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Are Millennials Unmanageable?

Are Millennials Unmanageable?

Millennials are enthusiastic, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial, opportunistic, lazy, unproductive, and self-obsessed.  Apparently! In recent weeks, this "The Generations in the Workplace" infographic meme has been causing some distaste in millennials.  They, perhaps not surprisingly, objected to some of the negative generalisations. 

So, is it fair?  There has to be some reason for such an infographic meme.  As Fox Mulder would say, "The Truth is Out There." 

Fortunately, we are in a happier position than Fox Mulder was. We don't have some shady military agency hiding all the clues from us. It is perfectly possible to piece together a picture of the millennial environment. To understand why they behave in certain ways. To see where the negative generalisations come from. And then challenge them. 

In a Nutshell: Millennials are (a) serious about mocking past forms of existence, (b) inspired to find new ways to work and live and (c) on a journey of discovery and self-improvement.

Being a millennial involves an ironic and sincere journey of the self. It's hugely powerful. It's the future, man! 

How To Understand Millennials

1: They Will Be Ironic

Life and society have changed immeasurably in the last 50-years. There are no jobs for life. No organisations promising perpetual employment for paychecks and pensions. And very little meaning in work. Millennials will completely reject ways of behaving that cling to these more traditional ideas. They will mercilessly mock those that seem to believe in them.

What if I told you insane was working fifty hours a week in some office for fifty years at the end of which they tell you to piss off; ending up in some retirement village hoping to die before suffering the indignity of trying to make it to the toilet on time? Wouldn't you consider that to be insane?  Garland Greene

Millennials will not feel any attachment to the things the previous generations cared deeply about. They are going to be the first generation who will be less well-off than their parents. The money, power, ego and fear-based management of the baby-boomer generation isn't going to scare them into working hard.  Or committing to the organisation with their heart and soul. 

Nothing a manager can do will scare them as much as the dystopian future they are worried about. So quit trying. They will call you out on it. They will mock you for being an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy. They know it's an act and you are a soft, furry pooh bear underneath all that bluster. That you have grandchildren you love and a soft spot for romantic comedies. Behaving like a classic scary-monster manager will only make them laugh. 

Don't go the other way too hard either. To try and trick them into thinking you've seen the light. That you really, really believe that authentic leadership is the best way to manage them. And then fake it. A kind of Bill Lumburgh for the postmodern generation. They've all seen Office Space. And The Office. They will mock, ridicule and satirise you behind your back. For eternity. And look for another job while doing it. 

This fear and irony masks something that we forget about millennials. Their deep desire to find some meaning in life and work. 

2: They Will Be Sincere

Things that created meaning for previous generations have fizzled and died. They feel stale and irrelevant to millennials. They are searching for new meanings from these broken promises and dreams. 

All the great themes have been used up and turned into theme parks. Mark "Happy Harry" Hunter

They will mock inauthentic, management bullshit. So be a boss that actually cares about how they are trying to create something meaningful. You might think it is childish and naive, but it means something to them. So work with it.

They will strive to create meaning in numerous different ways.

It might manifest in the entrepreneurial spirit: a sincere belief that, through their passion and energy, they can develop a better way to work than previous generations could manage.

It might manifest in technological disruption: an attempt to develop new ways of doing and communicating that are quick, easy and admin-free.

It might manifest through spirituality: a desire to discover a deeper meaning to life than those offered by organisational and national cultures. Or religious institutions out of touch with the contours of contemporary living. 

Millennials can be hugely hard-working and productive. But the motivation must come from this internal search. If an organisation can meld its work practices with the millennial desire to create new meaning, then it will be blessed with a creative, motivated, enthusiastic and energetic workforce. If the organisation clings on to the old ways of working and expects the millennial generation to adjust, it will discover that staff turnover can occur at the speed of light. 

3: They are on a Journey

Contemporary social structures are fluid and fast-moving. It is pointless clinging on to meaning, as it will almost instantly mutate into something else. With no possibility of moulding societal shapes, millennials instead mould their own identities. 

Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.  Greg Anderson

Millennial identity is fluid. It's an ever-changing array of diverse masks to try on. Lifestyles to experiment with. Choices to make. Hats to wear. Millennials grew up in an era of diverse sub-cultures, the breaking down of social prejudices and the injection of many acceptable ways of being and living into social norms.

For example, we hear of heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, pansexuality, asexuality, demisexuality, metrosexuality, skoliosexuality, gender-fluidity and gender-neutrality. These can all describe a person's sexual preference at a given time. None are set in stone.  They are choices to make about a future or current identity.

