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Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number

by
Matthew Charney
Jan 30, 2008

Please forgive me. You already know me…by proxy, in the very least.

From the pages of Us Weekly (the generality implied in this paragon of journalism’s very name) to the Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership (which, unlike the former, sadly discounts the impact of celebrities eating salad on the collective psyche of the nation), I’ve been psychologically deconstructed and catalogued more extensively than any personage in the annals of history. I am the subject of hundreds of articles, dozens of books, and won Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 2006. Not bad for someone barely old enough to rent a car.

You see, I am a millennial, or a member of Generation Y, or whatever else you want to label me. It doesn’t really matter; those of us born from 1978 to 1995, the accepted range for the above categorizations, almost unilaterally ignore such labels (I’ll refer to my generation as “millennials” for the sake of this article, but only because it sounds kind of cool, like an army of androids in some sci-fi flick).

This doesn’t seem to stop the world from trying. Corporations, in their nonstop quest to attract top talent, are among the worst offenders. Many of us feel like Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction: You want us bad, which is kind of flattering, but recently, it’s gotten out of hand and is kind of creepy.

Any effort to study my generation en masse and pin down our inner workings misses the point entirely. In fact, we share a single commonality. And here, presented to you, is the key to understanding millennials: We have no collective identity. There you go. None. Our only shared motivation is, at its heart, to be unique. Try to lump us into a convenient group, and you’ve already failed at the single most important thing to us: the retention of our identity as individuals.

You’d never know that from the volumes written about how to attract and retain top millennial performers, recent college graduates, and professional up-and-comers. Here, we are painted in the broadest brushstrokes possible, and recruiters and corporations are widely tailoring their messages and redoubling their efforts to position themselves as “cutting edge” and “cool” places to work.

Advance these programs with caution, because many of us see this as transparent pandering, and it is more likely to turn us off than actually interest us. We don’t want to sit at the kiddy table, and the more a recruiting message focuses on how an organization nurtures and grows young talent, or is “hip” to what millennial candidates want (stated or unstated), it often has an unwanted side effect.

By and large, thought leadership is correct in assuming that we do not want to pay our dues and have an unearned sense of entitlement. By differentiating us at the attraction/interview process from our prospective colleagues, or by even having these programs in existence, the message we hear is less “we understand your wants and needs” and more “there are enough people your age here to justify these initiatives, and there’s a regimented program in place that is likely to strip you of much of your autonomy and individualism.”

In the recruitment process, the onus should be placed not on how the corporation has shifted its practices and values to reflect the presumed values of millennials, but rather on spelling out how that candidate’s unique experiences and talents would tangibly contribute to the organization, and how the position itself helps the larger organization function. You better make it about us, not you, in the interview process, and by that I mean your value proposition is no longer, “what can the company do for you” but rather, “here’s what you can do to make the company better.” We’re not opposed to hard work, as long as we understand how our little “siloed” tasks serve a greater purpose and are going to be recognized.

Make sure that your recruiting message is focused on immediate learning and development opportunities in the role that the candidate is interviewing for, i.e., the ability to acquire new and in-demand skill sets. By setting forth a codified and regimental career path or touting career mapping (a selling point for many top organizations), the intended message is often heard by the candidate as “no matter how bright you are, no matter how much you exceed expectations, there’s an entrenched system for advancement and we don’t make exceptions.”

No matter what the advancement path in your company looks like, informal recognition and the ability to contribute beyond the narrow dictates of a job description are more effective value propositions to us than long-term rewards. Raised in an age of downsizing and restructuring (terms many of us have learned from our parents the hard way), millennials expect no true loyalty from corporations, and we expect that companies implicitly desire none from us.

The most effective value proposition to the millennial candidate isn’t selling the organization, it’s selling the perception of the role’s prestige against the marketplace. In other words, the best way to attract the millennial worker is by positioning how the role will look on a resume when the candidate is ready to move on. We have no realistic expectation that we will have long tenures in our jobs; we expect to change companies and roles, and to do this often.

