At the tail end of 2016, a video articulating a lengthy answer to what is being referred to as “The Millennial Question” circulated the internet, along with a number of think pieces that included what happens when millennials run the workplace, the perception of millennials as lazy narcissists, or calling us the “me me me generation.”
With millennials being defined as anyone born from 1984 onward, the descriptors are similar: tough to manage, entitled, narcissistic, self-interested, unfocused, and lazy, to name a few. Some are frustrated with this generation who are demanding to work in a place with purpose, with the opportunity to “make an impact,”—and to have access to free food and bean bag chairs which, I will assume, is a metaphor for a variety of frivolous work perks.
As a twenty-four year old, watching that video and reading these articles stirred up a lot of thoughts and emotions for me—being perceived as so hard to work with. But there are a few things that I feel the need to say.
First, of course free food and bean bags at work can be a huge plus. It signals a culture of caring for employees, of investing in their sense of fun. Mobile workstations, board games, scooters and piñatas also sound great. However, the desire to “make an impact” —a feat referred to as metaphorically reaching the summit of a mountain—is what I believe to be the most crucial issue. What is most concerning are the air quotes that people feel the need to put around that term.
If you read my post about finding my dream job, you’ll know that before working at Actionable I found myself in a pretty dark place. At work, I felt undervalued, under acknowledged, and judged a little too harshly based on what I didn’t know, instead of being appreciated for what I did know.
For example: I was mocked for not knowing that 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, by colleagues who needed me to explain the basics of using Instagram. This is just one manifestation of the cultural gap I experienced—frustrating because my colleagues seemed to place a higher value on knowing a bit of film trivia than on understanding a tool we could use to promote our work.
As you can expect of a twenty-four year old, I am known to frequent the internet from time to time. While I was able to recognize the power of technology, and was eager to take advantage of it—social media in particular—my coworkers were resistant to it. They perceived social media as something that “millennials are addicted to,” not as a legitimate tool that could facilitate business. My colleagues acted as though their resistance to learning new technology was virtuous—a mark of the superiority of their generation—not an impediment. And so, while I have always had confidence that my unique education and awareness is what makes me valuable as an individual, I did not get the sense that my previous employer felt the same. My attempts to “reach the summit” and make an impact using my own unique skill set, including technology and social media, were discounted.
You might not believe it, but we millennials are capable of unplugging. Yes, technology can be an addictive—and I will not defend the jerks of my generation who don’t know how to turn off their cell phones in a meeting. We are smart enough to know better. We, just like anyone in any generation, should be held accountable if our addiction to technology begins to impact our relationships in the workplace.
But when millennials feel as though we are looked down upon due to our differences, when our ideas are more often dismissed then taken into consideration, and when we are outwardly judged for our differing knowledge, skill sets, and values, that’s when making an impact feels like an impossibility. Using the metaphor of a mountain as impact: not only was I not yet at the summit, I hadn’t even been allowed to leave basecamp. I was put in an unchangeable box (where everyone has seen 2001: A Space Odyssey and nobody checks Instagram more than once a day) and I was asked indirectly to stay put.
The result? I wasn’t focused. I didn’t want to hang out in basecamp—I wanted to climb. I spent a lot of my energy trying to understand why I was so unhappy. I became more selfish at work, and started seeking out opportunities to express my skills and interests elsewhere. That might have made me a difficult employee to manage at the time.
At Actionable, I am a vastly different employee, and I would argue, a different person altogether. I still have stressful moments, and I make my fair share of selfish mistakes, but I feel engaged in my work and am passionate about my contribution to the company. I haven’t reached the summit of impact yet, but I have trekked up the mountain at a steady pace since day one—and I didn’t have to stomp my feet and demand it, or sit in a bean bag chair to contribute.
Every single day I feel welcome and encouraged to share my thoughts. I am included in conversations big and small. I am respected and valued for being a unique individual. As a result, my contributions are reflected in the work that we do. And that, to me, is the act of making an impact. My managers don’t need to provide bean bag chairs or ping pong tournaments—the opportunity to do great work that matters is more than enough to keep me engaged.
So if I could ask managers one favor, it would be to stop putting whole generations of workers in a box (keep this in mind moving forward too—we’re just about due for a deluge of think pieces about the next generation). The difference between being an entitled, narcissistic, lazy employee and being an engaged, outgoing, valued member of your team is not dependent upon your birth date. The difference depends on the opportunity to make a contribution. Millennials don’t all have their iPhones glued to our palms. We don’t all roll our eyes when we can’t have something now. We are individuals—and we need you to give us each, individually, a space in which we are allowed and welcome to contribute.
And if you do that, we’re likely to stick around long enough to meet you at the top of the mountain.