The so-called ‘millennial’ generation – those of us born after 1982 – gets a lot of grief.
Studies examining generational differences in life goals, civic engagement and concern for others suggest a cohort that is financially-oriented, image obsessed and selfish; the almighty ‘me’ prevailing over the ‘we’ of generations past. Although it is undeniable that a shift in values has taken place, the context in which this transformation is occurring makes the outcome uncertain.
The millennial generation hasn’t simply developed different values by virtue of its having been raised on the Internet; it is also the most highly educated in Western history, and emerging into a workforce that is if not shrinking, at least approaching stagnation.
When Samantha Scales emerged from St. Francis Xavier University in 2011 – Bachelor of Business Administration degree in hand – she was surprised and delighted to find herself immediately employed as an Executive Assistant to the head of a conglomeration of Halifax companies.
However, as the original three month period for which she was hired came and went, she found herself working in the same position, her minimal salary unadjusted and her benefits nowhere to be seen.
“This was my first job,” she says. “I didn’t realize that I would have to be the one to push for those things.”
When it came time to renegotiate the contract, no meeting was scheduled, and Samantha admits she was too nervous to approach her employer.
Figure out what you contribute
For Elizabeth Beale, President of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, this type of communication breakdown is just one of the ways in which employers can fail to communicate effectively with their young employees. “Time is the most valuable thing an employer can offer,” she says, stressing that although young people should be challenged to explore their interests, a lack of guidance can result in a failure to harness the economic potential of their contribution.
While young people contribute a valuable diversity of ideas and generationally-specific skills, such as the ability to work well in teams, they must be encouraged to do so. For Samantha, having a mentor in her workplace was invaluable to making her first foray into professional life a positive and productive one, but the inability to communicate further with upper levels of management left her feeling frustrated.
Although the onus for recruiting and encouraging young talent falls largely on employers, Elizabeth emphasizes the need for young people to consider carefully what they can contribute to the workforce.
Don’t get left behind – speak up!
One of the most critiqued characteristics of the millennial generation is its sense of entitlement. Young people often take both sides for granted, Elizabeth says, not only under-appreciating their own assets, but also failing to take into consideration what their employers may need.
In an economic environment where an over-supply of young people could result in high levels of youth unemployment well into the future, the need to adjust what is expected by and of young professionals is imperative. Failure to find a role for young professionals can have serious consequences: longitudinal studies of Generation X (born between 1962 and 1981) show that those who began their professional lives in the employment vacuum created by the Baby Boomers largely failed to catch up throughout the course of their working lives.
With much the same threat faced by young people today, the struggle is not only to adjust the actual (or perceived) generational characteristics that make workplace politics difficult, but also to examine the institutions that shape young professionals.
While Samantha says that university provided her with basic practical and social capabilities, most of her professional skills are ones she’s picked up “along the way.”
For Elizabeth, it is precisely this type of continuous learning that makes young people useful and productive employees, and she suggests that universities don’t do enough to encourage this. Universities do themselves and society a disservice by segmenting students off from the rest of society. They could do a much better job helping graduates to negotiate workplace dynamics by encouraging a view of a degree as “a starting point rather than an ending point.”
How to overcome a communication breakdown
- Evaluate your employer: Determine what they need and what you in particular can provide. Don’t assume that someone will figure out your contribution for you.
- Set out clear deadlines for responses from on high: When you’ve fulfilled the original requirements of your position, such as reaching the end of the original contract of completion of a project, know that you may have to be the one to ask for feedback – financial or otherwise – from your employer.
- Find a mentor: Having someone to evaluate your performance and foster your interests, even if that person is not your direct superior, will help develop the kind of ‘continuous learning’ that will make you a valuable employee.