Did participation trophies in youth sports foster a generation of wimps? Probably not.
By Joseph McCafferty
22 February 2017
Newsflash: Millennials don't stay in their jobs very long. They lack loyalty and focus. And they need oodles and oodles of positive reinforcement.
So say the several surveys and reports that portend to put their finger on the pulse of the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000 and tell us how to relate to these skateboard-riding, texting-obsessed, criticism-adverse, video game junkies with short attention spans. They tell us to throw away the management strategies we've been honing for decades and get ready to do some coddling. Millennials are different, they say, and need a special kind of handling.
I might be bucking conventional wisdom here, but I'm not buying it.
Apart of the difficulties of making broad generalizations about an entire generation of young professionals, I think there is a lot wrong with these studies and their observations. Take this passage from a recent study on millennials in the workforce, specifically on internal audit millennials: "Audit managers often have trouble understanding the work habits of the Facebook generation. One of the common complaints among managers revolves around interview skills. Generally speaking, millennials seem reluctant to engage in face-to-face meetings."
First, about half of regular Facebook users are over the age of 40, so that's already a misleading observation. But I've worked with plenty of millennials in recent years and I just don't see these things bearing out. If anything, millennials have better communication skills than many of us and avoiding face-to-face meetings doesn't seem to be an issue. We should probably all send a few less emails to the person two cubicles away and get off our duffs every now and again and have an actual conversation.
What I'm wondering, then, is: Are millennials really all that different than the generations of professionals that preceded them? Or do young people always tend to have a few quirks that older folks don't particularly understand, whether it's a proclivity for facial hair and smoking a certain herb in the parking lot in the 1970s or taking selfies and chasing virtual Pokemon characters around the parking lot today.
As someone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s under the label of Generation X, I can remember reading articles about the "Slacker Generation," as we prepared to enter the workforce in the 1990s. The thinking back then was that a generation reeling from dealing with the first wave of divorced parents and hooked on MTV didn't work as hard as their baby-boomer or greatest generation parents. We were considered selfish, needy, and lazy. And then a few GenXers organized the Internet, made bookstores obsolete, and pioneered the dot.com boom and suddenly all that slacker talk was history.
The premise of these numerous studies and reports on millennials are all similar. They surmise that millennials, having grown up immersed in technology, gadgets, and participation trophies, get bored quickly and don't have the stick-to-itiveness for long projects or even to stay in the same job for very long. They also generally suggest millennials need lots of flex time, since they value work-life balance more, and that they need lots of positive reinforcement and don't like to be criticized.
The internal audit profession seems particularly prone to want to view millennials differently, just based on the number of studies that address this topic. There are even courses available on how to manage the millennial auditor. It's also true that many young people are entering the internal audit profession. It's likely that large numbers of young people entering a profession could cause some hand-wringing by the older people in the profession, but that has more to do with a generational gap than with any particular characteristics of this specific generation. When millennials age and become those conducting the reports on younger people, it's likely they too will find less-than-flattering characteristics to broadly attribute to the next generation.
The biggest problem I have with most of these surveys is that they attribute characteristics to millennials based on their stated wishes and values of the survey respondents that are probably very true for most of us regardless of what age group we are in. For example, a survey from Bentley University called, "The Millennial Mind Goes to Work," found that "77 percent of respondents said flexible work hours would increase their productivity, while 39 percent said that working remotely would do the trick."
Since they are mostly only surveying Millennials, we don't have comparisons to see if their values really deviate from what members of other generations value. Do we really think that millennials value flex time more than the rest of us? Ask a 45 year-old internal auditor with three kids between the ages of 8 and 13. Other common observations are that millennials want to improve their skills and make a contribution to the company quickly. Who doesn't?
With the idea that millennials value work-life balance more than other generations, it's sometimes implied that millennials don't value monetary rewards, i.e. their paychecks, as much as other generations do. Again, I don't think that's a valid assumption. At least I wouldn't recommend that you test out that theory in your hiring programs, especially in the internal audit profession these days.
The most common observation in these reports and studies is, oddly, about trophies from youth sports. Older folks seem particularly peeved that in the 1990s, it became more common for all the members of a given sports team to get a small plastic trophy, rather than just those on the championship team or those voted MVP. We have to stop talking about this. It's silly. Participation trophies did not ruin the competitive spirit. They did not foster a generations of wimps. It doesn't mean that your junior internal audit staffer thinks he deserves a raise just because he made it into the office every day for a month.
Another common mischaracterization of millennials is that they don't value experience. They are viewed as not having respect for elders that have been in their jobs longer and that they get frustrated with a slow pace of advancement. I don't think that's a millennials problem, that's a young-person problem. Everyone thinks they should be moving up faster when they are at the bottom of the ladder and it's easy to look up the chain of command and wonder how Jim the department head got to where he is even though he doesn't seem to be particularly smart or skilled.
Studies and management tips on how to deal with millennials probably say more about our tendency to want to put large groups into certain categories and make generalizations about them than any real defining characteristics of people born between certain years. It's human nature to make generalizations, but that doesn't make them right. It's dangerous thinking. It makes far more sense for managers to get to know your direct reports as individuals, regardless of their generational label, treat them with respect and learn how to motivate each one, since we all have different personalities, circumstances, and values.
Putting millennials into a box and changing our management styles in an attempt to accommodate them, based on fuzzy notions of their video-gaming habits and the perceived reward system of youth sports during a certain era could be a recipe for disaster. It makes more sense to put faith in the idea that most young people are bright, hard-working, and eager to contribute to our organizations. If you meet or even hire one that's not, don't hold it against all the people born around the same time and take comfort in the fact that the future will be just fine.