Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number

Jan 29, 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.

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