“Millennials care deeply about the world. We care about our lives and we want to put them to good use.”
The dawn of the digital age carries so much promise. Young people – so-called ‘millennials’ – living in the wake of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates’ glory have the world at their fingertips. Constantly connected, we are often perceived with a curious wariness by our internet-cautious elders. They arch their eyebrows at our Facebook addictions and question our desperate need for reliable wifi.
We are products of the digital revolution. Yet why does it sometimes feel as though we are the ones responsible for the smartphones in our hands, for the neverending sprawl of the world wide web? Have our parents forgotten that it was their generation, not ours, that invented the internet?
I’m sick of hearing that millennials are too reliant on technology, as if it is somehow our fault that we chose to be born at this time and take advantage of new tools at our disposal.
There is a lot of dangerously negative discourse circulating about young people. According to popular opinion, we are lazy, arrogant, entitled, unwilling to work hard and reckless with money. Why this war of words? Why are we stripping young people of self-worth instead of empowering them to do better?
I used to believe some of this discourse, thinking that perhaps it did apply to some people in my generation but that I was a rare gem willing to work hard among my lazy, ungrateful peers. I was nearly duped.
I am surrounded by passionate, motivated individuals. My peers are searching for meaning in their lives, desperate to invest their time and energy into something that will make this world a better place.
At university, this desire to learn and share knowledge was celebrated, encouraged. It was the norm.
Entering the corporate world was a harsh wake-up call. There’s nothing like the four walls of an artificially-lit office to turn your fresh-eyed idealism into grim denial.
Is this what all those years of education were for? To sit chained to a desk all day, working on an abstract task that seems to have no real-world impact other than to line someone else’s pockets? Okay, a job lines my pockets too – but at the expense of what? My freedom? My individualism? My happiness? I thought I was meant to be trading my time and skills for money – since when was my identity for sale, too?
The love club
You see, the problem is, millennials grew up under an illusion of peace and prosperity. Poverty, racial tension, unemployment – these were all topics reserved for history class or social studies. These misfortunes happened to other people, not us. We were the blessed ones. From the moment I started primary school until the moment I left university, I was whole-heartedly encouraged to be an individual. “Do what you love” was the mantra I lived by.
I was given the freedom to study subjects I enjoyed, to foster beliefs, to formulate opinions. I was taught not to judge my fellow peers based on their religion or personal beliefs. I was raised to embrace new opportunities and to follow my heart. By the time I reached university, I was able to attain a whole new level of autonomy. For the three years it took to get my degree, I not only learned English literature and French language – I learned how to work independently, in a way that suited me on a personal level, and thanks to that freedom, I thrived.
I finished university on a high, having learnt so much about myself. I knew that I worked better first thing in the morning. I knew I was more creative if I could exercise outside once a day. I knew that striking a balance between hard work and freedom allowed me to achieve higher grades and push my brain further. I felt free and full of opportunity.
And then I got a job.
After spending my whole life encouraged to be an individual, to think critically, to be non-conformist, I entered an environment where all of these traits were null and void. The words freedom, individualism and creativity take on a whole new meaning when you start being paid for your work.
I was unaware of this at the time, but now that I look back, I realise I hung up all of my personal thoughts and beliefs with my coat when I entered the office, and picked them back up again when I left. Between the hours of 9 to 5.30, I was no longer Jess O’Connor the individual, I was Jess O’Connor the employee.
There’s no ‘i’ in job
It’s amazing how quickly your brain suppresses critical thought when you are eager to please and to fit in. To conform. It’s only now, nearly three years since leaving university, that I have started to question – and I mean really question, not just cry into a glass of wine on a Friday night – just how problematic the current corporate norm is.
I recently quit my second office job post-university. The main reason I resigned was because Tom and I made the decision to dedicate our time and money to travelling for a few months. We moved to the other side of the world to see the other side of the world, yet we couldn’t help but noticing that all we’d seen was office walls and computer screens.
But as soon as I handed in my resignation, I realised with a profound sense of urgency that I never wanted to end up in this situation again – trapped in a job I wasn’t passionate about and that I didn’t believe in. At least not without good reason.
Some of you might be thinking I can only say this because I come from a privileged position. In ‘real life’, you are thinking, one must work – one must earn money. That’s just the way it is.
But you forget that millennials have been raised since they could read and write to protect their freedom of speech and thoughts. You forget that we have been armed with the tools to CHALLENGE the way it is. Yet how is it, that somewhere between graduation and 9-5 work, we’ve been told a different story? That personal freedom is no longer an inalienable right, it is a privilege. And a privilege you have to earn.
You’ve raised us too well, parents and teachers. You’ve taught us too well. We are too smart, too knowledgeable, too well-educated to trade in our critical thought and creativity for an office job that doesn’t even allow us the freedom to take a lunch break when we choose to. We’ve spent all our lives learning how to feed ourselves, and now we can’t eat when we want?
We are too smart to be corporate clones..
Do you know what they should have taught us more about at school? The power of PROFIT.
Millennials are restless and reckless because we weren’t raised to sell our soul for money. We were raised with great values and ethics, with endless optimism about the world at our feet. We were armed with passion and self-belief. Only to have it shattered when we realised that money really does make the world go around. And that critical thought is only encouraged at work when it has a direct impact on the company’s bottom line.
It’s no wonder that more and more young people are suffering from depression. After starting work I remember noticing that I cried more, ate more and exercised less. I put this down to the stress of change. Only this pattern didn’t stop, it just got worse. Now I realise that there have been times that I have been deeply depressed – some as recent as earlier this year. Only I was in denial because depression didn’t align with the strong identity I had forged for myself as a child and teenager.
How could I be depressed and apathetic when I was once the girl who believed?
