While attending my first tech conference as a journalist last year, I couldn’t help but snicker to myself as I watched the gray-haired CEO of a large software company dedicate a large portion of his two-hour keynote presentation to "the millennial in the workplace conundrum," as 100,000 middle-aged attendees rapidly scribbled in their notepads, laptops, and tablets, hanging onto every word.
The clichés about millennials—those born approximately between the early 1980s and early 2000s—were the same that I’ve heard repeated countless times since: we are entitled and hard to manage, we need to be praised, coddled, given perks and flexible working conditions, and we have unrealistic expectations.
Of course this wasn’t the only time a middle-aged person stood at the front of a room and preached to other middle aged people about a generation they are neither part of nor fully understand, and unfortunately it will likely not be the last.
"I do find that quite ironic when folks have very strong viewpoints of this generation when they not only don't come from it but they clearly are not very close to it," said Jeff Carr, CEO of PeopleFluent, a Boston-based talent management and strategic human capital software company.
Carr adds that this misunderstanding has in fact had adverse affects on young people entering the workforce. "I think this comes down to a misunderstanding between the generations, and in some cases it's led to some hesitation to hire or promote or spotlight some of these folks in the workplace."
The conversation about how to manage such a hard to understand generation is nothing new. In fact it's one that happens with couple of decades as a new age group enters the workforce.
Of course there are some factors that make millennials unique—many of us came of age in a time of ubiquitous technology and social media—but many of the stereotypes used to describe the mysterious millennial are simply attributes of youth.
"Hippies in the '60s, from what I understand, were very hopeful about the future, had expectations that they could change the world, and wanted something better than what their parents had," said Lauren Friese, Founder of TalentEgg.ca, which helps students and recent graduates find meaningful work. "These are characteristics of young people, not of a [particular] generation."
"If you do a quick Google search you can find articles from the '80s and early '90s where they're describing Generation X the exact same way," said Friese. "These kids are entitled, they're coming into the workplace and have no idea what goes on here, they expect to be CEO tomorrow,’ and they're talking about Generation X, not Generation Y."
Friese adds that what separates the current hand wringing about millennial employees from similar conversations in past generations is that technology has enabled it to be louder and more prominent. As a result, the generation entering the workforce feels alienated and knows that their peers have a set of often false preconceptions about them based on their age.
At some point this year, millennials will represent a majority of the American workforce, so why is the conversation still taking place? Why hasn’t it reversed? Why aren’t millennials advising each other on how to work with gen Xers and baby boomers?
"I think that it’s fear-based, and since it’s fear-based the conversation continues, and the conversation isn't the other way around because the millennials don't really care," said Tim Eisenhauer, cofounder and president of Axero Solutions, an enterprise social networking software company whose average employee is around 26 years old. "Whether Millennial or not, just treat people like people. Talk to them. I think that's the first step."
Eisenhauer’s hypothesis is dead on. CEOs, managers, VPs, directors and other authority figures in the workplaces of America, if you truly want to understand the motivations of the latest generation to enter the workforce, put away the articles about "How to Manage Millennials," leave your preconceptions behind and go have a meaningful conversation with your youngest employees about their career ambitions. What do millennials want? Probably the same things you did when you started your career.