The key, then, is not separation but, rather, inclusion. The only reason we act differently is that you are treating us differently. Starting out on a career is still the first rite of true adulthood and independence for a huge majority of us, so we expect to be treated as adults. And, reports of us as spoiled, arrogant brats have been greatly exaggerated. The much maligned “helicopter parent,” for instance, is my favorite anecdote and is well consigned to the dustbin of urban legends, with a place next to alligators breeding in the sewer system.

Think about when you were graduating college. This much has not changed: We want to distance ourselves from our parents as much as possible, and we are mortified at the very thought of their involvement in our professional lives. Our parents are not “The Greatest Generation.” Our parents, instead, transformed ABBA into pop icons. They voluntarily went to discos and drove us around in station wagons with wood-paneled interiors. In other words, we don’t give much credence to their tastes. The job search is no exception to this rule.

So, we’re really not a separate species after all, and, like Britney Spears (who is still a better musician than any member of ABBA), are unworthy of the attention heaped upon us in correlation to our accomplishments. But feel free to continue.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily represent the views of Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. nor any of its employees or agents.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Rob Levin

    Great article. I couldn’t agree with you more. Although I am not part of your generation, I have dealt enough with it to agree wholeheartedly with your point of view. I get tired of reading the same old rhetoric regurgitated over and over on this site from so-called experts. This article was a breath of fresh air and I look forward to future articles.

  2. Mel Kleiman CSP

    Great comments with one caveat. It is not only the millennial generations that you talk about that wants all of the things you talked about such as challenge, growth, opportunity, and an ability to feel valued. Very one in the workforce no matter what their age is looking for exactly the same type of fulfillment. Maybe until now they were not willing to take the risk or feel empowered to make the demands this new generation is willing to make.

    For the first time in the history of mankind knowledge and information is not owned by a limited number of people, all worker have access to it. It is fact that information is power and now information is available to anyone with a computer and Internet access.

  3. Russ Cheatham

    I found this article to be a good laugh and hope that it was meant in tongue-and-cheek. Yes, there has been many articles written about ?Gen-Y? lately but to go as far as to say that your generation has been ?catalogued more extensively than any personage in the annals of history? is taking a bit far don?t you think? To make a statement like this, one would assume that you did a bit of research, that is, studied your history before laying such claims. I?m guessing that most of this research was done on Google or Wikipedia, the typical ?Gen-Y? source for all information (as well as US Weekly ? as you pointed out).

    On Wikipedia, I?m sure you saw prior generations such as mine ? the Gen X (where the Gen-Y derived their name), as well as the Baby Boomers, the Depression Era, and the ?Builders.? One could argue that everything you?re going through, the Gen-Xers have already gone through, largely for the same reasons (lack of bodies to work the millions of low to mid-level office jobs in large corporate environments as well as an educated population that wants to do more than work in a cube). Or that the ?Baby Boomers? have most likely been the most ?catalogued personage in the annals of history.? Please source other pop cultural references outside of your Us Weekly to find the multitude of movies, television shows and music that reflect the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, ?free love,? the drug explosion, and the onslaught of the corporate culture (see: Yuppie) that the Boomers have given us. Pretty well cataloged, to say the least. Go back further to read how many articles were written about WWII, how many movies were made, documentaries, and books published (Gen-Y still reads books don?t they?) that reflect this generation. Please, take one more step and learn about the ?builders,? the generation that built and defended this country. When I say ?built,? I mean it. New York, Chicago, Boston, Philly, and Baltimore were the urban hubs at that time. L.A. was still an orange grove. This generation built the infrastructure, the roads, bridges, sewers, and skyscrapers that defined our country ? amazing stuff really.

    You see, each of these prior generations helped build this country. They fought the wars and they did things, they have a ?resume? so to speak. Even my generation, the X-ers can lay claim to the technology revolution. Sure we may have tripped during the dot.com era but hey, we took a chance ? earned some stripes on the old curriculum vitae.

    To think you?re a ?different? generation or one that is smarter, more well-prepared, and educated than previous generations is more than pure vanity, it?s flat out wrong. The truth is that corporations need you (or your smarter, more educated counterparts in Asia or Europe) to fill their roles. The ?Boomers? are retiring and now their looking to their twenty-something year old replacements, who often cap off a long day of blogging by playing with video games (toys), creating alternative digital identities, or shopping and they are getting worried. We?re all waiting ? no, looking forward to – the Gen-Y?ers making their mark, defining themselves and doing something.

