How Millennials Are Ruining the Workforce

At work, on the playing field, in the world of ideas, young folk aren’t content to take their turn at the bottom of the pile anymore. The results are frightening.

Illustration by Jason Raish

Illustration by Jason Raish

As a boomer, I have a special interest in millennials. It’s the same sort of interest I have in car wrecks: I don’t want to see what’s going on, but I can’t look away. Take, for instance, the cover story that Time magazine had a few months back about how millennials are raising their children. I didn’t read the article. I couldn’t, because the very first paragraph stopped me cold. Here it is, reproduced in full:

On a playground in San Francisco, 4-year-old Astral Defiance Hayes takes a stick and writes his name in the sand. His twin brother Defy Aster Hayes whizzes around their father.

The fact is, I don’t need to know anything more about how millennials are parenting than that two of them thought it was a great idea to name their twin boys Astral Defiance and Defy Aster.

I mean: Who does that?

There are so very many boys’ names out there that aren’t Astral Defiance and Defy Aster. Old-fashioned names like Ezekiel and Joseph and Malachi. Newer names like Ryan and Marcus and Jack. Even names that are silly but super-popular right now and at least sound like names, like Jace and Jayden and Jaxon. Why would anyone hang a 50-ton albatross like Astral Defiance around his own child’s neck?

I can’t stop wondering how Astral Defiance and Defy Aster’s grandparents reacted when their offspring informed them of their new grandsons’ names. How would I react if my children told me they were doing something so rock-dumb? Would I be able to control my instinctive grimace of pain? I probably would, because every day at work, I get practice hiding my expressions of perplexity and disbelief at the odd things millennials do.

I was sitting just the other day at what we call, here in our office, “the newspaper table.” We call it that because it’s where, since time immemorial, our copies of the daily papers get placed each morning. I was paging through the New York Times when a passing intern paused. “What are you looking for?” she asked.

What was I looking for? “I’m reading the newspaper,” I told her.

“Oh,” she said.

I’ve never felt more old.

There’s an Ed Sheeran song lots of millennials are using for the first dance at their weddings. It’s a lovely song, except for this one line: “Darling, I will be loving you till we’re seventy.” Seventy! Seventy is the outside limit of the youthful imagination when it comes to age. Never mind that the average American now lives to be many years older than that — years, I suppose, that are loveless and forlorn. Fifty, 60, 70 — it’s all the same, it’s old, it’s decrepit, it’s stupid, it has nothing to say or do that’s relevant.

Still, I believe the children are our future, so I try to be kind to them in spite of their obliviousness. It helps that I’m not the only one struggling to come to terms with millennials in the workplace. Philly Mag’s November cover package highlighted the pretzels that local companies are twisting themselves into to attract and keep younger workers. Forget about a salary and some health insurance. Kids today want “hardwood floors, greenery and sunlight,” gourmet staff breakfasts, “nap rooms,” ping-pong tables, slides, rooftop lounges and beer on tap. Floor plans are open, with no doors to close or etch titles into. “The modern workplace has got to be a lot more egalitarian,” advised Al West, chairman and CEO of SEI, the investment giant out in Oaks. “If you’ve got offices for more senior people, it creates a hierarchy and gets in the way.” When did “hierarchy” become a dirty word? Hierarchy is the way the world works.

Just look at nature. Young elks tilt at grizzled older elks, and older elks smack them into place. Wolf pups nip at their elders’ necks, and the elders bite back. It’s the same with humans. Baseball rookies get hazed; sorority pledges have to buy their big sisters lattes; new Army recruits get latrine duty. People who know more get to say more. People who don’t know squat are supposed to watch and learn.

But millennials, West notes, “want to be heard and appreciated.” You know what’s awkward from an elder’s standpoint? Being expected to listen to and appreciate people who haven’t earned that right. Consider, for example, John Lim, a senior at Swarthmore College and, until this past fall, a member of its baseball team. A recent article in the independent student newspaper the Phoenix noted that before Lim left the team, baseball was his life. Yet he quit playing the sport for Swarthmore because he reached this sad conclusion: “I think athletics is really bad for this campus. I really do.” And what, pray tell, has convinced him of this? Why, it’s the unfairness of the athlete-coach dialectic: “[T]he relationship on the field between the player and the coach,” he told the Phoenix, “is very much whatever the coach says, you do.” Whatever the coach says, you do. Oh, the humanity!

