Millennials Are Redefining Work, Corporations Should Take Advantage
Apparently demographers and corporate recruiters have taken to calling the generation of young people graduating from college and now entering the workforce “Millennials”. We were Generation Y, then we were the Net Generation, and now we’re the Millennials. (Ironically, despite our futuristic monikers, none of us can now aspire to be NASA astronauts.)While many of us strike out on our own or join startups, a healthy subset of well-educated Millennials join major corporations every year (consulting and banking were popular with my classmates), sacrificing unlimited days off and free lunches for stable salaries and brand recognition. Unfortunately, after a few months of VLOOKUPs, copy-pasting, and clicking and dragging, with no end in sight, a deep, pervasive sense of displacement and abandonment sets in, and we realize that we’re stuck in orbit, not slingshotting to the stars.
Corporations provide for us, at least on paper, a consistent environment in which we can explore our skills, and an enormously varied array of resources in the form of people, technologies, and projects on which to target our youthful energy. But these same corporations tend to be burdened by generations of procedural, political, and hierarchical dead weight. It’s important to realize that young people entering the corporate world now are the product of a very different upbringing than any prior generation. Having been educated on a planet that is newly and deeply networked geographically, economically, and informationally, we have had to adapt to unprecedented speeds of intellectual paradigm shifts and scales of competition. The way we think, the way we learn, and the way we work have been fundamentally transformed, and a lack of clarity — on our part as well as on the part of our leadership — as to exactly how we’re different threatens to slow us down, or worse, to turn into weaknesses those tremendous strengths that the forces of globalization have refined by fire.
Bold and energetic young leaders have made startups a positive and inspiring force for innovation and change. Even the most archaic corporations can experience this vital pulse, but first they must understand the tragically under-appreciated talents of our youth.
Computers have had an homogenizing effect on business processes and systems. In our homes and schools, we have grown fluent in the use of systems that once belonged solely to the domain of the corporate world. We’re comfortable with file systems, troubleshooting, and even querying databases. (We search and filter on Google and our #socialnetworks better than anyone, and constantly learn to setup and use new devices and apps, often not-so-incidentally created by independent, or ‘Kickstarted’, Millennials.) This total fluency with a variety of software and solutions means we can rapidly adapt to new software ecosystems. Ultimately, this takes away the need for most ground-up systems training, and makes us faster and more adept at conceptualizing and connecting high-level applications. Like with any language, immersion at an early age ensures adaptability to new scenarios, regardless of specific experience, and increases the likelihood of eloquence when it comes to treating these systems and environments for what they are: tools for building and creating.
As universities across the country continue to embrace the liberal arts, at least in conjunction with technical studies, many corporations have opened their doors to graduates with unconventional majors. They prioritize academic rigor, passion, enthusiasm, demonstrated achievement and leadership personalities. This thinking is sound and modern. Training can’t make a person a good fit, but if you hire the right person, training can fill in the gaps and help them speak your company’s language. But how that training and indoctrination is conducted is crucial. Liberal arts curriculum promotes challenging established thought and systemic stagnation. We are taught to think that, if something has been a certain way for very long, there’s a good possibility that it’s no longer good enough. Moreover, even before we’re ready — perhaps especially before we’re ready — we attempt to contribute solutions to these potential problems in our academic work.
The takeaway from all this is that senior corporate leadership needs to re-evaluate how it is integrating Millennial new hires. Much of what prior generations have learned through work experience and apprenticeships, we have learned in ways that are not so easily reflected on a curriculum vitae. Our incisive questioning can challenge years of established thought and impel costly change. But this cannot be mistaken for naïveté. It is real, forward-thinking insight. Millennials are not used to taking little steps and gradually wading into an ocean of knowledge; we’re accustomed to diving in head first, rapidly adjusting, taking ownership of our successes and failures. We’re a generation with a new work ethic and tremendous potential, given the resources and scope of a large corporation. That young people all over the world are creating brands and technologies that challenge and overshadow decades old institutions — this startup revolution — is evidence enough of the great power of Millennial thinking. So rather than getting caught up in our youth and asking how we can be made more compatible to the work needed of us, I urge new questions to be asked, and innovative new work to open up. Integrate us correctly, and we Millennials can make corporate elephants dance.