The Workplace Millennial 2.2

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Episode 2.2: Rock & a hard place

The Workplace Millennial feature aims to debunk myths about so-called 'millennials' in the workplace and capture how we - yes, the writers are 'millennials' - actually think, feel, act, respond, work, plan, dream, worry and all the rest.

(This is the second in a series on millennial employees' confidence issues and how to get the best out of your younger employees by helping them be the best they can be. The first part is here, so check it out to understand where this piece is coming from.)

"I had to sell myself hard to get this job. I'm here. Now what?"

When millennials arrive in your company we may appear confident. There are several things you need to bear in mind about that.

Trained to be flash

The main thing is that appearing confident is how we are trained to act. Most of us know that we don’t know much. We feel pretty lost.

However, to get where we’ve got to we’ve had to persuade people from generations older than us that (a) we add value and (b) we’re not too much of a risk. It’s a problem most of us face when entering the jobs market, exacerbate enormously by the drop off in available opportunities following the Great Recession.

Appearing confident is key to the persuasion act. It’s exactly why public school kids are more likely to get past Oxbridge interviewers – we’re literally trained to appear confident in that situation. Same game with job applications and interviews.

You can add to this the general culture that demands that everyone appear as if they had the perfect, Instagram-filtered life - a problem especially for social media dwellers. Everything around us encourages us to present a perfection front.

What do you want: impostor or self-confident?

Then we arrive at work. What else are we going to do but try to maintain the charade? I’m not exactly motivated to come into work on my first day and say:

“Hey, you know how great I looked on paper and in interview? Actually I don’t know jack, so please hold my hand through every little thing I do here.”

Maybe that level of honesty would help, but there is no way I would ever – because of my superiors, my probation period, the 2-year space before I have any unfair dismissal rights, my desire for job security, ambitions for promotion (etc., let alone my self-respect).

A lot of those concerns probably come up for all new employees, no matter their age. The environment in which younger people came into their current role, and the jobs market more generally, may be making it more present-to-mind for us. Or perhaps older people have just had more time to get over it. Either way, there’s a reality to it.

Reality bites

Practically, it means it often feels like any admission of ignorance, lack of competence or need for support would result in a black mark against my name. I have an example that might illustrate, and I know many others like me with similar stories:

Within the first couple of weeks in my first post-university job one of my fellow recent recruits got shouted at for 5 minutes for failing to quite use the right sequence of words on picking up the phone. It had been the first time they answered their work phone, ever, and they were nervous. They had got the point across and the call went fine. Apparently that wasn’t good enough.

Another person had their every email reviewed before sending for six months on the basis that they, in some undisclosed manner, weren’t “good enough.” On asking how they should go about emailing, they got an ear full.

I’ll bet anything that every millennial has similar stories. Maybe the criticisms were all reasonable - that’s not the point. The point is we’re stuck between feeling like we have to look impressive and feeling like, at any moment, someone will realise we’re not impressive and show us the door.

Hanging tough

“So what, toughen up,” you might say. We’ve been trying that and still 52% of us feel like impostors. But even if you’re right, I’d just point out the facts:

  • People aged 18-25 are more than 3 times more likely to be unemployed than those 50 and over (based on Q4, 2016 figures from ONS)
  • Only 50% of my contemporaries were retained at the end of their 2-year training contract (in 2009, down from 90% before 2007) owing to changes to the jobs market
  • Neither of the people from the stories above kept their job

Given that landscape, maybe we are tough? Perhaps even tougher than you. So, maybe let’s look at what we can all change so people don’t fear being found out and can perform to their potential. Maybe that makes sense for your business?