Seems weird to the baby boomer. Second nature to the millennial. 

Cultural boundaries are also breaking down. The baby boomer generation had little direct contact with other cultures.  Millennials are surrounded by them.

Within five minutes walk, I can eat at Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Hungarian, Australian, Italian, Czech, French, German, Austrian and Thai restaurants. There are nineteen different nationalities at my tennis club. And a few other cultures I've forgotten about. 

Millennials grew up in societies in which this multi-cultural diversity is the norm.  Its influences permeate everywhere.

Add this to the rapid technological changes of the last three decades. You'll then begin to comprehend the world that shapes the millennial mindset. Immersed in this fast-moving diversity, millennials pick and choose identities from whatever interests them.  Then throw them off when something else emerges. With no stable social structures to cling onto, millennials have embraced the idea of life being a journey. Trying new experiences. New ways of living. New ways of thinking. New ways of working.

What this Means for Managers and Leaders

Organisations are trying to deal with this. The idea that companies and leaders need to transform is everywhere. But are we actually doing the right things?

We are trying.  For example, the concept of authentic leadership has become trendy.  Access your deep inner self through practices of self-awareness, mindfulness and emotional intelligence.  Develop "honest relationships with followers which value their input and are built on an ethical foundation."  

Unfortunately, the idea of organisational authneticity has become polluted by the idea that you are searching for a true inner self.  It has lost sight of authenticity being a never-ending artistic creation of the self. It ironically alienates authentic leaders from millennials, who self-create effortlessly on an ongoing basis. 

There have also been attempts to managerialise diversity.  We have the "Just Be Yourself" mindset and the idea of workplace "fun". Trying to manage constructs as fluid as diversity, individualism and fun is contradictory. Diversity rejects structure. Individualism rejects labelling. Fun rejects control. So they fail.

We have not discovered how to meld traditional organisation with the fluid identities and technological savviness of the millennial generation. Hence, the negative memes. But we must keep working on it. Millennials will soon dominate the employee and consumer market. We must know how to get the best of them. 

Managing millennials is a challenge.  You cannot use previously tried and tested methods (they will be mocked).  You cannot predict what millennial is turning up to work (the fluid search for meaning and playful identification). 

You cannot hope to transform the workplace into a stable environment that captures this. You can only transform yourself. Be a facilitator of ironic detachment, fear, hope, energy and sincere enthusiasm. Then let them do the rest for you.


The Theoretical Bit: Meta-Modernism

This is a fully-referenced theoretical examination of these trends, taken directly from my academic research. It's dry and dense to read. I've included it for those interested enough in the subject to go deeper. For everyone else, you can stop reading now. 

Writing in the New York Times in late 2012, the Assistant Professor of French and Italian at Princeton, Christy Wampole, claims that the contemporary “age of irony” informs a deep aversion to risk, being a function of fear, pre-emptive shame, cultural numbness, resignation and defeat (Wampole 2102). Arguing that contemporary irony is of a deeper hue than its historical counterparts, Walpole claims irony has “leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself”, resulting in the “vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche”, “rampant sarcasm and unapologetic cultivation of silliness” and a “self-infantilizing citizenry.” She was immediately challenged by the writer, John D. Fitzgerald, who argues that the current generation “prioritized being close to God and having a good family life above anything else”, whereas the previous one prioritized “making lots of money” (Fitzgerald 2012). For Fitzgerald, the contemporary ethos “is a joining together of irony and sincerity” that, when combined, “form a movement of astonishing power.”

One development informing Fitzgerald’s critique has been termed the “New Sincerity”, first employed as a criticism of a number of rock groups reacting against the ironic attitude of prominent punk rock and New Wave bands (Shank 1994: 148-149, 271). It began to be applied to art and literature in the mid-1990s (Collins 1993), and has become an increasingly employed term when describing the ethos of American and European movies of the late 20th-early 21st century (Hancock 2005; Yurchak 2008). The stuckism art movement’s Remodernism manifesto48 calls for the reintroduction of spirituality into art to escape the limits of cynicism and irony (Evans 2000). David Foster Wallace (1993) predicted such a movement would emerge as a reaction against the tyrannical irony of late 20th Century America, arguing

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.

