Working with the ‘selfie’ generation
Early this year, Sun Life conducted its regular consumer study, this time with emphasis on financial literacy in the country.
Not surprisingly, results were different among various age groups and profiles, but of particular interest was the “selfie” generation, also known as GenY or “millennials,” those born between the late 1970s and mid-1990s.
There were many interesting findings, but one which became apparent was the lack of a long-term outlook.
Millennials appear to be focused on the here and now, not much thought of the future nor of preparing for it, with priority purchases being gadgets, cars, clothes, shoes and bags.
I couldn’t help but correlate this with our observations on them as employees.
Over the past couple of years, as we struggled to cope with the rapid growth in business, our HR department observed a curious pattern—turnover among the fresh hires was many times higher than for the rest of the company, with many not even lasting six months.
As we compared notes with other companies, it became apparent that we were all facing the same challenges.
The people entering the workforce today are different. More than at any time in the past, they are highly ambitious with high expectations, restless, more choosy about the work they do as they look for work that fulfills personal aspirations and interests, and wanting to do many things all at once including those outside of work—travel, hobbies and advocacies.
Unfortunately, this is many times accompanied by an unrealistic view of the world and themselves, leading to a workforce that changes jobs every 18-24 months as they search for satisfaction.
What has led to such a state for the millennials?
A provocative blog in the Huffington Post which went viral on Facebook (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wait-but-why/generation-y-unhappy_b_3930620.html) lays out the premise that Happiness = Reality – Expectations and describes three characteristics of the millennial:
They are wildly ambitious, expecting to have a fulfilling career in something they are passionate about
They are delusional, with an inflated idea of their own capabilities and value
They are taunted, forever under pressure from the image-crafting being done by peers on social media
Take away the inflammatory language and the blog is actually quite insightful.
Our generation was raised by parents who went through the war and tough times, hence we were raised to look for security in our careers.
But we grew up in a time of rapid growth, and often ended up more successful than we thought we’d be. So we told our kids that they could be whatever they wanted to be, to “follow your passion,” hence the search for a “fulfilling” career rather than a “secure” career.
But the world today is a much more complex one, with economies in disarray.
A college degree is no longer a guarantee of success. And in the real world there are a limited number of jobs in every field.
My youngest son experienced that recently.
He had his mind set on working in special effects R&D, and had graduated recently with a Master’s degree from one of the best programs in Creative & Multimedia Technologies in the United States, only to find out that there were exactly five openings in his field—in the whole world!
And he was competing with PhDs and highly experienced professionals who had been laid off, as the industry was facing tough times.
So the “fulfilling” career is often replaced by whatever job can be found for now, and you have employees moving constantly seeking to find a job more in line with their expectations.
As to being delusional, unfortunately this is also a generation led to believe they are special. How many times have we heard that each child is special and unique and should not be compared, and even the most inconsequential achievement is praised profusely as some great accomplishment?
Some schools have even stopped giving grades believing it can be harmful to the psyche of a child. But the reality is that most people are average, otherwise it wouldn’t be called average, and only a few are truly special.
So you have an employee entering the workforce thinking he is special and gifted with knowledge and talent, not realizing he actually knows very little and that almost everyone around him is currently better than he is.
The reality, as the Post article says, is that “great careers take years of blood, sweat and tears to build … and even the most successful people are rarely doing anything that great in their early to mid 20s.” Over the years, I’ve come across people whose expectations for promotion and rewards well exceeded their actual abilities. They inevitably ended in frustration and many times, another job.
With the selfies, this process is accelerated given “follow your passion” and “you are special” have been drilled into their heads.
And the pressure on self-esteem is tremendous. In the age of social media, everyone and everyone keep a constant stream of posts flowing into the selfie’s inbox, detailing their latest travels, the over-the-top marriage proposal, their promotion, showing off their beach-worthy body, etc, etc.
In reality they may be no better off than everyone else, but no one ever posts their negative stuff on Facebook! This “taunting” leads to constant dissatisfaction with one’s lot and the compulsion to look for something better.
So how to handle the millennials?
The tremendous ambition is not bad, harnessed the right way they can help propel a company forward faster.
The restlessness and seeking for something better can lead to innovation as they challenge the old ways of doing things and use their creativity and breadth of interests to come up with ideas.
We have had great success with young employees on digital media, introducing things we would never have thought of otherwise. The key is to give them a lot of latitude and allow them to experiment to make their ideas come to fruition.
But they do need a healthy dose of reality, and guiding them to have a more realistic view of themselves can be tricky.
One recommendation is to ask during the interview process, “Do you think you are better than others, and if so, why?”
The answer can be quite revealing and allows you to identify those who can be coached vs. those who are hopelessly delusional!
Millennials also need to move around and be given different assignments periodically. Doing so not only keeps them interested, but could help them find a job they actually like and can do longer term. They are also great for multi-tasking and being involved in non-work company activities such as corporate social responsibility initiatives and organizing company socials, as they love the variety that brings.
At some point, though, you may simply have to resign yourself to the fact that no matter what you do or no matter how happy they are in your company, they will leave, because it’s time for them to do so. They need a change, or they have something else they want to spend their time on, which may not necessarily be work.
Millennials are our new generation of employees, and we need to learn to work with them!
(The author is president and CEO of Sun Life Financial Philippines.)
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