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It's time to step back

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love to chatter in place of exercise.”

[Socrates, 5th Century – did you think it was your dad?!]

We are privileged to live in the digital era, the super highway of constant information and instant knowledge. It’s fantastic BUT there’s something troubling me. I think that we’re not always aware of it but, to some extent, the ability to think for ourselves is diminishing. When we didn’t have everything available on our phone or laptop, we mostly had to figure things out. Now there are many well argued, even well intentioned, ready-made opinions that we can digest and regurgitate - and we seem quite quick to adopt them.

The topic of millennials (according to the Pew Research Centre people born between 1981 and 1996) reflects this concept very clearly to me. We are told that millennials are different, they need a particular management style, they have expectations of immediacy with an added layer of disloyalty and laziness. The profiling is out there if you need to read it.

As a bit of background, I have two kids. They are almost within the age range for millennials (They are generation Z – born after 1996). They are connected with information and people all of the time. They watch YouTube, talk virtually to their friends and are on every social media platform with varying degrees of commitment. They are full of fun and vigour. They know everything and know nothing. They challenge me all the time. They are amazing. But if what I read is true, surely they should be alien beings, and actually… not very nice?

As an HR Director for many years, I was the sponsor for all of the graduates and apprentices in my division. They were a fantastic bunch of young people. They were keen, enthusiastic, confident and open to learning anything. I currently work closely with an associate who is half my age (also a millennial) who brings many things to my business that I do not. Quite simply, I wouldn’t be as successful without her input and involvement.

Yet, as an HR Leader, I am increasingly told by various organisations and people that we need to treat millennials in employment differently - because they are a breed apart, with different needs and more demands. I am often pointed to an interview by Simon Sinek (who I usually like to listen to) where he talks about millennials - and not in a very positive light I have to say. He says they “confound leaders”, that they have been brought up by parents to think “they are special and can have anything they want in life” and quite patronisingly he says “You can have anything you want… except for job satisfaction and strength of relationships – there ain’t no app for that”. There is so much to disagree with. Yet his persuasive and eloquent viewpoint arrives neatly packaged, delivered in an intelligent argument, ready for us to adopt without question.

I recently went to a coaching conference where we were presented with some research by a very credible speaker about how to manage this different generation of workers. They talked about how millennials need careful handling and constant feedback as they are the ‘like generation’, motivated by instant response. There were all sorts of generalisations about millennials in the workplace with the clear statement that they are not loyal, are impatient for progression and need constant development and attention. But the danger of these bold statements is that they are widely distributed, easy to digest and form our opinions for us. It’s so comfortable to nod and say ‘oh yes, of course, it all makes sense’. Does it?

While I was on holiday this year, with rare time to think, I unpicked my opinions and challenged the calls to me to manage young employees differently. Are young people so different to previous generations? Are millennials very different to me when I started work 30 years ago?

Way back at the start of my career, I never anticipated staying in any organisation for long and, during the early years, I didn’t. I averaged 2-3 years with every employer during my twenties whilst I built up the skills and experience I wanted. It was my energy and drive that made me move around – I wanted more and was able to get that through strategic employment hopping.

I was impatient. I was always seeking feedback about what I did and how I did it - outside of the annual appraisal. I didn’t want to wait for 12 months to hear about whether I was doing a good job or not. I wanted constant development. I did my HR qualification and once I was a member of the CIPD, I moved to a new organisation where I could use it and progress even further.

This report by Ipsos Mori is an interesting read Ipsos-Mori Millennial Myths & Realities. A quote from the report says it all for me: “Being accused of these types of characteristics is an unfortunate downside of being young. Multimedia and the use of memes may have made the generational mud-slinging more widespread, but these types of accusations have been levelled at young people before millennials and will no doubt be pointed at young people after millennials.” See the opening quote from old Socrates that demonstrates this nicely.

This blog isn’t about millennials. It’s about our responsibility to think about all of the information that we have at our fingertips and how we treat it. It’s about stopping ourselves from making assumptions that make our lives easier - such as the pigeon holing of generations.

As HR leaders, we need to allow ourselves time to digest the information we receive and to work out what it means to us, our organisations and the people who work for us in a considered way. My time as an HRD was spent in meetings, on conference calls and emailing. Finding time, either on my own or with my team, to think things through, was almost impossible. I set up The HR Agenda so that I didn’t have to do my open and fresh thinking on holiday, once a year!

Whatever age we are, whatever our goals, we owe it to everyone (including those poor, much-maligned millennials) to use this mind-blowing amount information we have access to step back and make our own minds up.

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