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Something to Sing About: Are millenials underachievers? Not the mostly twentysomething cast of Glee, which has performed at the White House and been nominated for numerous awards. | Photograph by Vagueonthehow/Flickr

Why Bashing Millennials Is Wrong

The problem, Nancy Lublin says, may not be the generation we love to pick on but the people who don’t know how to manage it.

Lazy. Entitled. Fickle. Freighted with their own inscrutable agendas. These are the kinds of things people say about cats -- and millennials. For today's managers, the generation born after 1980 is a favorite punching bag.

It's not hard to see why, given that they're the generation of Lindsay Lohan, Jersey Shore, and flip-flops as appropriate office footwear. While it's obviously silly to stereotype an entire generation, whether you're Tom Brokaw or me, so many people have spent so much time criticizing the millennials that I think it's time an old lady stuck up for them. I want to be clear: I'm not doing it because I'm a cougar. I am vouching for them because I see their strengths every day in the Do Something office; all but two of our 21 full-time staff are millennials. The very same characteristics that are frequently maligned are the very qualities that make millennials awesome employees. The trick, of course, is to know how to exploit them.

Let's start with the issue of how millennials multitask. While studies show that they think they're better at it than they actually are, the reality is they do it and they're not going to stop. A recent study found that millennials typically use up to seven devices, apps, and programs at once -- texting, G-chatting, tweeting, and listening to music while working on that memo. Where I make a list and slowly cross things off one at a time, Aria Finger, Do Something's 27-year-old rock-star COO, will sit in front of three screens (two PC, one iPhone) and plow through three times as many tasks in the same amount of time. I see my role as defining a clear goal, giving her the resources to take the shot, and then getting out of the way while she dunks.

Millennials don't have traditional boundaries or an old-fashioned sense of privacy. They live out loud, sharing details of their lives with thousands of other people. Of course there are the obvious risks to this -- say, that unflattering, reputation-damaging photo that should have been deleted from Facebook -- but while you shake your cane at them for indulging in TMI, I see their openness as a great opportunity. For instance, when our summer intern @jimmyaungchen tweets and Facebooks about something he achieved at work, that's free marketing for Do Something to the 1,500 people in his immediate network. I now ask job applicants how many Facebook friends and Twitter followers they have.

We all know that one of the key traits of millennials is that they feel and act entitled. For their whole lives, they've been told that they're the best, that they can be anything they want to be, whether that's the next Mark Zuckerberg or the next American Idol. You say self-indulgent and self-obsessed, I say optimistic and self-confident. They are hungry for responsibility, and I give it to them. Earlier this year, Melanie Stevenson, who does business development at Do Something and is all of 26, walked up to me and said, "I'd like to expand us to five international markets by the end of this year." Awesome. Bold. Audacious. Every employer should want a dozen Melanies working for them. (We launched in Portugal in June, and expect to add three more countries this month.)

An entitled person tends to be high maintenance -- millennials may well be the poodles of humanity, demanding constant grooming and incessant praise. But celebrating small victories shouldn't be seen as just a way to kowtow to this generation's oversized egos; at a recent conference, Jack Welch said that it's a great -- and underused -- management tactic. We should learn to recognize the contributions of each team member more explicitly. We should give feedback more than once a year in a stilted annual performance review. If your people aren't worthy of praise, get rid of them. If they deserve praise, then be generous with it. Praise is one of the most affordable tools out there: It's free!

Some of you will have read each of the four points above and come up with some quiet (or maybe not-so-quiet) rebuttals. You know what? You're right. Each thing I've said about millennials can be read as a problem. But each one can also be viewed as an opportunity.

Maybe the real problem isn't this generation -- maybe it's that the rest of us don't manage them for greatness, for maximum effect. What we often forget is that this generational clash is a timeworn tale. Whatever side of the divide you're on, it feels new. Yet it happens over and over -- say, once a generation. And in the end, the kids will always win. They're sort of like cats.

Do Something CEO Nancy Lublin wishes she were born after 1980.

Something to Sing About: Are millenials underachievers? Not the mostly twentysomething cast of Glee, which has performed at the White House and been nominated for numerous awards. | Photograph by Vagueonthehow/Flickr

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33 Comments

  • ceraunograph

    I don't understand the need of previous generations to lump all Millennials together. Some are hard working, some are not. Some need a lot of attention, some despise it. Millennials don't want to be "properly managed", we want to be treated like adults. That's it. Let us succeed or fail as adults, as you would allow any employee. To imply that millennials need to be handled in a certain way is exactly the kind of patronizing that everybody, not just millennials, find difficult to swallow.

