Is this the future? Don’t bet on it.

Spoiled, shallow and selfish: say hi to the new kid at work

Is this the future? Don’t bet on it.

There has been much said and written lately about the “millennial generation,” the latest group of kids who are about to revolutionize the workplace and the economy. Don Tapscott, the futurist and business professor who’s been rhapsodizing about the potential of technology for decades, is out with his latest book, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World—a 300-page valentine to the teens about to enter the workforce, a group he has branded the “Net geners.”

“The kids are more than alright,” he writes. “As the first global generation ever, they are smarter, quicker, and more tolerant of diversity.” Look at them surf the Internet! Watch them multi-task! They are truly a wonder to behold! Etcetera, etcetera, on and on.

A slightly more nuanced appraisal of this generation comes from Wall Street Journal writer Ron Alsop, in his new book The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. Like Tapscott, Alsop sees the millennials (defined as all those born between 1980 and 2001) as more dynamic, ambitious and tech savvy than any previous generation. He at least nods to their less savoury aspects—their rampant narcissism and poor attention span, for example. But ultimately he figures that it’s incumbent on employers and managers to bend to the whims of this new crop of employees, not the other way around. And that’s convenient, because that’s just what the kids think too!

What makes both books intriguing is the consistency of the portrait of the young worker they present. Both couch their descriptions in only the most upbeat language, but the unmistakable impression is that of a generation that is deeply self-obsessed, needy, ambitious, impatient and undisciplined. Tapscott advises managers that “Net geners” expect “work and fun to be all rolled into one.” If the kids want to blow off a couple of hours in the afternoon to go play volleyball, Tapscott says, you should encourage them to do so because this will allow them to “relax into productivity.” They want to be promoted fast; they want a flexible work schedule, loathe the idea of a nine-to-five cubicle culture; and they’re positively allergic to boredom. They want to be praised constantly; to wear whatever they choose; and they don’t want their bosses, you know, lecturing them and stuff.

As one Steffen Ringelmann, a twentysomething designer in New York City, tells Alsop: “I want to explore, deconstruct and understand my own sense of self through the act of creation.” He then adds with a laugh. “It’s about me, me, me, me, me!”

Get all that, boss? Your assignment is to hire Steffen and to help advance his quest for self-discovery through creation. If you don’t like the sound of that, then Steffen will quit and work for somebody else. And Alsop and Tapscott think that’ll be your loss. The millennials are taking over. Resistance is futile.

Reading these books, it’s tempting to write off the entire generation as a bunch of vain and vacuous prima donnas, but that’s not exactly fair. One of the key weaknesses of this whole business of studying young workers as if they were some exotic species is that it ignores the lessons we should have all taken from our own callow youth. Young people have always thought they were smarter than their bosses, that they deserved more money, more freedom, more responsibility, and more recognition for their efforts. Millennials don’t respect office hierarchy? No kidding. Doesn’t everybody at the bottom of the corporate ladder want less hierarchy? And doesn’t every generation look down at the youngest and lament their lack of direction, their lack of respect and their crazy music?

The authors assume that these immature, self-absorbed young adults, many of whom are barely into their first apartments and have never faced the challenge of a competitive workplace, will remain essentially the same throughout their careers. Yet it’s not at all clear how much of the millennial attitude toward work is due to genuine generational difference, and how much is simple immaturity and inexperience.

But the real significance isn’t in what these books have to say about young workers at all. Most of the observations and recommendations are so general as to be practically useless in the real world. In fact, books like Grown Up Digital and The Trophy Kids aren’t really about young people at all. They are about the baby boomers who read them (and write them). It’s the boomers who raised these millennials, and as Alsop rightly points out, they raised their kids to be steeped in the ethos of self-esteem, praised at every turn, enrolled in dozens of activities to ensure “well-roundedness.” Boomers, who’ve spent their lives terrified of being seen as old-fashioned, never bothered to dwell on archaic notions like perseverance, discipline, focus and sacrifice.

Now, in the workplace, they turn to boomer management gurus who advise them to indulge their young workers just as they indulged their children at home. Yes, this might contradict everything they’ve ever believed about forming a cohesive and productive workforce. But they are reassured that by eliminating rules, chain of command, and doling out praise like penny candy they are simply unleashing the fantastic potential of their little darlings.

History disagrees. History shows that it’s all those old-fashioned values that made North America the world’s most dynamic economy. Experience tells us that naive kids eventually discover a pretty close relationship between effort, discipline and success. One day we discover that advancement and respect flow from hard work, commitment, and not blowing off assignments to go play volleyball. “Relaxing into productivity” is a myth. The world economy is getting more competitive, not less. And the sooner boomer managers face that, the sooner the kids will start growing up.