Problems and solutions
I realise now I’m not alone in my distress. Outside of work, I talk about these issues with someone nearly every day. Only it must be noted I find it hard to forge genuine friendships with colleagues, for fear of revealing that my personal self is different from the professional facade I must maintain five days a week, eight hours a day.
Millennials care deeply about the world. We care about our lives and we want to put them to good use. We want to be happy, we want to be socially responsible, we want to lead careers that have meaning. We’re just trying to figure out how. We leave our homes, our jobs, our sense of security to travel the world in search of what we have lost – the freedom and opportunity of our youth.
I think a step in the right direction is to try and see through some of the corporate bullshit that dominates employment discourse. Tell me, when is the last time you were truly honest in a job interview? When your prospect employer asks you what you want to do in five years, do you give them an honest answer or a carefully constructed version of reality?
In our desire to be employed, our desire for job security, we trade authenticity and truth for carefully constructed white lies. But how long does it take before the lies become your truth? Before you are so reliant on your salary, on your employer, on the status quo, that your view of the world is no longer one of hope and optimism but fear and anxiety?
Five corporate norms that need to change
1. Tailor your CV
The first thing I was taught when I started applying for work was to tailor my CV to suit the company and the job description. This is an important skill, but only if you can be authentic. It becomes problematic if you start weaving white lies to subscribe to the company’s values. This puts you on the back foot from the get go – immediately you are drawing the line between your personal beliefs and your professional persona. This approach works for some people, but personally I find it exhausting. I look for workplaces that celebrate individuality and are interested in the person as a whole, not just their skill set.
2. Be honest – to a point
After stripping the soul from your CV and repositioning your values to match those of your prospective employer, you are then told to be honest in the interview and avoid telling lies. Again, it is difficult to be authentic. By this point you hardly even question this advice because you’re already confused about what is truth and what is not. You’re so focused on ‘winning’ the role, on pleasing your prospective employer, that suddenly authenticity becomes rather irrelevant.
The recruitment process often feels like a game, where the contestants (employees) go through certain motions to impress the gamemasters (employers). Everyone knows that a 21 year old fresh out of university doesn’t know exactly where they want to be in 10 years time, yet employers ask this question anyway, and the interviewee is expected to provide an answer that proves their suitability for the role. It’s exhausting.
3. Do not reveal personal information, such as political opinion
Believing in something is so overrated. You know those three years you spent reading about feminism at uni, or all of those TED talks you watched on economic inequality? Don’t talk to your employer about those, lest he or she judges you having an opinion on anything other than work.
When you are employed by a company, you become a representative of that company. This is where the line between private and professional starts to get blurry. Could your personal beliefs harm your professional career? Is it worth shelving your beliefs for a job? I think it is important to pay attention to your intuition here. If a job requires you to suppress what makes your heart sing, it probably isn’t the right fit.
4. Don’t ask for what you’re worth
Remuneration. This is a tough one for millennials who have obtained an expensive tertiary education. Our generation is arguably the most educated generation in history. An incredibly high number of people go on to do some formal training after school. Yet this is rarely met with adequate remuneration.
In fact, if you have a job, you are considered one of the lucky ones. The global recession has left many young people drowning in student debt. Wages do not seem to have increased in line with the cost of education and the job market is more competitive than ever. This makes it hard to ask for what you’re worth. Try to remember that you didn’t go through tertiary study for nothing – you do have plenty to offer, and you deserve to be remunerated appropriately.
5. Prove yourself
You’re offered a job – success! Look at you go. Now the next step is to prove your worth. This is most commonly referred to as “putting in the hard yards”. You have to put your head down, work hard and conform to the status quo, and then maybe a few years down the track you’ll be able to start reaping some of the benefits.
I think companies need to move beyond using time as measurement for capability. People progress at different paces. Some people are ready to take on more responsibility after mere months; others need more time. The idea that you have to be a certain age or at a certain point in your life to progress in your career is restrictive and old-fashioned. It holds individuals back from fulfilling their potential.
Stepping out of the millennial stereotype
I find it incredibly sad how the media tries to put millennials in a box and label us as ‘other’. We are portrayed as being irresponsible and reckless, with our YOLO culture and txt speak, as if we couldn’t possibly offer anything of worth to a company. What on earth did we spend all that time and money educating ourselves for? To drink ourselves into debt and sleep through class?
This negative discourse will not help our generation face challenges or overcome problems. It is stifling and depressing, when what we need most is optimism and courage.
What does it say about the state of humanity when people refuse to put their faith in future generations?
Contrary to the millennial stereotype, I am not lazy, irresponsible, reckless or arrogant. But I do think I know better. The corporate norm needs to change. I want to work hard and earn a fair salary. I want to love my job and agree with my company’s values. I want to be respected and valued so I don’t feel as though I’m sleepwalking through life and offering nothing of any importance to the rest of the world.
I’m aware that there are some employers out there that understand this and are working to shift the status quo. But if we wait for everyone to wake up and realise there’s a better way, we’ll lose a piece of ourselves in the process. How long can we afford to wait for the average company to catch up? How can we take our future back into our own hands and regain our self-confidence and self-worth?
I don’t have the answer. There’s no right or wrong way forward. I understand there are still bills to be paid, families to feed. We all need to turn a profit. And job security is by no means unimportant.
But the very least we can do is stop lying to ourselves, and to our peers. In order to make positive change, we must face up to what is not working, especially if that means challenging the norm. We need to take the private conversations we have in the pub on a Friday night public. Our generation is at a high risk of being overwhelmed by apathy if we don’t start taking small steps towards positive solutions. The world’s problems are too big for us, but together, there’s hope for a better status quo.
Millennials are not worthless, ungrateful or entitled. We are intelligent and hyper-aware – but let this be our strength and not our weakness.