Don't Believe The Hype: Unlabeling Millennials

Ever since the CoBies — Google’s multidirectional Conference Bikes that transform going for lunch into a team-building exercise — the image of millennials in the workplace has turned into a kind of perpetual second-guessing. So young, so self-possessed, so smart, so not into phone calls! So what else do they want?

This kind of approach is both fascinating and frustrating to HR in general and thought leaders especially (Ahem). It’s also beside the point. I’m not one to place labels on people. The “new generation” customarily befuddles the older; the older generation usually wants to take it upon themselves to school the younger. One difference here: millennials’ facility with digital, mobile and social means that they tend to be the teachers. But that same digital dimension also stimulates a vexingly stubborn case of us and them.

Get over it

Yes, millennials did seem to arrive fully dressed (in extremely skinny pants), with tools — as if born texting, that first infant cry a hashtag. But that’s just confluence. And taking to mobile and social like fish to water? That deserves credit, not headshaking.

The very term millennial has marketing-ploy written all over it; and that works contrary to the role of HR, which is to recruit talent. Here’s the basic premise to recruiting talent: Recruit talent. The best candidates for the position, not generations, not mystique. Hu-mans. Also, it’s a recruiter’s or hiring manager’s job to see past hype and stereotype in order to create an authentic and constructive relationship between candidate /new hire and company. So let’s look at two millennial trends and see what they really mean.

Millennials don’t care about money

A recent Case Foundation study found that 55 percent of millennials are influenced by cause work when deciding to join a company. Meaning and mission clearly play a role in their employment choices.

Look again: That doesn’t actually mean they don’t care about money. Yes, many millennials are concerned with causes, and given issues like climate change, that’s not surprising. Nor are millennials the only generation to consider the ethical value of work.

But this may be a savvy adaptation on the part of these here kids. Studies show that millennials are on track to be the most educated generation to date, according to the Pew Research Foundation. They’re also saddled with debt: a White House study puts outstanding student loan debt at over $1 trillion by the end of 2014 — partially due to greater enrollment among millennials. And despite the job market heating up, millennials are still underemployed, and making lower starting wages since the economy’s tumble. This puts looking for work with more than just a crappy salary in a different light. Sort of a silver lining, look at the bright side kind of light.

Millennials want to know the Big Picture

When interviewing and talking to recruiters, millennials want to know more than just the nature of their particular job. They want to know about how they can grow, what they can expect to accomplish, and how they can fit into the mission of the company.

In truth, transparency is always better: it’s far more productive in the long term for a recruiter to paint the whole picture, not just the small stuff. This promotes a better fit for candidate and company, which leads back to a holy grail in HR: retention.

Even from a company perspective, big picture conversations offer far better indicators for a good ROI. But here’s another point: given that millennials came of age and streamed into the job market at a point when jobs were drying up and the economy was tanking, there are plenty of practical reasons to want to be informed about growth and the potential for accomplishments.

Again, look at the economy: The job market is improving, but there’s a new kid in town, Generation Z. Actually, as a recruiter, I’d take the millennial request for the bigger picture as a plus: it speaks to commitment. Which refutes the “job hopper” mis-label that sometimes gets stuck on millennials. It also makes them more like everyone else, not less; the quest for engagement and growth at work is not unique to people under the age of 34. This is an everybody issue.

Soon enough, millennials will be the new normal; they now comprise a solid one-third of the workforce not yet hitting retirement age. High time to consider talent the fulcrum, not generational trends. Yes, each generation offers a skill set and a mindset more suitable to certain positions or purviews than others. But that’s a sweeping overstatement. No matter the organization, mission or corporate culture, whether employees travel on wacky team-building googlecycles or in drab shuttles, whether in Silicon Valley or Duluth or Madras, different generations all contribute their part to a workforce, and each individual employee is what matters. The sooner we stop trying to get the label to stick, the better our chance to not become unglued in the process.


A version of this article has been published on MillennialCEO on 4/20/15