    In the spirit of your original article, of course I jest a bit. But really, if you have any ideas how to hire your counterparts, keep ?em coming. Good article ? I really enjoyed it.

  4. David Krippene

    Mr. Charney should have continued with his screen writing career path rather than recruiting. On the other hand, Hollywood is probably a good place for him.

    Professional recruiters believe in the truth in recruiting and not ‘storytelling’.

    By the way, Britney Spears is not a musician and he clearly does not know who ABBA is.

    Mr. Charney is an embarrassment to the recruiting industry.

    DK

  5. Steven Rothberg

    Matt did a brilliant job of capturing the thoughts and feelings that we so often hear from the Millennials who use our job board.

    The only real fault that I can find in his article was his assertion that Britney Spears is a better musician than were any of the members of Abba. For a card carrying member of Gen X, them’s fightin’ words! :-)

  6. Howard Adamsky

    A millennial telling a recruiting audience that ?we have no collective identity.? Should Recruiters really need to be told this as we race into the 21st century? Sadly, I guess so?

    Thanks for this interesting perspective from one of their own as opposed to those selling ?solutions? on how to hire them. (Now THAT is a bit, as the author so aptly puts it; creepy.)

    Wonderfully refreshing and right to the point. This article is a winner.

  7. Kristin Hughes

    matthew-
    Great article. It is spot on! The one characteristic that does stand out is our NEED to be an individual. I’ve noticed more and more MY own need for these things as well. After leaving college with absolutely NO direction on what to do with my Mathematics degree I started a job i didn’t like that gave me ZERO inspiration and ZERO exposure to the growth of my own ideas– there is a constant need to learn more and increase our individual ‘power.’ I mean take a look at the law of attraction…not something our parents are too jazzed about, but it makes a whole lot of sense to me! So anyhow, thanks for writing what we are all thinking each time i read an article on new and improved ways to ‘attract the top millenials’…
    it’s not about the podcast, or video emails, or blogs..it’s not about the tricks and how much money you spend trying to attract us…it’s the message– we just want to be inspired in our work, have the freedom to explore that, and know that we are contributing something.
    Thanks!

  8. Travis Arnold

    Hi, my name is Travis, and I’m a ‘millenial’?and I couldn?t agree with this article more.

    It seems the perception out there is we are all entitled brats who look for get-rich-quick schemes, so we can get on the cover of US Weekly and fend off paparazzi. Well, this isn?t true. In fact, we work hard to provide good lives for ourselves and our families, just like everyone else. The difference is that we need to feel important and need to feel like we are accomplishing something in our daily lives, not just showing up for a paycheck. We need to constantly be stimulated by what we do (thanks to the Nintendos our parents all bought us in 1985), which makes higher profile, multi-faceted positions more appealing. Thanks again for the article.

  9. Todd Noebel

    Thanks for your perspective on what your expectations might be.

    I do find it intriguing that so many companies are falling over themselves trying to appear appealing to your generation. In truth few will actually make changes at the fundamental levels you touch on – career path, skills training, and recognition (short and long-term).

    The bottom line remains – you will be expected to come into the organization and perform the job function for which you were hired, and do it well. Then, and only then, will you be able to embark on the other roads of enhanced projects and learnings.

    Why? Because businesses hire people to perform the functions that the BUSINESS needs to have performed in order to meet the company’s objectives. If they don’t, then they fail as a business.

    No one really wants to have to pay their dues – I know I didn’t WANT to, but I still found I had to pay them. Why? Because getting the work done well is what it’s all about. If you’re good at what you do then your career can have exponential interesting opportunities. If not, well, text your friends about how lame your company is…

    And so yes, I agree, your generation is truly not significantly different then those that came before. You want to be recognized as an individual. You want to be rewarded and recognized for doing something well. You want to learn new things and have exciting and meaningful work. You don’t want to be locked into a ‘career path’ that forces you to conform to the middle (mediocrity??).

