By now, you’re probably well versed in the age group know as “millennials,” characterized in the media by wanderlust and hyperconnectivity; digital fluency that runs the gamut — everything from daily “selfies” to freelance work. As a millennial, I wanted to research the category I’ve been lumped into. So I began with the question “What do people aged 21 to 34 have in common?” The answer: not much. At 21, a millennial is likely nearing the end of college, largely unfamiliar with the working world, and is (hopefully) saddled with little or no debt. At 34, a millennial has a career and is married (maybe even divorced) with at least one child. (The average age of first marriage in the U.S. is 27 for women and 29 for men; the average age for first birth has risen along with it: 30 for women.)
Sure, there’s some truth to what you’ve read about millennials, like delayed rites of passage (e.g., living with parents for longer periods, staying in school and putting off joining the workforce), prioritizing careers over family planning — even a trend toward irreligion in recent years. What the media tends to leave out or slant are the reasons for these trends, and perhaps more importantly, millennials who buck them altogether.
The 3 millennials you know and the millions you don’t
On the whole, millennials do believe in following their bliss. Undoubtedly, getting married and having children later in life can lend itself to a longer period of navel-gazing for some. For others, it means extra time in which to cultivate a worthwhile career and build relationships. And neither explanation has found millennials favor with older generations. After all, in popular culture, there are only 3 millennials:
- The starving artist.
- The perk-fueled tech type.
- The silver spoon-fed trust fund babies.
#1 is guilty of wanderlust and wasted time, #2 gentrification and the disappearance of the middle class in major cities (think Dropbox and Airbnb vs. the people of San Francisco), and #3 nepotism, narcissism, and a bloated upper class.
Toward the end of college, my greatest immediate aspiration was to get a job I didn’t absolutely hate — if I could get a job at all — to pay back my mountain of student loans. That’s why every time I read an article entitled “Millennials Want Free Beer and Flex Time” or “Want Millennials? Workplace Perks That Attract the New Generation,” I cringe. I didn’t backpack across Europe after graduation. I didn’t get a part-time job at a bookstore so I could work on my novel and eat ramen. Truth be told, I took the first job that would have me and worked my way into one I actually wanted. Free beer and flex time are great, but for millions of self-financing college graduates who didn’t study engineering or programming (and some who did), they’re pipedreams, not selling points. Many of us just want to be employed. It’s a bonus if we’re doing something we love.
Want to know what millennials are after in the workplace? Stop trying to buy and sell them. Ask. Communicate. At its core, employee engagement still hinges on mobile technology, respect, and, whenever possible, fun — not just free stuff. (But of course, no one — millennial or otherwise — is going to say no to free stuff).