An Open Letter To Millennials: Hard Truths We Need To Embrace

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Over the past two years, I’ve seen a never-ending list of Medium articles, Survey breakdowns, and intricate anthropologic studies dedicated to dissecting the minds of millennials.

“This is what makes Millennials so great!”

“This is why Millennials will save your bottom line!”

“Wake up and smell the Millennials!”

“Learn why Millennials prefer Keurigs in your workplace instead of traditional French Press.”

You see bloggers furiously making arguments like this:

From the standpoint of any company, I have to admit — it’s overwhelming.

Companies are constantly chastised to figure out “millennial engagement” like it’s part of their next audit. We have industries and dedicated coaches that have come out of nowhere trying to crack and commercialize the secret of attracting and empathizing with millennials. Companies are seriously shelling out thousands of dollars to engage us and denigrated on social media if they suggest they don’t need to.

How did it become so complicated!?

After being inside a large organization for a few months now, I have a shocking confession: I have begun to dismiss the notion that the burden of “millennial engagement” falls entirely on the shoulders of a company.

Look at the basics. Not all millennials are equal and they certainly don’t require the same amount of effort to motivate, understand and engage. They don’t all come with the same skill set and, yes, there are many who will ride the wave of being a “Millennial” simply to raise their own status. As a company, it’s hard to know where to start.

Sure there are some horrible companies out there that do not make a semblance of effort to engage most employees. Most companies however, are genuinely aware. People aren’t going out of their way to see how they can become the biggest disservice to millennials; they are simply trying to grapple with nuance as much as you are. No company is a utopia and there are some hard-truths in every corporate experience:

Your company doesn’t bear the full burden of creating your desired culture.

You’ll hear lots of change management experts telling corporations they need to make their culture more “conducive” to millennials. This could mean pet-friendly workplaces or ping-pong tables. This could mean happy hours or paintball outings. This could mean balancing a flexible work schedule or investing in trainings. This could even simply mean creating an atmosphere of gratitude and transparency. The truth is that there is no one right answerto this question (Yes I’m talking to you, Business Insider author of “5 Ways You Can Create An Optimal Culture For Millennials”).

You and I likely have more in common then we have differences; despite this, I might value a sense-of-humor in the workplace with ubiquitous chatter and you might prefer a more quiet environment with neatly scheduled breaks. I might get antsy if my team isn’t going out enough after work for drinks — you might prefer to not to infuse your social life with Steve from Accounting who constantly screws up the reconcilitions. There’s nothing wrong with either of us. We just have different factors of motivation.

Instead of demanding a culture that is more welcoming to millennials, we need to abandon the “one size fits all” solutions that involve weird perks and work on a foundational definition for all cultures. I’ve seen way too many articles about how millennials love “honesty” and “integrity” in the workplace as if millennials decided to just one day invent the idea of a moral conscience. What companies don’t actually care about honesty and integrity as a borderline prerequisite for existence?!

Let’s make sure honesty and integrity are prerequisites. Let’s make sure support systems and career advancement opportunities are prerequisites. Let’s make sure challenging work and discrete responsibilities are prerequisites.

Do you want free popcorn and creative freedom? Understand that these differ on a case-by-case basis. Your company might have stringent client deliverables that preclude creative freedom. Your company might be a start-up running on its last leg of funding that can’t afford to hand out free popcorn. This doesn’t mean the company is doing anything wrong or their culture is shit — this just means that it’s not the role for you if free popcorn or creative freedom is something you value above all else.

If you want to add a piece of the pie to culture that doesn’t exist, create it. Some IBM employees realized they wanted more millennial involvement in management decisions — Millennial Corps was then born. Our team decided they wanted more happy hours and we made it a monthly tradition. This was not a corporate mandate — it was simply an initiative by individuals who responded to what motivated them.

Compromise is a necessity for progress.

I recently read a piece by Suneil Kamath entitled “Your job description sucks. And I don’t care about your ping-pong tables and snacks.” It is ultimately a laundry list of what millennials tend to care about in the workplace and what recruiters should do in order to cater to these whims. While some of these are concerns I wholeheartedly share with Suneil, the entire notion that we can walk into companies and burn the structure down in order to get what we want is disingenuous and insincere.

For every need you have, there is a trade-off. If you want a flexible remote schedule, you may lose out on the social interaction you once craved. If you want a fast-paced travel schedule, you may lose out on the relaxation that came with routine. Even at a higher-level, companies are struggling with how to invest in employees, leadership programs, software, and research while understanding that every dollar spent will be scrutinized by their shareholders.

