The trouble with “the trouble with millennials”

Something is rotten in the state of employment. If we don’t fix it, the very institution of work is at threat. And the thing that’s rotten is most rotten among millennials, that demonised generation born between the early 1980s and the year 2000. The generation beginning to form a more and more significant proportion of the global workforce in increasingly senior, time-served positions.

So much ink has been spilled about “the trouble with millennials”, so many pixels filled so many screens in blog after op ed after tweet. About their lack of conventional drive and motivations and their desire to save the world before growing the bottom line. About their sense of entitlement to get rewards without effort. And about how employers need to treat them with kid gloves and install popcorn machines and fußbal tables to make work tolerable by virtue of being fun and not really work at all.

Conferences on HR, leadership and business growth are dominated by the vexed question of how to deal with millennials. Political debate is paralysed. And those conducting performance reviews are perplexed.

There are big problems with this “trouble with millennials” debate.

First, it assumes that everyone aged 18-35 is the same; one, big, homogeneous mass of sameness who all think and behave in the same way.

Second, the debate in the echo chamber of the internet has spiralled into a feeding-frenzy of self-fulfilling prophecy. This was deliciously parodied by the blogger and commentator Amanda Rosenberg whose August 2016 postI Replaced The Word ‘Millennials’ With ‘43-Year-Old White Men’ And Now These Headlines Are *Italian Chef Kissing Fingers Gesture* – justifiably went viral.

And third, most contributors to the debate don’t stop to consider why the trends they’re commentating on arose in the first place, let alone what we should do about the phenomenon they’re helping to stoke out of control.

Last week, I had the honour and privilege of hearing one of the most important thinkers and problem solvers in the modern world of work – Simon “Start With Why” Sinek – give his diagnosis and cure for “the trouble with millennials”. And where better than in the intimate Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts, whose mission is “to create the conditions for the enlightened thinking and collaborative action needed to address today’s most pressing social challenges”.

For Sinek, the trouble with millennials has four causes: parenting, technology, impatience, and environment. And it has – spoiler alert! – one simple cure: empathy.

Parenting: Millennials have suffered from a failed parenting strategy. Told that all of them were always special, they have always been able to get what they want. Materially and academically. They were placed into advanced classes because their parents complained if they weren’t. They were given participation ribbons just for turning up, a strategy which devalues the reward for coming top and embarrasses the recipients of those who just took part.

And then they graduate, summa cum laude, only to discover that they’re not special any more. Work structures built in the 1980s and 1990s don’t think they’re wonderful and require them to prove themselves. Their self-image is shattered and self-confidence plummets. They’re so used to curating their lives on Instagram and Facebook, but when they discover they can’t get the top prize at once, they often give up. The curated image of toughness and confidence turns out to be just that – an image, or worse, a mirage.

Technology: The cell phone bing, buzz, flash, or beep of a “friend” liking, retweeting, or favouriting a post on social media releases a shot of the attention-seeking, attention-rewarding neurotransmitter dopamine. The same chemical released when triggered by almost all drugs of addiction – plus sex, gambling, and chocolate – in the brain’s reward circuitry, meaning that millennials’ characteristic, competitive social media activity is effectively addicting users to social platforms and smartphones.

There are no age restrictions and few limits put by parents on the use of technology and social media platforms. For most parents today – with Generation Z amplifying the mistakes of millennials – their children are using social media platforms they don’t see, experience, or understand. And yet all of these feature gamification built in, with more rewards and higher scores for driving increased interaction. Interaction that triggers repeated shots of dopamine.

Allowing and encouraging unfettered access to social media platforms on cell phones is the equivalent – in Sinek’s memorable imagination – of throwing open the drinks’ cabinet and saying to our teenagers, “Try the vodka to cope with adolescence!”

Impatience: Because of poor parenting and open access to technology and social media platforms, millennials suffer from a compulsion for instant gratification in all aspects of their lives – in jobs, in relationships, everywhere. Many bounce from one to another to another. They don’t realise and haven’t experienced the need to put in the hard yards of the journey in order to receive the reward. You can’t fast-track your way to a successful loving partnership or to becoming CEO. It’s as if they can see the top of the mountain but they don’t understand that you need to go up treacherous, twisting paths to reach the top. They’ve not forgotten that it’s the journey that matters en route to the summit. It’s that they’ve never had to experience the journey in the first place.

Environment: For Sinek, the standard work environment – a left-over legacy of the end of the last century – is the most egregious and pernicious cause of millennial dysfunction. The supremacy of shareholders over employees – and in particular the use of mass layoffs to balance this year’s books – put the needs of the fans over the needs of the players. With bosses wrecking the lives of human beings by sacking them – repeatedly – to atone for management’s failure to attain an arbitrary number on a balance sheet, the world of work has become an environment is which the feelings of spreadsheets are prioritised over those of real people. This creates uncertainty and insecurity and makes loyalty an irrelevant quality to develop or express. So millennials don’t.

Is it any wonder, asked Sinek, that we have “trouble with millennials”? His cogent and very human prescription to undo the bad work of the previous forty years in straightforward. It starts with empathy. We need to put ourselves in millennials’ shoes, understand how and why many of them have come to be as they are, and put it right. Because society and their parents have failed them, employers – in loco parentis, occupying the lion’s share of their lives – have the responsibility for helping millennials learn patience, social skills, coping mechanisms. It’s ironic that every bookshop has a section called self-help, but no bookshop has a section called help others. This must change.

But there’s more. When people ask for help of advice, we should put our phones out of sight. Holding onto them says “you’re just not that important to me; something important might just crop up”. If we want to build interpersonal relationships, phones should never go into meeting rooms. Nor – for the benefit of the next generation – at dinner tables.

We need to break the cycle, to have time away from screens, to stop the dopamine rush, to make people feel like people and understood and listened to. Because if we don’t, “the trouble with millennials” will be nothing compared to “the trouble with Generation Z”, who are being parented and led in business by – you guessed it – millennials.

And the joke – for corporate titans and fledgling start-ups – is that empathy is good for business. As Sinek himself shows in his new book, Together Is Better, a book he was at the RSA to plug and a book that he didn’t mention in his hour on stage. Practising what he preaches, the purposeful, simple Simon entertained and enlightened us with an hour of high octane empathy. Empathy which – truth be told – triggered rather a lot of dopamine release all around the room.