On dealing with millennial students

As it turns out, millennials are complex, which explains the wide variety of views about them. Indeed, the most interesting fact about millennials is the paradoxical nature of their character – a tension between opposites that must be reconciled. This tension presents a challenge, not only to millennials themselves, but to those trying to understand and manage them.

Ambitious but lazy: There is no clearer evidence for millennials’ entitlement than the discrepancy between their ambitious aspirations and their lukewarm work ethic. Since much of Gen Y has been persuaded – first by overprotective parents, then by grade inflation and the unrealistic promises from universities – that their high expectations would eventually translate into actual achievements, it should come as no surprise that millennials are less interested in working hard to achieve them. Unfortunately, millennials have bought into the idea that the cause of success is high self-belief; not discipline, self-knowledge or humility. This keeps their hopes in their (self-perceived) talents intact, as if sooner or later their exceptional potential will be discovered, even if they don’t devote much time to harness it.

Hyper-connected, but self-obsessed: Although the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has led to the suggestion that millennials are incredibly sociable, the reverse is probably true. Millennials are hyper-connected, but they display little interest in others except as an audience. As the YouTube slogan suggests, their main ambition is to broadcast themselves, even if it requires collecting disposable friends and engaging in inappropriate self-disclosure with strangers.

Superficially, this phenomenon may be attributed to the social media revolution, but it’s probably the other way around: the power of social media is just highlighting how vain we have become. Indeed, narcissism levels have risen steadily during the past few decades, making millennials more self-obsessed than their predecessors. For example, in the 1950s, 12% of high-school students perceived themselves as “an important person” – by the 1990s, 80% did. As Jean Twenge’s seminal studies demonstrate, milllennials are much more Gen Me than We. In the US, narcissism has increased at the rate of obesity and is the main explanation for the apparent extraversion of millennials – it’s exhibitionism and attention-seeking, but camouflaged as sociability.

While narcissism has a bright side, it is still problematic: narcissists struggle to form intimate relationships, they take credit for others’ accomplishments, and behave aggressively when confronted with negative feedback or rejection. They are impulsive and driven mainly by instant gratification, which explains the success of hook-up apps like Tinder or sexting apps like Snapchat.

Nonconformist but materialistic: Although Gen Y is somewhat less materialistic than Gen X – at least in America, where levels of materialism seemed to have peaked in the late 80s – they remain very interested in money, status and expensive things. However, this obsession with bling contrasts with their nonconformist nature. Indeed, Gen Y is more individualistic, rebellious and independent than past generations, except for their desire to fit in. As a result, millennials are trapped in a vicious circle: on one hand, they want to disrupt the system; on the other hand, they are more afraid of rejection.

This is good news for advertisers and marketers. Gen Y are more likely to define their identity through associations with brands, products and their ambassadors. Unsurprisingly, millennials love brands that empower them to feel like outlaws, disruptors or social hackers – think Diesel, Converse, or Red Bull. This is also consistent with the glamourisation of entrepreneurship, an attractive career path for Gen Y because it is simultaneously counter-conformist and socially desirable. Another interesting paradox is that despite their self-professed individualistic nature millennials are more homogeneous than any other generation.

Hard to motivate, but more engaged: Although the above would suggest that millennials need to tick several boxes before they are fulfilled by their careers, the evidence indicates that they are more engaged and satisfied at work. At first, this may seem puzzling: how can a generation with over-the-top aspirations and delusional goals be happier at work, especially when they are disadvantaged vis-à-vis older, more experienced, piers, and less successful than them? The answer is that Gen Y sees work as less central to their lives, and that they value work-life-balance more than other generations do. Ironically, this makes millennials’ demands and standards lower – when you see work as “just making a living”, you expect to find meaning in other areas of live (eg education, relationships, or hobbies).

Millennials believe in fun rather than work, and, accordingly, they expect to have fun at work. This is why Google, Microsoft and many other firms have transformed their offices into playgrounds, and why many employers have had to restrict access to social media sites at work. That said, the news isn’t all good. Even among millennials, only a minority of people are fully engaged at work and data suggest that in certain parts of the world engagement levels are lower among millennials than their predecessors. In short, hiring more millennials won’t necessarily boost engagement at your workplace.

So, how can we manage millennials? This question has been answered too many times, but rarely attending to the complex nature of millennials’ profile. If managers are interested in attracting and keeping millennials at work, they must first understand them, which requires time and effort. Relying on stereotypes won’t help: they are overly simplistic and inaccurate.

It is also unwise to rely on intuition, as many of the inferences made about millennials are not a function of their generation, but their age. Older generations have always complained about young people and they always will, despite the fact that they were once remarkably similar. Even generalisations based on scientific evidence are unlikely to help, because they undermine important individual differences within a generation.

The fact that generational differences exist does not imply that they are manifested in every member of that generation. It should be noted that there are national and cultural differences in all of the traits and values described above, yet we don’t treat individuals from a given culture according to those average differences unless we are prejudiced. Differences between generations are just like differences between cultures or nations.

The fundamental rule for managing millennials, then, is that they are individual human beings: not identical to anyone else, but remarkably similar to other individuals of any generation

By Diwata Ruiz


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