  • Merry Mac Miller

    Brilliantly written. The first article written about my generation that I truly respect and appreciate. I'd love to work for you! :) 

  • @Amaaanda

    Entitled, yes. Lazy? No. 

    Millennials just want to own everything they consume and are willing to let media, their jobs and the world consume them. They want to be the CEO's of their own companies, creative directors straight out of college, and they want "the life" that's been inspired by young guys like Kevin Rose and Mark Zuckerberg. 

    It's better than previous generations being influenced by supermodels, actors and everything else that is just a little less realistic and unhealthy. And yes, I'm a millennial and I applied only to jobs I was unqualified for (except in spirit) straight out of college. I landed a job as a Creative Director and five years later, I am (very successfully) run my own marketing company. Millennials, if anything, are more ambitious than previous generations because we have always had the tools to be successful right in front of us. http://blog.swipelyworks.com/c...

  • Jim Ruszala

    Individually, we’re all wired a bit differently in terms of our social norms, beliefs and values. There are strong commonalities when we breakdown our population into demographic buckets based upon age. This is clearly due to the influencers of the time; for instance, the technological explosion that continually influences how we work, relate and interact with one another. However, the important point here is that we can't assume or stereotype too much solely based upon simple generational cuts alone. We need to go deeper and focus on what best works from a personal, business and individual perspective; especially when it comes to areas such as education, communication, motivation and others.

    Overall, the focus shouldn’t be about millennials in the workplace, but rather more so about how you better engage different people in varying ways to drive performance in the work place. The ability to help individualize work experiences and engagements through areas such as meetings or even motivational efforts to leverage unique talents and skills has and remains a key towards driving a diverse workforce. This is NOT just a millennial issue; it’s about “how you engage others” to best achieve both individual as well as business level performance objectives.

  • Jennifer

    Nancy, I'd just like to say thanks for this article. As a Millennial, I've been fighting to defend my generation. Yes, we have weaknesses (like every other generation...), but I think the one thing that's so overlooked about Gen Y is our eagerness to please (hence our constant search for approval) and our need to grow as professionals AND people (always looking for new ways to improve oursevles and our jobs). Sometimes we're mis-characterized because we "overstep our bounaries" but really, we just want to make a difference. Thanks, again!

  • Paul Letourneau

    Wow... This is the first time I have ever heard this topic presented in such a great light. Most employers have nothing good to say about us (the 26 year old over achieving dreaming dooer). Do you have any job openings by chance? I would love to work with such a progressive thinker.

    Paul

  • Dave Jeyes

    Well put, Nancy.

    The problem often isn't about whether Millenials can be productive, it's whether the environment is optimal for them to make an impact. The fact is that procedural, top-down workplaces go against everything that young people are taught. And frankly, our crawling corporate and government bureaucracies might be the ones that have it all wrong.

  • Christina Jones

    As a 20-something year old who has had to not only work in one of those environments, but train other 20-something year olds to work in those environments, I couldn't agree more. However, if we really believe we can do anything, we should believe in our ability to work within structured environments, creatively of course. I've found that some Millenials tend to get frustrated when they suggest bold ideas without much consideration for how they might actually work.

  • Nathan

    as a millenial it's always good to hear someone stickin up for us. BUT. the only issue i have with your argument about how we need to just better manage the millenials is that it implies that the higher ups should be the ones making the adjustments to get with the program rather than the entry level kids working to fit with the existing culture of the company. i see why people would have an issue with this - "im the boss, they should cater to my norms"

    but maybe this inversion would be good - encouraging the bosses to continually adjust to the trends of the younger employees might work to keep the company young. or maybe everything might fall apart!

    let us know how it works for Do Something!

  • Scott Asai

    I fully agree. People bash out of ignorance. Reality is 40% of the workforce is made up of Millennials, so it's better to understand how to optimize them rather than spend your time complaining. There are huge pros and some cons. Sit down and actually have a conversation before you judge. These stereotypes and tendencies are keys to knowing how to manage them effectively. Hey, if you're really having trouble visit http://growingforward.net

  • @Amaaanda

    Millennials are the biggest consumer generation since the Baby Boomers too, so business owners sort of need this generation to help define their future marketing strategies.

