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Who are these aliens we call millennials?

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Call them millennials, generation Y or the young adults still living in your basement, this is the generation that is supposedly going to save us all. Yes, this is the generation that received trophies not only for winning in sports, but just for showing up.

The National Institute of Health reports that 40 per cent of millennials got so many participation trophies growing up that they believed they should be promoted every two years, regardless of performance.

Let's face it, these were the kids who were coddled and cuddled by "helicopter" parents and taught that there are no such things as "winners" and "losers" before the age of 12, thanks to well-intentioned sports associations. The impact of this can be proven, I would suggest, by the number of young adults still living with their parents.

According to a recent poll of "emerging adults," more people ages 18-29 live with their parents than with a spouse. Many of these children have grown up in single-parent homes, with their parents' generation having the highest rate of divorce so far. This is the generation that has grown up with technology integrated into every aspect of their lives; try to find one without a mobile device surgically attached to his or her hand.

So who are the millennials? Depending on the source, this group is generally thought of as those born from 1980 to 2000. These are the teens and 20-somethings who are over-confident and self-involved, who expect that life will hand them success just for showing up. It is this empowered generation that frightens the heck out of the rest of us. For baby boomers who grew up in a home that would have displayed the family photo, school photos of each child and someone's military photo, today's middle-class family members have hundreds of pictures in the palms of their hands. Millennials have come of age with their entire lives digitally recorded.

So where did we go wrong? Part of the blame is attributed to our desire to build our children's self-esteem to ensure success in life. Unfortunately, according to research, while kids with high self-esteem did better in school and were less likely to get into trouble, when we boost self-esteem the effect is a natural boost in narcissism. So that cute little T-shirt that promoted your child as a princess or rock star along with your affirmation has resulted in a generation disappointed that the "real world" does not acknowledge their greatness. Research shows that 58 per cent more post-secondary education students score higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than 1982. The effect of narcissism is entitlement; that attitude we see walking into the HR department looking for a job.

Now consider the impact of this new generation in the workplace. Dubbed at times the "me, me, me" generation, they are children of the baby boomers who were known as the "me" generation. Millennials are said to have a prolonged life stage between teenage and adulthood. They live under the constant influence of their teenage peers. A person cannot grow up just hanging around other teenagers -- just ask Peter Pan. To develop intellectually, a person must relate to older people and older things.

Companies are beginning to adjust to millennials' habits and expectations. With low unemployment and baby boomer retirements, millennials are able to use this leverage to negotiate better employment contracts.

The positive side -- all psychologists who fret over the narcissistic behaviour of millennials agree that they are nice. Millennials are more accepting of differences, having grown up in classrooms where children actually reflected society in terms of colour, race, religion, gender, disability and so on.

They are eternally optimistic, pragmatic idealists and have an acronym for everything (LOL). They live off their parents, making them the generation on record with the lowest debt. This is said to possibly be the last large birthing group that will be easy to generalize about. Already sub-generations are emerging within this group, resulting in siblings who don't understand each other.

So what's an organization that employs millennials, or want to attract them to their organization supposed to do? Here are some simple suggestions that may be effective in your workplace:

-- Allow personal cellphone access during work hours.

-- Provide cellphone-charging stations in the lunch room.

-- Build in frequent salary increases for top performers -- once a year isn't going to cut it.

-- Develop a strategic recognition program that provides frequent reinforcement and rewards for desired behaviours.

-- Distinguish top performers from average.

-- Train managers on how to recognize their people for individual and team efforts.

-- In work environments that have downtime -- such as call centres -- allow university students to study/complete homework during these slow times.

-- Implement an employee referral program and pay your people to bring referral employees to the organization -- your team members will tend to stay longer when their friends are also working at the same place.

-- Build some fun into the daily work routine.

-- Develop a program that encourages your employees to bring forward ideas that will improve work processes and reward them for their efforts.

Having managed Human Resources in a workplace where approximately 75 per cent of the employees were millennials, I've seen firsthand how this generation can bring energy and excitement into the workplace. They can also certainly bring headaches and frustration as it sometimes feels like you are dealing with the millennials you have at home.

The millennial living in our house (yes, two gone and one to go) will one day move out. As parents, we can only hope we have prepared them for the "real" employment world. As employers, we can learn a lot from this generation; we just have to watch and listen.

Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a Practice Leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at


The New Greatest Generation by Joel Stein

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 H2

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