’t owe us a living and work is, well work, not a picnic. Perhaps the firm should value its loyal workers a bit more, rather than wasting money on ‘emerging talent’?

Maybe we are doing it wrong. Modelling the wrong career choices and attitudes. And not giving them the support they need to be productive and fulfilled.

How good is your training at this level?

Degrees in classics and Duke of Edinburgh awards give this cohort many great skills, although not necessarily the career tools that they need to survive. HR have complex performance management systems, balanced score cards and KPIs. All great processes but the trouble is on the ground: how they are managed from day to day? People don’t leave an organisation because of its HR department. They leave their manager.

These youngsters have come from very structured education processes, arguably used to being spoon-fed. To get them up to speed and work your way, you have to give far more granular, daily guidance, than you ever had. I know you worked it out for yourself; good for you. People learn differently now.

We assign our worst managers to our most valuable talent

Millennials’ managers are often newly promoted themselves, overwhelmed with their own workload and with barely rudimentary management training. They are just good at the job, so get promoted to build their own team. The worst kinds of manager: poorly trained, time-poor and selfish.

We need to rethink how we train them and fill in the gaps.

Here’s some training 101:

  • Rethink your hierarchy. Why do the people who need the most time and training work for the managers who are least equipped to give it to them? How about getting proven senior managers to go back on the floor to train, mentor and inspire the newbies?
  • Explain the strategy, why you do what you do. Tell them the purpose of what you want to achieve, so they get the big picture, then break it down into exactly what you want them to do and what standard you want from them.
  • They expect challenges, so give them small challenges to start with and increase them as their competence improves. Challenge, feedback, reward, repeat. They are used to passing exams. Give them milestones and tests. Make them work for success, so they value it more.
  • Give constant, fluid feedback. So often I find that once the graduate scheme is over, new hires are left to get on with things, with only formal appraisals. Attrition rates are high because managers assume everything is OK whilst problems fester. These people over-think issues and don’t have the tools to nip them in the bud. When did you last take the time to ask, ‘how’s it going?’ or have a basic career conversation over a coffee with them?
  • They are raised on diets of shouty soap operas and aggressive social media. They expect to get their needs met but lack soft skills and political nous. Train them to ask for what they want in an assertive, non-confrontational way. Encourage them to ask questions, to take feedback constructively, not personally, and to develop thicker skins.
  • High performers (from homes and education systems that see B grades as a disaster) need to be encouraged to take risks and see mistakes as positive, not as failures they can’t come back from. They can’t leave when things go wrong, in the way they dropped subjects at school. Help them to separate their ego from their performance and work their way through hard times.
  • Listen to them. Why hire people for their brains, then stifle them? Maybe they are right, that your monotonous long-hours culture inhibits innovation and stifles creativity? Perhaps if you explained what you are trying to achieve in a task they could come up with a more effective way of getting the end result?

Like most of human relations, it boils down to conversations. They have joined you to be successful themselves and help you to be more successful. They’ll work hard for you. In return, you have to give them far more explanation, challenge, feedback, space and support than you are doing now. You’ve hired a young thoroughbred, don’t treat them like a tired carthorse.

Zena Everett is a London-based motivational speaker and executive coach specialising in career confidence, work goals productivity and performance issues. Her book, Mind Flip, is a career manual for anyone looking to change jobs, achieve promotion or find more fulfilling work.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.