  • derekirvinegloboforce

    Why is bashing millennial wrong? Because they are us. As I wrote elsewhere http://bit.ly/a9cWsE on the topic:

    What do I see in GenY? A group of young employees who want the same things from work and behave in very much the way I did when I was their age. And if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll likely admit the same. Sure they want to be at the top. That’s where the action is. They know they have to work hard to get there, though. But if you’re not giving them the “gold stars” – meaningful feedback on their work and praise when they do it well – how will they know they’re doing the right thing? Their drive does create one big challenge for business today – creating opportunities for them to grow into greater responsibility and contribution quickly, and remaining true to the company values at the same time.

    It's unfair to label any group of people based on one feature, whether that be age range, skin color or gender. The same applies with GenY. I like how Jason Seiden referred to such practices -- "I personally believe that ascribing personality differences to groups of people based on their birthdays is nothing more than astrology."

    Perhaps that's what we should term this silly "generational" discussion -- "HRstrology"

  • GlennFriesen

    First off, I want to thank Nancy for her well-written and thought-provoking article, the commenters/particpants here for their engagement, and fastcompany for providing the wonderful platform they do!

    I am a 26-year old "millenial" who intentionally left home at 18, worked 12+ hour days for nearly 8 years, studied and paid his way through a double major, 6 A.A.'s, helped create and launch an internet startup with two of the founders of NetZero, managed a non-profit therapeutic pool for the elderly and disabled, spoke at a UCLA event along with Wing Lam, founder of Wahoo's Fish Taco (whom I invited to the event), taught for a year at a college-level trade school, founded a non-profit organization to help families of children in short-term and long-term Pediatric Intensive Care, and found the woman of my dreams.

    Basically, I'm nothing like the stereotypes people project on me, excepting perhaps my obsession with getting things done.

    After decades of talking to people across existing age groups, the only others I know who really get things done (as in David Allen's GTD) in every aspect of their lives were the folks from BIL(bilconference.com, the alternative to TED). Maybe some of the great folks from the WordPress or California Central Coast Wine Industry community, too. What age were these people? The answer? 16-90.

    Although I could presume that my in-group were "more productive" and others were "less productive" because of my exposure bias and small sample size, I'd think it's obvious that's a false dichotomy. In this case, it's more effective to judge against a psychographic and not a demographic. Personally, I'd assume that the stuff that supports the GTD mentality all depends on exposure and resources... and that the technological world my generation came of age within supported that exposure to new ideas... and made resources far less expensive (excepting the equipment necessary to access the Internet).

    Not everybody uses the tools that are out there -- in every generation. Not everybody puts in the hard work to learn new things. It's those that do that should be rewarded, and that's not going to happen as long as people make decisions on irrelevant or biased data -- like age, class, race, or gender.

    So, that's my comment rant for the day... I do have to say, after all that ranting, that I am all for the promotion of my age class, as nearly all of our brightest and most enthusiastic minds graduated into one of the worst recessions and job markets in American history (which we inherited, btw) - so I have to give especially strong props again to Nancy Lublin for writing this thought-provoking piece and empowering her team!

    http://glennfriesen.com/

  • Hieronymus Murphy

    You, sir, I could work with. And not just "could" - I think working with or even for you would be a very interesting and rewarding experience. Thank you also for the abbreviation GTD and its attendant meaning.

  • Joe Gourlay

    I wonder how successful the millennials will be in maintaining their proclivities now that there are so very, very, VERY many of them relative to the (declining) job pool.

  • Hieronymus Murphy

    I've had the displeasure of working with a number of Millenials in the past 10 years, and I have found a significant majority of them to be exactly as described in this story's lede. Not all, by any means, but most in my experience.

    Explanations of work policies and procedures have been met with pleasant smiles and nodding — and then the Millenials I've worked with do *what* they want, *when* they want, and at a pace that makes the bare minimum amount of work expected fill the time available.

    There is no urgency whatsoever — none, no doing even a little extra to help their co-workers, or for the general good of the entire organization. Like Chauncy Gardener in "Being There," being as innocuously pleasant as possible, and as close to inert as possible while getting paid for taking up space seem to be the goal of the Millenials with whom I've worked. They are also the most profoundly incurious people I've ever worked with, which I find disturbing.

    It's *exactly* like herding cats, and I pity HR managers who have to deal with Millenials on a regular basis