Millennial Effects.

Posted by jlubans on March 07, 2016

Caption: Pierre: Early Millennial. Maurice Sendak, 1991.

A February 2016 article from the BBC, “The millennial generation shaking up the workplace rules,” took me to a Homer Simpson quote: “Just because I don’t care, doesn’t mean I don’t understand.” That quote evoked a tintinnabulation leading me back to Sendak’s Pierre book published circa 1990. The date may be significant – if I were a psychological researcher, I would say that it was conclusive and provide a gangbuster of a coefficient of variation – since millennials are defined as humans born between 1980 and 1999. Well, there you have it: Pierre, Early Millennial.
In the BBC article much is made of how businesses are adjusting or being forced to adjust to this generation of workers. I daresay a millennial would not want to be called a worker, but let’s leave that alone.
According to the BBC article millennials are “purpose driven” and are demanding “more flexibility” in how, where and when they work. Some, not all, companies are indeed adjusting expectations about communication and work schedules. Also, millennials are said to require greater trustworthiness of employers. I have to ask, without any snarkiness, When were employees OK about mistrust in the workplace?
One business responded to its millennials with a “corporate day” requiring them to dress up in suits, to address each other by Mr. or Ms., to meet in interminable meetings and be droned at, without let up, by the CEO, the CFO, the COO, etc., (well, they did not do that but they should have) and, in general to act as if they were back in the grey flannel suit era of the corporate 50s.
The boss of this “corporate day” says (somewhat sinisterly) it was to give his employees "a taste of what a lot of the world is still run like."
I’ll take the now decades-old party atmosphere of the Southwest Air corporate get-togethers to which employees fly in from all over to party and to have frank and open discussions with upper management, including the boss. And, at SWA, to dress on the job pretty much as if Casual Friday were everyday, not a special day sanctioned by the corporate chief.
But, I digress. (See much more about how Southwest Airlines was and is miles ahead in living its values in chapters of my book, Leading from the Middle.)
Frankly, I do not know if there is such a thing as a millennial-type. I like to play with the idea in hopes of getting some democratic workplace ideas across. For example, maybe, just maybe, young workers are helping organizations find their tentative ways to a better workplace for everyone. Nor are labor market forces to be ignored as motivators to make firms do nice things. In the software industry there’s keen competition (a seller’s market) to get and retain workers; it is no coincidence that perks of all kinds are laid on for IT workers. Do these perks matter? Does free dry cleaning (pick up and delivery included) really motivate a worker? It’s nice, but unlikely to spur one to come up with the next great app. But, the notion of giving a “guru” designation and elevated salary to someone outside of the corporate suite just might be a very good idea for retaining a worker who loves what she does and has no interest in being promoted to department head or other management position.
Fred Emery (1925 – 1997), the OD pioneer, pretty much said it all when he set out – based on decades of research - what people want from work, what gets them going:
Adequate elbowroom for decision-making
Opportunity to learn at work
Variety in work
Mutual support and respect
Desirable future

These are significant and substantive motivators for any and all workers. Not a one of these could be termed a Herzbergian “hygiene factor” – those items or perks that motivate not.
Absent even one of Emery’s “wants”, the worker finds himself or herself plodding along, not exactly satisfied and not really working at an aspirational level. Fulfill these “wants” and you will have a dynamic workforce. Possibly this is what can be observed in the startup phenom the world over. One worker in a Latvian startup of about 50 or so millennial FTEs – in the software field – responded most insightfully to me. (I’ve edited her quote slightly to smooth out the grammar.)
“In startups there (is) not so much of traditional corporate hierarchy as things are happening and changing fast, so there must be more of proactive approach and personal interest in what is happening (in the) company from every team member. Those values are characteristic not only inside startup companies, but also in (the) startup community in whole. Actually it would be hard to find such an openness and transparency as well as accessibility of ideas, information and mentoring (other than in the) startup community.”
The last line of this quote from the start up culture suggests those of us slaving away in non-start up work cultures still have much to do. Are there takeaways from the corporate response to the millennial culture? I suggest that we take a good look at the things (real motivators) that seem to work for the start-ups. How can we become more flexible? How can we develop “more of proactive approach and personal interest in what is happening (in the) company from every team member”?
If you hark back to Fred Emery, I think you will see how that can be done.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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