From an upcoming book – on the rise of the Millennial generation and what it means for society.
A better street sweeper
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry…” So said Martin Luther King in 1967 in his famous sermon, “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” subsequently popularized as the street sweeper speech.
Fifty years later Gallup released their compendious 2017 report, “State of the American Workplace.” In half a century the sentiment has been completely inverted. “Do the best at what you do” has become “I must do what I do best.” More dangerously for business, it also works in reverse. Not being able to do “what I do best” (whatever subjective measures apply to that) is now the greatest source of employee disengagement – and the greatest impetus to chuck a job in.
Unsurprisingly, the generation with the lowest percentage of engaged employees in the workplace is Millennials.
Millennials are already a major source of disruption as consumers, with marketers struggling to catch up with a generation that doesn’t play by the old rules (see “Shadowing Science – a lesson for marketing on paradigm shift”) Having exceeded all other generations in employee numbers, they have now also become the greatest source of potential disruption to workplace operations.
The Millennial desire to have their job crafted around what they believe they do best creates a challenging dynamic for employers. On the one hand, who could argue with employees wanting their work to have meaning and purpose?
The Millennial desire to have their job crafted around what they believe they do best creates a challenging dynamic for employers. On the one hand, who could argue with employees wanting their work to have meaning and purpose? That’s hardly an issue in the 21st century. Or wanting to use what they see as their best talents and strengths? While also wanting to learn and develop? All this as they climb the organisational ladder. These are worthy and seemingly inarguable sentiments. At least, until they’re examined.
Parsing them shows up some striking inconsistencies, outright paradoxes. If Millennial staff recognise the need to “learn and develop,” and in fact, demand that right, why should they expect to contribute to an organisation’s success by “doing what they do best” rather than, say, “doing what they’ve been told is best”? This attitude is further ammunition for employer complaints about the Millennial sense of entitlement. Fresh out of education and wanting the business to accommodate them, rather than the reverse.
It’s certainly the source of much misunderstanding, contention, and conflict between generations, departments, and management levels in organizations. It creates enormous frustration, on both sides. It causes disruption within the organization, made worse by different generations frequently seeming to speak entirely different languages. And to some extent they do – “what I do best” is less a phrase than a mindset.
The underlying problem is psychological.
Always be moving
The state of Youth – as a period between adolescence and adulthood’s coming of age and into the full inheritance of rights and responsibilities – is a modern phenomenon (see “The Peter Pan Problem”). In all of history, only Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y have enjoyed the luxury of this interim state between childhood and full maturity.
It was the Harvard psychologist Kenneth Keniston who defined this stage of life and called it “Youth.” Originally it was of short duration – the period of one’s college or other post-school education, with maybe a gap year thrown in. Millennials, however, have extended this period well past a decade and on into their thirties. That is, they exemplify what Keniston termed the “themes” that characterize youth for an unprecedented timeframe.
Three of Keniston’s themes are highly relevant to what Millennials require from their employment, and what will drive them to abandon it.
First of all, “Movement” – the need for Millennials to feel a constant progressive dynamism in life, a craving for the enduring psychological reinforcement of moving forward.
Second is “Abhorrence of Stasis.” This is the inverse of movement. It is the existential terror of inertia, of stagnation. This saturates every aspect of Millennial lives and expectations – from the obsession with seeing social media popularity-markers climbing, to the requirement for a clearly delineated (and frequently unrealistic) career path.
Finally, “Be moved/move through” – the components of life that act on, or through which Millennials act, in order to achieve “movement” and avoid “stasis.” Job, career, career enhancement, and progression, these are fundamental to Millennials’ need to be moving, not standing still. As employees, the risks to their careers are that they will poorly evaluate options and the legitimacy of entitlements, leave employment before they’ve secured an alternative, and compile patchy CVs that become less and less attractive over time, weakening the motivation for employers to even consider indulging that employee in “what they do best.”
There’s an equally cautionary message for employers. Gallup again, “The one thing leaders cannot do is nothing. They cannot wait for trends to pass them by, and they cannot wait for Millennials to get older and start behaving like baby boomers. That won’t happen. This workforce isn’t going to acclimate to the status quo.”
Employers who can’t manage the tension of conflicting job performance expectations, misunderstandings, and mutual frustrations will pay a hefty price in continual disruption from staff retention haemorrhage – as staff churn (and in many instances, industry flight) becomes a norm.
Fortunately, there is a solution.
A dispute resolution mindset
Job disengagement in an employee is analogous to an unspoken objection by a customer. If you don’t know about it, you can’t begin to resolve it. And like an unspoken objection, it might be legitimate or erroneous. Ensuring the problem gets voiced is not an acknowledgment that you are necessarily going to concede to their demands. It’s the beginning of the dialogue, the basis of a mutual, interest-based dispute resolution. Otherwise, unvoiced misunderstandings will poison the relationship between managers and the (increasingly) large numbers of Millennials reporting to them. And as this generation fills more and more of those positions up the management hierarchy, the problems of misunderstood workplace aspirations will also rise in scope and scale, becoming ever more disruptive and destabilising – to an organization’s performance and culture.
Providing Millennial employees with a dispute resolution mindset and skills they have never developed (see “The Future Will Be Non-Negotiable – The Coming Age of Unresolvable Conflict”) is the single best way to smooth job performance misunderstandings, improve that job performance itself, and avoid the continual turnover of employees who could have been valuable. It’s also the means of stealing a march on competitors experiencing their own volatility problems (and most are, since few are dealing with this new landscape effectively, least of all the Tech giants who claim to be models in this area, see “Managing Millennials – Milkshakes or Mutual Respect?”).
Providing Millennial employees with dispute resolution and negotiation skills is empowering and career enhancing. It gives them the self-awareness to view their complaints rationally, and the confidence and competence to articulate those complaints in ways that will lead to a greater likelihood of resolution.
If this solution seems counter-intuitive, that’s because this generation has been so wildly misunderstood.
Martin Luther King, (1967), “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” sermon, sourced from https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/three-dimensions-complete-life-sermon-delivered-new-covenant-baptist-church
Gallup, (2017) State of the American Workplace, sourced from https://news.gallup.com/reports/199961/statnke-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx
Christensen, Clayton, (1997) The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Harvard Business Review Press
Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell, “What Created the Gen Y Consumer”, BizCatalyst 360°, January 2016
Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell, Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell, “Shadowing-science-a-lesson-for-marketing-on-paradigm-shift”, BizCatalyst 360°, March 2016
Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell, “The Peter Pan Problem”, B&T, May 26, 2016
Keniston, Kenneth, (1971), Youth and Dissent: The Rise of a New Opposition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY.
Brian Mitchell & Evan Mitchell, “The Future Will Be Non-Negotiable – The Coming Age of Unresolvable Conflict”, BizCatalyst 360°, April 2018.
Brian Mitchell & Evan Mitchell, “Managing Millennials – Milkshakes or Mutual Respect.”, BizCatalyst 360°, May 2018.