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The kids are alright

Daniel Fontaine on why stereotypical depictions of millennials in the workplace aren’t just wrong, but counterproductive.

When it comes to the generation known as millennials, I’m of the firm belief they’re getting a bum rap. Before I explain why, for the record I’m nowhere near a millennial having just celebrated my 51st birthday.

My views are based solely on my own personal experience working with millennials, rather than me supporting the general narrative which argues this generation is lazy, self-serving, and focused on nothing but themselves.

An older generation saying a younger generation is not as hardworking is hardly new. Many of us have likely experienced sitting around the dinner table, listening to parents and grandparents telling us how much harder life was when they were younger.

You know: they worked long hours for peanuts, had to trudge to school in knee-deep snow, and rarely if ever had money to buy new clothes. But what we’re talking about with millennials seems to go well beyond what I call the 3Gs – general generational griping. No, this has transcended into another beast.

Just ask almost any human resources manager, and they’ll confirm millennials are considered a potentially “risky” hire. How long will they stay with the company? Do they have loyalty to the workplace? What kind of work ethic do they have, glued to their smartphones all day?

The list of negative stereotypes is endless.

As the CEO for a small non-profit organization, let me offer you a contrary and likely controversial opinion: I think an entire generation of Canadians aren’t properly portrayed in the media.

I’ve had the pleasure of hiring a number of millennials over the years. Almost to a person, they have proven to bust all the common myths and stereotypes. In fact, with every new hire I kept asking myself “where is that mythical millennial I keep hearing so much about?” The younger staff I’ve hired over the years have not only helped to make our organization a success, but were an integral part in doing so.

The millennials I know work hard, and are no more or less demanding than my GenX cohort or the baby-boomers that preceded me. However, few ask for big pensions or long-term job security – things much scarcer in workplaces these days.

Rather, they appear more interested in finding opportunities to learn, grow their skills and increasingly take on more responsibilities. They want their work to be valued by senior management and their colleagues, and hope it has both purpose and meaning. Better yet, does it support or solve a broader social or community issue that needs fixing?

The millennials I know are more adaptable to an ever-changing work environment and increasingly willing to challenge the status quo. Not surprisingly, they have also embraced technology in a way no previous generation has done, and are finding ways of using it to make the workplace more efficient.

I fully acknowledge millennials are a creature of 21st Century technology and can only describe global conflicts and economic hardship in terms of what they’ve read in textbooks. However, rather than decry this, we need to celebrate it and incorporate those skills, energy ,and life experiences into the workplace.

Speaking in general terms, millennials appear to find the current 9 to 5 work environment a bit of a foreign concept and incongruent with our digital age. Can you blame them? They’ve grown up in an era where you can work on a project with dozens of other people in real time living in multiple time zones – and have it all happen seamlessly using cloud-based computing.

What previous generation could even come close to laying claim to that small feat?

Many in my generation will no doubt balk at my heaping praise on what I believe is a poorly understood and maligned generation of younger workers. To them, I say you do so at your own risk.

Millennials and their “out-of-box” thinking are the exact ingredients your company or organization needs to prevent you from becoming tomorrow’s fax machine or Blockbuster Video.

If you aren’t already embracing and hiring them in your workplace, you should.

Daniel Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer for a non-profit seniors care organization based in Burnaby. A former weekly civic affairs columnist for 24 Hours Newspaper, Fontaine has been a political commentator on Global TV and CKNW radio. In 2008 he co-founded one of Canada’s most popular civic affairs blogs. In 2012, Fontaine was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for public service.