With every role you have, you have a discrete responsibility. If you can’t go to a conference or work from your parent’s house in Massachusetts because you’re needed in the office, it doesn’t mean people are out to get you. It doesn’t mean there is a nefarious plot to shut down millennial happiness. It just means that you have a job that comes with certain expectations. Once you make yourself reliable and capable of understanding your company, you can begin to work within the system to engage your team and direct change. You can begin to recognize gaps in performance and morale. You may have to engage folks who disagree with you. You will have individuals who don’t care about culture as much as you. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong — it just means you value something different than the person in the next cubicle. Work with them to see how each of you can find something to rave about. Sometimes giving up one thing you value can be the best move you make towards progress.

Change depends on many variables out of your control.

Change can be slow. Slow to a point where it’s demoralizing. Slow to a point where contributing to a change with no outcome feels almost like personal injustice.

Here’s the hard-truth: Most good companies want to change. Companies don’t just slap “innovative” in their vision statements as a recruiting technique. Your company genuinely wants to pioneer something that no other company has done. It genuinely wants to make its systems, employment practices, and management styles evolve. It wants to make its products evolve. It wants to headline Techcrunch and trend on Twitter as a company who has made a positive and dynamic splash on the world. It knows that, in any given minute, shareholders, revenues, and employees can leave in hordes.

The problem is that thousands of variables are involved in change. Even in 2016 when some answers seem obvious, there are different definitions of what correct change looks like. Your idea might take a long time to get implemented — not because it’s a bad idea — but because each variable can send the idea in a different direction. Timing. Budget. Stakeholder involvement. Relevance.

Ryan Holliday, author of “Ego is The Enemy” puts it perfectly: “If you would like to be a creative person and a sane person, you cannot have some external result in what determines whether you’re proud, or happy, or satisfied. So, you have to do a lot of work to get to a place where you’re saying to yourself, “This is a success to me.”

You don’t control the outcome, you control the effort that goes into the outcome. Change is hard to direct in large companies — bring yourself to a point where success to you means putting in your 100% to push a change into the minds of others, regardless of whether it comes into fruition. Treat the manifestation of change as a bonus. Lack of change often discourages millennials as we do tend to be restless — continue to allocate your energy to areas you feel need change. If you throw ten darts at a board, one is bound to land close to a bullseye. The others might just get caught in the wind.

People have agendas. They are not always built to spite you.

The manager who you claim is micromanaging may be in danger of losing his promotion if work isn’t sent in on time. The recruiter you criticized for not doing enough to target you may have been burned by candidates like you before. The department head who didn’t sponsor you to take that certification exam or go to that conference may be under the gun for an end-of-quarter financial quota. The CEO you claim is not asking enough young people for their opinions may be worried about losing an entire region of revenue because of one mistake made by a server in the Northwest United States. The baby boomers you claim aren’t digitally savvy enough for your liking may not have hours of time in the afternoon to digest half the content that comes across their feeds.

While I don’t think empathy is lost in our corporate structures, we often criticize managers, executives, and other employees for what we project they are doing wrong. As someone who has worked with executives for months trying to help them get used to Twitter and Linkedin, it burns my nerves when I hear about how the “digital savvy” millennials need others to get up to their speed. For many, it’s not for lack of acknowledgement or lack of effort — most of the people I work with would love nothing more than to have an active Twitter and leverage it for its networking finesse. It’s the fact that some of these executives are working under stress that many of won’t imagine for years.

If you have trouble connecting why managers or executives aren’t doing something conducive to helping your generation, ask them what holds them back. Step a day in their shoes. Imagine having meetings every thirty minutes with million dollar sales proposals on the line and then work with them accordingly. Help them set up a schedule.

Learn how the recruiter got burned. Learn why the department had to allocate funding. It’s easy to feel like the world is against you. It’s harder to find out why it isn’t.

While we continue to see Business Insider and Inc tell the world how it needs to do a better job of engaging millennials, let’s also be cognizant as millennials. Not even the best company in the world will do everything right. Let’s learn to meet it half-way. There’s a lot millennials can offer and not everyone will value us the same, let’s trade insult with empathy and continue understanding a world that is getting more complex by the day.


Kushaan is an IBM Consultant based out of Washington D.C. His interests are rooted in strategy consulting, entrepreneurship, social media, and the intersection of technology with social impact. He enjoys blogging about life, career insights, social technology, and hacking the corporate environment. If you liked this post, follow him on twitter: @kushaanshah or click “Follow” at the top for more posts on Medium.

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Written by Jessica Sullivan

Jessica Sullivan hails from Los Angeles I'm a writer, Musician, professional nail artist and have a degree in acting from NYU.

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