Kelly (2010) argues that Wallace’s prediction has come true and that contemporary America is experiencing a theoretical reconceptualization of sincerity which is challenging the emphasis on authenticity in conceptions of the self. Yurchack has connected this movement to the popularity and development of "reality television, Internet blogs, diary style 'chicklit' literature, [and] personal videos on You-Tube" (Yurchack 2008: 258). Van Poecke (2010/11) draws attention to the influence of folk music and acoustic instruments in a new sense of romanticism expressed in contemporary music movements, imaginatively entitled Freak Folk (Dunaway and Beer 2010: 169) or the New Weird Generation. In Christianity, this ethos is expressed in the fast growing Renewalist movement, which argues for a return to the literal reading of the bible and teaches “that the power of the Holy Spirit is manifested through such supernatural phenomena as speaking in tongues, miraculous healings and prophetic utterances and revelations” (Suro, Escobar et al. 2007: 35).

While this movement can be seen as, and has an obvious aspect of, an “anti- irony” sincerity, it also has a more subtle dimension of balancing irony and sincerity, scepticism and faith, performance and authenticity. In philosophy, Vermeulen and den Akker (2010) have attempted to outline the contours of this emerging structure of feeling through the concept of metamodernism. Drawing from Hutcheon’s argument that postmodernity’s moment has passed (Hutcheon 2002: 165-166), metamodernity is an alternative to the intrinsically meaningless hedonistic ecstasy or existential anguish of Lipovetsky’s hypermodernist society (Lipovetsky, Charles et al. 2005) or the haphazardness, evanescence and anonymity of Kirby’s digimodernist society (Kirby 2009). Arguing that the “metamodern is constituted by the double-bind of a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all” (Vermeulen and Van Den Akker 2010: 6), they suggest a series of strategies that combine serious, sincere solutions and an intellectual awareness of irony and scepticism has emerged in the 21st Century art world. They argue that metamodernism is expressed in an emergent neoromantic sensibility, concluding that metamodernism sits ‘hypersensitively’ between modern utopian art and literature and dystopian postmodern equivalents.

As Hutcheon points out, there is nothing new in this debate, with the contemporary age joining “just about every other century in wanting to call itself the ‘age of irony’” (1994: 9). However, the above reveals how certain dimensions in the debate cluster around an aesthetics/morality hub. Both Wampole and Fitzgerald agree that irony is harmful to the “sincere” self and fear that it will erode American culture values. While this remains a current worry for Wampole, one dimension of the New Sincerity/metamodernist movement is a belief that an already vibrant reaction to widespread cultural irony has manifested as a heartfelt desire to return to an authentic mode of existence via the merging of ironic sensibility and romantic sentimentality.

Collins, J. (1993). Genericity in the 90s: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity. Film theory goes to the movies. A. P. Collins, J. Collins and H. Radner. New York ; London, Routledge.

Dunaway, D. K. and M. Beer (2010). Singing out: an oral history of America's folk music revivals. New York; Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Fitzgerald, J. D. (2012). Sincerity, Not Irony, Is Our Age's Ethos. The Atlantic.

Evans, K. (2000). The Stuckists: the first remodernist art group. [Great Britain], Victoria Press on behalf of superHUMANism.

Hancock, B. M. (2005). "A Community of Characters - the Narrative Self in the Films of Wes Anderson." The Journal of Religion and Film 9.

Hutcheon, L. (1994). Irony's edge: the theory and politics of irony. London; New York, Routledge.

Hutcheon, L. (2002). The politics of postmodernism. London, Routledge.

Kelly, A. (2010). David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction. Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays. D. Hering. Austin, SSMG Press,: 131-146.

Kirby, A. (2009). Digimodernism: how new technologies dismantle the postmodern and reconfigure our culture. London, Continuum.

Lipovetsky, G., S. Charles, et al. (2005). Hypermodern times. Cambridge, Polity.

Poecke, N. v. (2010/11) "The New Weird Generation." Notes on Metamodernism.

Shank, B. (1994). Dissonant identities : the rock'n'roll scene in Austin, Texas. Hanover, NH, University Press of New England.

Suro, R., G. Escobar, et al. (2007). "Changing faiths: Latinos and the transformation of American religion." A Pew Hispanic Center Report.

Vermeulen, T. and R. Van Den Akker (2010). "Notes on metamodernism." Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 2.

Wallace, D. F. (1993). "E unibus pluram: Television and US fiction." Review of Contemporary Fiction 13: 151-151.

Wampole, C. (2102). How to Live Without Irony. The New York Times. New York.

Yurchak, A. (2008). Post-Post-Communist Sincerity: Pioneers, Cosmonauts, and Other Soviet Heroes Born Today. What is Soviet now?: identities, legacies, memories. T. Lahusen and P. H. Solomon. Berlin, Lit; London: Global [distributor].


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