It’s possible I’ll get some backlash over this, but in my experience, Millennials are huggers. I am neither a Millennial by birth, nor a hugger by nature. I’m a Gen-Xer who often feels at least a twinge of angst when confronted with the notion of hugging a stranger. So, I confess that I’m a little jealous of the ease with which I see my younger counterparts navigate social situations. Not all of them, of course. You can’t paint an entire generation with the same brush, which is really what I want to talk about.
We’ve all read the generationist (yes, I made up that word) pieces that bash humans born between 1982 and 2004 (NOTE: these endpoints are credited to researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss; the range varies depending on your preferred source). You know the ones—they call Millennials lazy, entitled, impatient, and even snotty. They scrunch their noses like they just smelled something horrible and point their crooked virtual fingers downward at these young professions as if to say, “Wait your turn. We’re not done yet.”
I can’t confirm this, but I imagine most of those pieces were written by cranky older people like me. And the not-so-funny-funny thing about that is that when I think back, I hear the voices of Baby Boomers hurling those same insults at us. In my experience, it’s no truer now than it was then.
To me, Millennials are after the same things we were—they just have more courage than we did. They’re Gen X 2.0.
When I was just getting started in my adult life, top performers were largely defined by how many hours they worked. People stayed in the same company for their entire careers, and they made decent money. They wore their hours like badges of honor, and why not? They got paid and promoted based on seniority. Then, somewhere along the way, companies started dreaming up ways to attract a new breed of employee—Generation X.
They introduced concepts like work-life balance and flexible work arrangements but couldn’t fully wrap their heads around how to make them real for the people they were hiring. They wrote policies that spelled out the rules for taking advantage of these new benefits, but people rarely met the criteria. It was like the Publishers’ Clearing House Sweepstakes for employees—you had a notion that someone, somewhere, won, but you never actually saw the prize patrol van or the giant check.
Of course, we wanted to take advantage of these perks. We wanted to use new technology and work from home. We wanted to kick ass in less than 40 hours and have some time to ourselves and our families. But we were afraid to ask for any of it. Why? Probably because we didn’t have the double-secret decoder ring for the policies. But also because we were raised to believe our value was counted by the number of hours we put in every day. If we didn’t work hard, we sucked. So, we put our heads down, sat on our heels, and passed the baton for the things we really wanted to a new, bolder generation of workers. People who were willing to take the risks we wouldn’t take—Millennials.
So now, thanks in large part to our younger friends, more and more companies are embracing enabling technology and what used to be considered alternative work arrangements. But here’s the rub—company culture hasn’t caught up. As much as companies talk about “pay for performance” cultures, they’re still evaluating and compensating people based on time served. And many of them are still clinging to strict HR policies of a bygone era as a rule book for today. Let me pose a hypothetical situation based on a nearly unlimited supply of real-world examples:
You hire a new employee. The two of you sit down and agree to the performance results you expect from her. She’d like to work from home occasionally because sometimes the quiet of her apartment just helps her focus. And if you give her the chance, she’ll prove she can produce even more with this kind of flexibility. But her need doesn’t meet the standards your HR department set when they drafted the policy, so you turn down her request.
She’s a real go-getter, and within a few months she’s out-performing her objectives anyway. She starts sliding into the office a bit later in the morning and heading out a little early, especially on Fridays. You sit her down and explain that she has to be in the office 40 hours per week because it doesn’t look good. And the other employees are talking. A month later, she gives notice that she’s leaving the company. What just happened?
If you ask me, you just lost a top performer because you let bad policy win over common sense. You sent her a clear message that appearances matter more to you than performance. Moreover, your behavior told her that you weren’t willing to support her. She found a way to get the results you asked for and have more time for herself. Instead of rewarding her for her success, you penalized her and reinforced the notion that the most important thing in your company is the number of hours you work. That is not a “pay for performance” culture. And it isn’t her fault.
Millennials didn’t invent work-at-home or flexible hours any more than hipsters invented brussel sprouts. I remember my mother and grandmother making them when I was a kid—I just thought they were shrunken heads of lettuce. But I will give hipsters credit for improving them. We had them with salt and pepper, but hipsters added bacon. And boom! Everyone loves a brussel now. Because bacon is awesome.
My point is that Millennials aren’t evil or lazy because they want a common-sense workplace dynamic and an enjoyable culture. In my experience, they simply expect the compensation, benefits, and flexibility they earn with their performance. And if we don’t align our company culture—leadership, policies, communication, and environment—around the behaviors that make us successful, we can kiss the notion of employee loyalty goodbye forever. So instead of demonizing an entire generation because they’re adding bacon to our brussel sprouts, how about we say “thank you” and enjoy the new flavor? Maybe even give them a hug.