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What Makes Millennials Tick? Try Seeing Them Differently

A millennial’s take on why maybe it’s time to step back and examine how we talk about the next generation of manufacturers.
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Does this sound familiar?

“The young seem curiously unappreciative of the society that supports them. … Sociologists and psychologists call them ‘alienated’ or ‘uncommitted.’ In fact, the young today are deeply involved in a competitive struggle for high grades, the college of their choice, a good graduate school, a satisfactory job.”

Surely it’s from one of the increasing number of thinkpieces bobbing through social media or cropping up in the conference room, attempting to answer the questions: What do millennials want? What makes them tick? With the skills gap looming over manufacturing, there seems to be a race on to discover the secret.

But the quote above is not about millennials. It’s from an issue of Time from 1967. We’ve been here before. So what’s changed?

Labels Hurt More Than Help

The labels have, for starters. “Millennial,” as is well-known by now, refers to young people who were born in the 1980s and began entering the workforce around 2000. For many, the word evokes just the sort of image described in that nearly 50-year-old quote from Time. But does it reflect reality?

In her essay, “Against Generations,” Rebecca Onion reflects on the study of generational relations through time and how our label-oriented ideas about generations so often get it wrong, serving more to confirm our own prejudices than to build our understanding. Thinkers on the “generational question” often cherry-pick examples to represent the entire age group when what they’re really describing is a social class—in the case of the millennial stereotype, a certain young white middle class. Ms. Onion cites research indicating that the stereotype tends to break down as soon as it’s applied to African American or Latino students or those of lower socioeconomic class.

She quotes French historian Pierre Nora as summing up this way: “The generational concept would make a wonderfully precise instrument if only its precision didn’t make it impossible to apply to the unclassifiable disorder of reality.” There’s a lot more that goes into who we all are than when we were born. Generations aren’t monolithic.

Labels themselves may be inaccurate, but it’s how we use them that’s the real issue.

Keeping Millennials at Arm’s Length

Maybe labels wouldn’t be so bad if the stereotypes they reference weren’t used to put people down. Ms. Onion enumerates the ways: “Millennials, consultants advise prospective employers, feel entitled to good treatment even in entry-level jobs, because they’ve been overpraised their whole lives. Millennials won’t buckle down and buy cars or houses, economists complain; millennials are lurking in their parents’ basements … tweeting and texting and posting selfies and avoiding responsibility.”

Focusing on the ways millennials “aren’t us” can end up becoming a perpetual exercise of finger-pointing. In the end, it just keeps them at arm’s length at a time when manufacturing is in great need of new talent.

Before going further, I have a confession to make: I am a millennial. And like other millennials, I got to working age just about the time the economy tanked. The 2010 Pew survey, “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next,” explains what that looked like a few years ago. While older age groups were working full time by 2010 at about the same proportion as they were before the downturn, the number of full-time workers among my age group had dropped by 9 percent. Meanwhile, 14 percent of young adults who had managed to hold down full-time jobs by that point still reported being financially dependent on their families. With all that, a third of young adults said they couldn’t afford post-secondary education; an additional third said they didn’t have the time.

It’s easy for us millennials to lose faith in the way of life that invests in cars or houses, in the job market that seems all-too-quick to cut wages or shed labor for profit. Some of us watched our parents’ retirement savings melt away after 2008, watched them lose their jobs after working at the same company for years.

But pessimism isn’t the inevitable result. Given an entry point into manufacturing, young people do seem to respond positively to opportunities they see. Students are more convinced after being exposed to manufacturing that there’s potential for them in it. Millennials already in manufacturing are participating in outreach to their peers. Young entrepreneurs are starting up their own businesses to meet industry needs that they see. Conversely, established manufacturers are partnering with educators to invest in training and professional development.

Clearly, it’s not the case that millennials in general are simply inattentive to or uncaring about the issues facing manufacturing. So, back to the burning question: What makes millennials tick?

Being Instrumental

“Younger people today think more than their elders generally did about what they want out of life.” That’s what Tony Staub observed after changing the way he approached prospective employees at Staub Machine Inc. “They consider—more than I ever did—things like time off, balancing work with the rest of their life, and the appeal, health and safety of their working conditions.” This gels with surveys like a recent one from Deloitte, which indicates that many millennials bring different levels of trust in accepted business models and various beliefs about the purpose of business.

From my perspective, these cases all line up to suggest that what makes millennials “tick” could be distilled in the desire for security and purpose in our work. These concepts—security, purpose, work—will mean different things for different people, but one way to paraphrase that desire could be this: We don’t want merely to be instruments in the hands of our employers; but we want to be instrumental in our work.

Get to Know Us

So much of the clamor over millennials inevitably descends into platitudes that mean very little in the end and serve primarily to confirm people’s preconceptions. Moving forward, it would be great to see fewer thinkpieces and more conversations between manufacturers and the young people in their employ or in their communities. (MFG Day, coming up in October, would be a great time to act on such a plan.)

It’s weird being part of a group that some manufacturers seem to view as a mysterious, abstract force, a problem to be solved, as if we weren’t available for interview. But we—millennials—don’t have to be a mystery. We are flesh and blood (even if part of us is also digital). We’re not so bad, once you get to know us.