Ask a non-millennial to describe a millennial in the workplace and it will probably be seconds before they mention beanbags, tech startups, flat whites and neediness. You might also remember this video (watched over 10million times on YouTube) in which motivational speaker Simon Sinek cheesed off an entire generation by saying millennials confound leadership, are entitled, have been over-rewarded, demand free food, can't stand change and are not happy.
Now, you can't swing a cat without hitting a millennial. Broadly defined as anyone born between 1981 and 1996 – meaning some are knocking on for 40 while others are fresh out of university – millennials make up a quarter of the global population; in the US, they are the largest generation in the workforce. They are bakers and teachers and delivery drivers, fishermen, lawyers, cobblers, waiters and chief executives. You name it, they do it. To stereotype the entire generation as lazy, narcissistic, entitled and weak employees simply isn’t fair.
I am 31 and whenever anyone reminds me I’m a millennial, my inner self does a little double take: Who, me? As a generational label, it’s been slapped on a whole pile of baggage – baggage that's been knocked about on a long haul flight and which no one wants to claim. So when Radio 4 asked me to help make a programme about millennials in the workplace, I thought it was time to set the record straight. Other generations get such a kick out of teasing us, slating how we work, what we do and the way we are changing everything (for the worse, apparently); I wanted to know what was really going on.
Millennials come from myriad backgrounds but one thing we have in common is that we have grown up alongside the rise of social media. The irresistible distraction of the internet (famously not invented by a millennial), Twitter (not invented by millennials) and Facebook (alright, millennial) shaped our maturing brains. Technology has changed our lives rapidly and dramatically, often brilliantly. Another less brilliant thing we have in common? The 2008 financial crash (also not created by millennials).
When Lehman Brothers investment bank collapsed over ten years ago, life changed for millions of people. The ensuing recession affected everyone – millennials most of all. Robert Joyce is an associate director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). What he had to tell us was pretty alarming.
"What millennials have experienced in terms of their first few years as adults is – at least in the post-war period – unprecedented."
When the recession hit, employment fell and wages stopped growing. Millennials and younger generations were hit hardest. Why? Because if a firm is in financial trouble, they are more likely to axe or reduce salaries for new starters than impact existing employees. After 2008, therefore, younger people were earning a lot less than they could reasonably have expected.
"There's this concept that's sometimes known as 'scarring'," says Joyce. "The initial economic environment you face in terms of the jobs available, levels of wages and that kind of thing can have a persistent effect on potentially your whole life course. Even if the economy recovers, it might still be the case that the young people who started out at that time might never fully recover themselves."
The economic shock, compounded by the subsequent decade of austerity in the UK, means that our generation has experienced the most stressful economic period since the 1930s. According to the IFS, wages today are still lower in real terms than they were on the eve of the financial crisis. It’s an incredible situation.
All of this matters to the way we work because our difficulty in accumulating wealth (pensions have become far less generous, low interest rates mean our savings don’t amount to much, unaffordable housing leaves us with little in the way of assets) has changed what we want out of life. What are we working for if there’s no promise of a comfortable retirement, savings, or a home to call your own? Work is no longer about the future. More and more people are deciding to pursue jobs that they enjoy and which are sustainable, in terms of interest and burnout.
According to Dr Mary Donohue, a social scientist with a focus on evolutionary psychology, the number one reward in the workplace right now is "time away from work and work-life balance".
Dr Donohue’s particular area of research is today’s multigenerational workplace. She told us that a change in attitudes to work could be something to do with what she calls the 'CEO parachute'. When Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) entered the workplace, there was a culture that the CEO could do no wrong.
"No matter what the CEO did, he received his bonus, he received his everything… Now if we go into millennials, they have grown up with leadership with a focus on money, with a focus on title and a focus on shareholder, and in 2008 all of that came crashing down. No family was spared, everyone suffered, and what they learned is you can count on your parents and your friends but you cannot count on a CEO."
Unimpressed with what has come before, millennials are adapting accordingly. Downtime is the new dream. Travelling, setting up your own business, working three or four different jobs, spending more time with your friends and family – these have become important values. And it makes sense, given that the ladder no longer has rungs and besides, you don’t even know what’s at the top.
Dr Eilidh McGinnigle, 34, is a hospital doctor and cardiology registrar in Glasgow. The financial crash happened the year she graduated. "I had taken a year out of my medical degree to do an extra year of research," she remembers. "Probably about 50% of my friends graduated the year before me. They all bought a house and I couldn’t."
Eleven years down the line, Eilidh's still saving for a home of her own. That’s not unusual for millennials (even doctor millennials). We’re reaching the 'anchoring' moments traditionally associated with being an adult – marriage, home ownership – a lot later in life. "Yes," Eilidh agrees, "and that's not my generation's fault. I’m really lucky that I started a job and was offered to pay into a pension from my very first paycheque."
Professor Jeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist at Clark University in Massachusetts, has identified a new life stage that he calls 'Emerging Adulthood'. Because of the economic shock, it is taking young people longer to do traditional adulting stuff, and this causes intergenerational tension. We are being measured by old yardsticks, our progression judged by people who got married in their 20s, had steady jobs and now think there’s something wrong with this new generation who can’t make a decision.
For the BBC programme I spoke to a group of friends, all aged 24, who have been working on their own startup for six years. I visited their office at nearly 9pm and they were all still hard at work. At the helm is Alex Fefegha, who is from Peckham in south London and grew up in care. Rather than 'flaky' and 'lazy', he sees our generation in a different light. "There is a level of resilience that we may have compared to generations before, when they stayed in a job for a longer period of time. That stability was there. Now we see stability as an illusion, so you’ve always got to be ready."
There is one thing that might make the economic future a bit brighter for millennials: inheritance. According to Joyce, the UK's older generations are currently sitting on a very high fraction of the nation’s wealth. Eventually, something will happen to all that wealth. Much of it will trickle down to fortunate next of kins – but that brings another issue. "Inheritance is very unlikely to be distributed equally," he says, "so there’s a very important set of questions about exactly who will benefit from those inheritances. Will it exacerbate or mitigate existing inequalities in that generation? What does it mean for social mobility if young people are more and more reliant on wealth trickling down from their parents?"
For millennials, working life has been defined by that first economic shock. There's enough holding us back already without the added judgement and unhelpful stereotypes, and all things considered, I think we're doing pretty well.
Politically and economically, though, things aren’t exactly stable, and I can’t help but think of the next generation. Young adults entering the world of work are going to face challenges we can’t yet imagine and, like the baby boomers before us, we may be tempted to judge them. Before we do, perhaps we might remember what that feels like and think again. Because stereotypes don’t help anyone.