Working in career services means that every time we have a conference, I have to hear about how awful millennials are. Whether it’s a talk on ‘why millennials want to come out of college and be in positions of leadership’ (because you told them to be in leadership positions all their lives, so that’s how they measure success) or a panel on ‘how to manage millennials in the workplace ‘ (treat them like individual humans with individual needs… kinda how you should treat everyone), this group is treated by members of mine like workplace pariahs. To my ears, these conversations are akin to an old person saying ‘kids today’… without even trying to understand where the ‘kids today’ are coming from.
‘Kids today’ saw the economy tank and not entirely recover. ‘Kids today’ have seen their parents, caregivers, and/or older relatives laid off from companies after working there for decades, only to face long-term unemployment or degrading under-employment. ‘Kids today’ have known war, terrorism, and social inequality for almost their entire lives. This is their reality, which is pretty friggin sad.
But millennial – these ‘kids today’ – are also some of the most hopeful, optimistic, and driven people. Because of this lifetime of general instability on one hand and being told that they’re different and special and awesome on the other, they have this ‘I’ll make it happen’ mentality. Life is a “make it work” moment. This ‘hustle hard for my own shit because companies and institutions aren’t really here for me’ mentality that is most tied to rap lyrics, not college classrooms. That “entrepreneurial spirit” that 95% of job descriptions ask for is present in so many “kids today”, so why is so much effort spent knocking it?
From an employer’s perspective, I get it… kinda. Employers want a predictable and controllable workforce. An influx of people who are collectively unlike your previous generations of employees is scary. But a good company will adapt. A good company (and by good I mean smart) will figure out how to keep their employees happy without compromising their bottom line. Self-interested employees are only a threat if your business model is built on screwing over your employees. (And if that’s the case, perhaps you should be driven out of business. ijs.)
I think I’m most frustrated when career services people – my people – express frustration with millennials because, of all people, we should be most aware of what the world of work looks like. It our job! The fact that our students see through the bullshit should make what we do easier, not harder. A student who knows that employment is fleeting is more able to make strategic decisions regarding the skills that will be most useful in their long-term career than one who expects to be at the same company forever. (I’ll write more about this skills-based approach to career development in another post. It’s an exceedingly useful way to conceptualize a career path.)
In talking to my colleagues, I see that this attitude is generational. Unfortunately (in this scenario, at least) higher education is one of those fields where job security is still a common occurrence, with some folks staying in the same place for decades, thus getting stuck in their ways. Those of use who are younger (and often millennials ourselves) have had similar experiences as the students we work with. We see where they’re coming from and can help them get to where they want to be. We know that they’re reacting to social circumstances because we’re reacting to the same ones. And often, we have the same ‘work is fleeting’ approach to our careers that they do. (Hello, blog.)
So maybe that’s it. Maybe more of us – career counselors of my generation – should be more active in countering this ‘kids today’ narrative that has taken over our field. It would be very millennial of us to do this, and would make conferences suck so much less.