Every time a new generation of young people comes of age to join the workforce, someone comes along with advice on how to manage them. What makes them different? What do they bring to the proverbial table? How do we utilize their perspectives to complement the establishment?
Millennials — loosely defined as those born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s — are different. Yes, there’s a ton and a half written about their whiny entitlement issues, their lack of respect for authority, their level of self-focus that would make Ayn Rand blush — and how all this fits or doesn’t into the American workplace. But James Lee, founder and president of Strategic Foresight Investments (StratFi) near Wilmington, Delaware, sees today’s 20-to-early-30-somethings differently. They are game changers for the simple reason that they just don’t fit the yay-team approach to business that everyone who came before them did. And this change in the game may or may not go so well because of that.
Lee will present “The Millennials in The Workplace: Challenges and Blessings of the Greatest Generation Ever” at the Human Resources Management Association of Princeton Monday, April 14, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Princeton. Call 609-844-0200, E-mail email@example.com, or visit hrma-nj.shrm.org.
Lee makes his living in the future. He even has a degree in it. Lee, who grew up in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, earned his bachelor’s in economics from the College of William & Mary in 1991. He became a financial planner for American Express until 1998, when he became a portfolio manager at Lau Associates for a decade. In 2007 he earned his master’s in studies of the future (foresight) from the University of Houston-Clear Lake, one of only six master’s programs in that subject.
Combining his head for numbers (inherited from his banker mother) and scientific rigor (which he inherited from his scientist father, a combination he says made him “a sort of Frankenstein of investment”), Lee started StratFi in 2012. Mainly he manages investors’ wealth by looking at where trends and markets are heading, but he also spends a lot of time researching and writing about futures.
And in this capacity, Lee foresees a lot of promise and a lot of potential trouble when it comes to Millennials. Their me-first approach to life in general is not combative, nor accepting of established norms, which makes it hard, he says, for businesses to know what to do about them.
Different expectations. First and foremost, Lee says, companies need to realize that Millennials have a vastly different set of expectations for their lives. It’s easy to look at them and think they’re entitled and don’t care, but the truth is that young people have a great vantage point when it comes to seeing how things play out for dedicated workers.
Millennials have witnessed their Baby Boomer parents give themselves completely to a company only to get downsized or, at most, get a sheet cake and a five-minute adios from the boss when they retire. “Millennials are what I call the first post-consumer generation,” Lee says. “They haven’t bought into the economic commitments older people have.”
These economic commitments are things like houses and new cars and families, which Gen-Xers [those born from the early 1960s to early 1980s] bought into in an effort to be self-contained and self-sustaining. The Generation X rebellion against the system became its own kind of system requiring a house from which to operate a business and raise a family, Lee says.
Eschewing these kinds of commitments has given Millennials less to lose, and, subsequently, far greater negotiating power in what they want from jobs. Millennials’ expectations, Lee says, are to live for now. They prize individuality, flexibility, and mobility. All they need, he says, can typically fit into a backpack.
But while this romantic, backpacking-across-Europe-style life choice is fun for now, Lee worries how it will play out. At some point, picking up and going wherever you want turns into yet-another relocation/re-establishing of your whole life. The Millennials’ approach, Lee says, “can work well when you’re in your 20s and you live at home with mom and dad, but what happens when you want to start a family? I’m curious if they’ll buy into it.”
Lateral moves. Even if many Millennials are living on their own and paying their own way, they generally don’t like to put down roots. They also tend to not specialize, Lee says. Millennials, after all, are extremely comfortable with technology and generally live their lives connected to their phones. This allows them to do a great many things in a great many places, but Lee worries that Millennials are living a lifestyle of lateral moves. There’s no upward mobility, he says, there is simply a lot of getting by in the endless quest for the now.
A side effect to this lack of commitment to anyone beyond themselves is that many companies have greatly pulled back on training. The thinking, Lee says, is why bother training someone who will only be around for a year or two? You’re only making a better worker for your competition. Companies, Lee says, need to reinvest in training and offer Millennials a more clear career path up front if they want to maintain these workers.
Hiring them, of course, is not a real issue. There are plenty of Millennials to fill jobs, it’s just hard to keep them. Lee strongly recommends that companies rebuild their focus on social capital. A trend he sees in startups is that the first question asked of founders these days is often “What’s your exit strategy?” How, in other words, will you get in, get rich, and get out?
This focus on economic capital in the short term — i.e., not training the competition’s latest acquisition — is shortsighted, Lee says. “Building social capital increases economic capital in the long term.” And just as he wants to see Millennials sacrifice a bit now and make some commitments that will help stabilize their futures, he wants companies to realize that some work on the social capital front now will pay hefty dividends later.
“I have a degree.” One other thing for companies to keep in mind about Millennials, Lee says, is the generation’s attachment to personal credentials — particularly the academic kind. It’s getting more common, he says, to see people hired by people who don’t have as high-level a college degree. It’s also common for Millennials to accumulate higher degrees and personal achievements as measures of their capabilities.
But this lack of real-world knowledge, replaced by heavy academic knowledge, means that Millennials have a lot of brains and education but not much wisdom. They’ve simply not been out there long enough. This, Lee says, could explain why Millennials are more comfortable at smaller companies and startups. “There’s no history there,” he says.
And, therefore, no ties to an establishment that Millennials neither respect nor resent.