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Millennials at the Gate

The Millennials are here and ready to start working-but what if we're not ready to let them?

March 7, 2008
Pardon me if I seem sick and tired of all the overheated talk about the worker shortage that is supposed to be threatening American business.

I catch a lot of flak when I say this, but I just don’t buy that this is a real issue. Yes, there are shortages of workers in specific areas (health care workers and engineers, for example), but in general we don’t have a problem—something that is confirmed just about every day when I read about the latest company buying out or laying off workers.

But, you might ask, what about the impending retirement of the baby boomers? Who is going to take the place of the 76 million Americans born after World War II who are beginning to leave the workforce? I think this purported trend has been overblown too, and I have written about the talent-shortage myth on numerous occasions in my Business of Management blog at Workforce.com.

First, I think the boomers are going to take their time leaving the workforce. Second, there is a huge group of new workers now gearing up to take their place: the Millennials (also known as Generation Y), who were born after 1980.

They are here and ready to start working—but what if we aren’t ready to let them?

Last month, I was surprised to read in The Dallas Morning News about an advertising executive who had decided to stop hiring newly graduated Millennials unless they have an advanced degree or have done a work-related internship. The executive said that it wasn’t because Millennials lack creativity or technical know-how, but rather because they lack the ability to deal with responsibility, accountability and setbacks.

“They wipe out on life as often as they wipe out on work itself,” advertising executive Owen Hannay said. “They get an apartment and a kitty, and they can’t cope. Work becomes an ancillary casualty.”

The problem, according to a generational expert who talked to the newspaper, is that Millennials have been “overparented, overindulged and overprotected. They haven’t experienced that much failure, frustration, pain. We were so obsessed with protecting and promoting their self-esteem that they crumble like cookies when they discover the world doesn’t revolve around them. They get into the real world and they’re shocked.”

Well, maybe some are, but how can you broad-brush a group of 80 million people? Hasn’t every generation entering the workforce had its own share of strengths and challenges?

I have a close-up view of the Millennial generation: Not only do I have three in my own household, but I teach writing to a class full of them at a local university. And, although Millennials have their own unique generational issues, the ones I deal with reflect what you would find in society as a whole—some are good, some average, some clueless. How different is that from any other group?

“Some of them are the greatest generation,” said Marian Salzman, an ad agency executive at J. Walter Thompson who talked to 60 Minutes in November and invoked the term used for the pre-boomers who fought World War II and held down the home front. “They’re more hardworking. They have these tools to get things done. They are enormously clever and resourceful. [But] some of the others are absolutely incorrigible. It’s their way or the highway.”

The rap on the Millennials is that they have been spoiled and coddled, but they also tend to be much more realistic and pragmatic about the modern workplace. “I remember my dad getting laid off and all these things growing up,” one Millennial told 60 Minutes. “And that’s ’cause they sacrificed for the company. Well, the first knee-jerk reaction from me is, I sure don’t want to do that. I’m going to be in it for me and I’m going to make it work.”

From my perspective, this is a much healthier way to view work. It’s the result of more than 20 years of Corporate America treating workers like disposable parts, and now, the next generation of workers is saying, “We are aren’t going to do it the way our parents did.”

Maybe that’s the one thing the Millennials can teach the rest of us: that work is the means to an end, a way to help reach our goals but not the end goal itself. They are going to do it differently, and like it or not, we’d better be ready. Once this generation fully takes over, our workplaces will never be the same.

Workforce Management, March 3, 2008, p. 42 -- Subscribe Now!