    As I write this, I can almost feel myself slipping into my father’s cardigan…and an eerie tingle of a craving for a pipe with cherry scented tobacco. I think I’ll take another slurp from my designer coffee instead.

  10. Jason Avant

    Mr. Krippene, surely you recognize that along with their similarities (eloquently pointed out by others in this forum), each successive generational crop has different values and drivers, and the recruiter that fails to acknowledge, appreciate, and appeal to those is going to be missing out on potential key hires?

    Please reserve comments like those directed at Mr. Charney for the kids that are playing on your front lawn.

  11. Mel Kleiman CSP

    Russ Cheathan had one line in his post that is the most important one facing the Millennial, Don’t overlook it.

    ‘The truth is that corporations need you (or your smarter, more educated counterparts in Asia or Europe) to fill their roles.’

  12. John Burke

    What I find interesting about this discussion thread is the idea that ‘Millenials’ are the first generation to want to be recognized as ‘individuals’, or don’t want a career that goes down a path of mediocrity. Do you honestly think that previous generations didn’t feel the same way? Your parents don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Wow, I’ve finally achieved mediocrity’. Didn’t the generation that came of age in the 60′s start an entire cultural movement based on these ideas? Read ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ and you’ll find that the same ideas can be identified in the underlying themes. The Millenials are not the first generation to seek fullfilment and question the status quo, it’s human nature. While the mediums used to reach Millenials may change, the message essentially remains the same. Prepare yourself for opportunities and then make the best of them.

  13. Martin Snyder

    I’m a big believer that the gut response is often (not always) the right response- for you.

    So your gut was saying something different than the other posters here-so what? Matthew is a talented writer, but I find his position incoherent.

    For example, he writes in one sentence:

    ?Our only shared motivation is, at its heart, to be unique. Try to lump us into a convenient group, and you’ve already failed’

    And yet just a few lines later he says:

    ?By and large, thought leadership is correct in assuming that we do not want to pay our dues and have an unearned sense of entitlement.?

    And a little later:

    ?You better make it about us, not you, in the interview process’

    And again:

    ?The most effective value proposition to the millennial candidate isn’t selling the organization, it’s selling the perception of the role’s prestige against the marketplace’

    And yet again:

    ?Starting out on a career is still the first rite of true adulthood and independence for a huge majority of us, so we expect to be treated as adults.?

    So which is it, are Millennials treatable as a distinct subgroup or not?

    I agree with Matthew?s first point: Millennials are not a group that can be thought of differently than other Americans.

    People tend to overstate differences in culture and understate the similarities of that little walnut at the center of our brains. All people seek prestige. All people seek the top value for their time and efforts. All people want to be recognized as unique individuals. All young people desire the privileges of adulthood (although a great many do not act on the desire). All of those drives are universal.

    The difference with Millennials is that many have never seen a day of hard times. Can you imagine a 19 or 22 year old in 1943 telling his drill sergeant that he does not want to pay his dues, and furthermore, he is not sure about the prestige of his assignment? A young lady in 1932 focused on what the resume will look like in five years? I make a major exception for entire generations of the urban underclass; they have only known hard times, but that?s a discussion for another day.

    Lets see how all this talk looks if the impending R word slides toward the D word. Its going to be as quaint as a 100% stated income 5/1 option ARM.

  14. David Krippene

    Matthew,

    Since I lobbed the grenade publicly, I will apologize publicly. I think I was a bit too harsh in my criticism of your article and for that I apologize.

    I do get weary of the X, Y and millennium thing and the notion of ?it?s all about me?. Obviously I am a little older and am disappointed at the attitude of some of the younger folks, on a daily basis. I am of the school where a person earned their position or rights and is not entitled to them. And, they are earned over a greater period of time. There is no substitute for experience over a ten, twenty or even thirty year period of time.

    All great kids, indeed (please forgive reference), but I caution recruiters to keep it real. I get far too many phone calls from candidates who want to leave their company after a year because the job ?was not what they expected?. Oftentimes it was the recruiter who created the expectation.

    Good work, Matthew, but Britney Spears? I wonder what her resume and references would look like.

    Best of luck,

    DK

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