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Millennials are different but display positive traits

Old-school business leaders and crusty parents complain a lot about millennials.

The complaints all boil down to this: Today’s young workers are narcissistic, stunted, lazy and entitled. Time magazine dubbed them “The Me, Me, Me Generation,” and the Wall Street Journal called them “The Most Praised Generation.”

But are these complaints valid?

I looked up some fairly reliable research.  Here’s what I found:

  •  It’s now official: More people ages 18 to 29 live with their parents than with a spouse. 
  •  Forty percent of young workers think they should be promoted every two years—regardless of performance.
  •  A study by the non-profit Families and Work Institute claims that in 1992, 80 percent of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility, while 10 years later, only 60 percent did. 
  •  According to a new poll commissioned by Samsung in the U.K., selfies have taken over photography. Their research found that among 18-to-24-year-olds, 30 percent of all photography is composed of pictures taken by holding a cell phone at arm’s length from one’s own face.
  •  The National Study of Youth and Religion found the guiding morality of 60 percent of millennials in any situation is that they’ll “just be able to feel what’s right.”

Research limitations
The evidence looks pretty conclusive: Younger workers today are simply more self-absorbed and less ambitious than their older generation.

But I’m not ready to buy that. Here are two reasons:

First, though the research is believable to an extent, it doesn’t emphasize the vast number of exceptions to these trends. I would not describe most young adults as lazy and unaccountable. Many millennials I personally know are hard-working, responsible and reliable.

For example, I was recently asked to speak at an October conference in Baltimore where proven young leaders are gathering to learn more about how to create sustainable, positive change in their organizations and communities. Where are the headlines on that?

It’s likely that today’s young workers are “differently ambitious” rather than less ambitious. My bet is that their inner songs are just as passionate as the songs of their bosses and parents, but in a different key.

Gross generalizations help us hallucinate that we have a whole generation figured out. Those stereotypes blind us to the wide variations among millennials.

Second, the suspiciously neat and tidy research cited above sidesteps an uncomfortable question: Do baby boomer critics of millennials accept any responsibility for raising the self-absorbed kids they complain about?

Let’s take a close look at that question.

Who raised millennials?
The parents who grouse about the poor work ethic among young adults invariably rewarded their own children for not working. They peddled excuses: Their youngsters are too busy for household chores, they have too much homework, they are not “motivated” to go find a job or they will rebel if pressured to initiate responsibility.

Similarly, the bosses who criticize younger workers for wanting more flexibility are the same bosses who don’t make time to have meaningful conversations with them or build a connection with them—and based on a stronger connection, coach them toward higher levels of self-awareness and maturity.

To a large extent, millennials are displaying attitudes we’ve taught them. Emerging from the womb, our children didn’t know that they would be viewed as special, that they would be rewarded and recognized for routine accomplishments like participating in a sport, or that they would be told they are smarter, more likable and better equipped to succeed than their peers.

We’re the ones who fed them these fantasies.

If millennials have developed unreal ideas about themselves, it’s partly because in the 1980s and 1990s their parents took the “self-esteem bait.” By constantly praising and rewarding our kids, we thought, we could instill self-esteem.

This produced fake confidence. Faulty self-esteem is great for impressing at a job interview or hooking up at a bar. But it doesn’t work so well for keeping a job or investing in a relationship.

It turns out that instead of boosting self-esteem, we promoted narcissism. We squelched our kids’ opportunities to overcome failure and adversity because we couldn’t tolerate their encounters with productive hardship—the path to genuine self-confidence.

Ignoring self-awareness
It’s not just that we spoiled our kids; we also ignored their need for self-awareness.

For example, we pretended that we knew more than we actually knew. Instead of presenting ourselves as confused and messy creatures that are full of anxieties, fears and contradictions, we faked being surer of ourselves than we really are. We taught them to act self-aware, instead of how to become accurate observers of themselves.

Many parents, mentors and bosses of millennials didn’t create space for them to learn how to think and decide for themselves. We were “always there” with suggestions and answers that squelched their creative juices.

I’m not saying any of this to blame parents, dispute research or take immature young workers off the hook. What I am saying is that we should be taking our share of responsibility for whatever we see in young workers that we find distasteful.

Instead of bemoaning their differentness, we should be apologizing to them for selling them short—and coaching them toward higher maturity.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected]

6/3/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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