The millennial generation: They are us, we are them

There's a lot of loose talk about the new generation being fundamentally different, but that's not the truth

Millennials -- those people born after 1986, aka Gen Y -- will take over the workforce in the next decade, and their arrival will change business radically. Or so I've been told increasingly often in recent months, and not just from vendors using the pending generational shift to sell some new, incomprehensible social tool or to (seriously) peddle their wall-less office furniture.

I heard one CIO tell a group of cohorts that millennials need assurance and feedback 24/7, work very hard but don't like structure or hierarchy, fear working outside a team or managing people, avoid direct communications, and must have everything about everyone exposed to them, from salaries to performance goals. Separately, I heard a mid-30s tech manager complain that millennials were needy, self-absorbed, and not very productive despite working 24/7, wasting much of their day gabbing and canvassing via texting rather than focusing on the work.

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That sounds like a horrible cohort, one who forces managers to be constanty available to address their neediness, can't make decisions or take actual responsiblity, and avoids dealing with other people in a direct, engaged way. I can't imagine that culture accomplishing much that's useful. Yet Silicon Valley prizes and encourages these people, paying them extraordinary sums and pampering them like King Louis XIV's kids. Something's not right here.

Every new generation is supposedly different from those before and will change the world dramatically as a result. Yet somehow the millennials are supposed to be more different. It turns out that they both are and are not.

I've gone through more than a dozen academic studies on the millennials, most of which were done in the time from 2007 to 2010, when the "millennials really are different" meme first emerged. Most say the millennials are basically the same as every previous generation -- it's just that we previous generations forget how we ourselves were. Newly emerged from college, we too were more socially inclined and group-oriented, needing approval from authority figures but believing we were truly free of past biases and thinking than our doddering bosses could possibly be.

Remember, it was the baby boomers who created the silly notion of the New Economy being a fundamental break from decades of business thinking that dented the economy in the late 1990s. On the other hand, the professional "greed is good" cohort of boomer and Gen X financial "wizards" wrought much worse damage in the mid-2000s.

Still several studies noted some differences between millennials and previous generations in terms of degree. They are needier and more self-absorbed, blamed on the "helicopter parent" phenomenon and a culture that increasingly has isolated children from the world in the name of safety (while there's been no rise in crime against children, even if the TV news tells us otherwise). They are also more self-confident -- deespite coming of age in the worst recession in several decades -- attributed to the constant positive feedback ("everyone is a winner") poured on them from indulgent boomer parents and the teachers and helpers they hired.

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