Can you imagine coaching an entire team made up of John Lims?

It’s technology that’s skewing the picture, of course. My generation was raised on stories and myths about people who trudged their way through the ranks to positions of power: Ben Franklin, John Rockefeller, Oprah Winfrey. Millennial fairy tales are all about disrupters, the young Jacks who slay the old, slow giants: Evan Spiegel, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs. Raised with iPhones in hand, young people scorn the slow learning curves of their elders. Their prowess with gewgaws like Slack and Snapchat has made them our masters; we’re forced to turn to them for information and advice on our devices. (Though a major Slack theme in our office is, “Who has a charger for my device that has run out of juice because I apparently did not anticipate needing to use it at work today, again?”) What seems to escape their notice is that all the tech is just the delivery system. And cool, fancy new delivery equipment doesn’t make what’s being delivered worthwhile.

There was a time when young people were expected to read the classics — books written by old, or even dead, people. Granted, most of those people were white and male, but that alone shouldn’t see their work summarily dismissed. Yet recently, in the ongoing war over whether college students should be permitted to swaddle themselves in fluffy, fluffy cotton balls, the faculty senate at American University in Washington, D.C., voted in favor of a “free-speech resolution” that would require students who demand trigger warnings in classes to provide medical documentation of their “psychological vulnerability.” In response, the students rose up to complain that being required to provide actual proof of the disabilities for which they were demanding accommodation was onerous. Part of the reason the faculty senate took that vote was that the 18- and 19- and 20-year-old students had been calling on the university library to provide warning stickers on the covers of books that contain controversial material. You know, like The Great Gatsby (“gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” according to one Rutgers student), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (“marginalizes student identities,” say kids at Columbia). Students tiptoe out of these feather-lined ivory towers into the office, still cotton-swathed — and they want to be journalists! Do they think they’ll be writing about sunshine and rainbows and puppies, for chrissake? If you haven’t read great works of literature because you find them triggering, how will you write about famine or child rape or serial killers or global warming? What fathoms of the human experience will go unplumbed because gazing into those depths is really, really hard?

IT’S NOT THAT I don’t have anything kind to say about millennials. They are, for example, unfailingly polite. I never see them lose their tempers. In fact, they’re too polite; that’s what makes them hypersensitive to anything they perceive as an insult or slight. It also accounts for their habit of extending text or Slack or email conversations one step beyond what’s normal and natural; they send me something I ask for, I send a “thank-you” response, they send a cheery “You’re welcome!” with a smiley-face or thumbs-up or strawberry-shortcake-slice emoticon. If you added up all the workplace time expended on these superfluous responses, America could double its GNP.

Still, there’s no denying that millennials have the warmest of hearts. On the rare occasions when I tag along with them for after-work drinks, they hover around me like solicitous bumblebees: Do I need a chip with salsa? A glass of water? A pillow for my ancient feet? I can tell they’re a little surprised when I show up at the office each morning: Wow, way to go, old girl! You made it through another night!

It’s not their fault, entirely. They haven’t been exposed to older people very much. Their best friends may be their parents, but since the reverse is also true, their parents haven’t any adult friends. I saw my grandparents every day when I was growing up; they lived with us. My kids see their grandparents five or six times a year. Again, I’m not laying blame. Everybody’s trying to get together, texting and Skyping and emailing about availability. It’s just that families are different these days — smaller, more spread out, less centered on the hearth. Also, if Grandma wants to see me, she can just sign up for Facebook, right?

But when youngsters haven’t ever been exposed to the brutish behavior of elderly boomers — especially boomers not related to them by blood — that behavior can come as a great shock. Sometimes in the workplace, we have to tell you that you’re doing something wrong. Sometimes we raise our voices. Especially if it’s the fifth or sixth or seventh time we’ve had to rouse you from the nap room to tell you that you’re still spelling “separate” wrong, and that there’s this nifty thing called spell-check that would inform you of that if you would only employ it, and that if you don’t start using it now, today, we’re not going to employ you. It’s no swing down the office slide to be told you need to adapt to the structures that are in place instead of having those structures warp to accommodate you. Sometimes there isn’t any trigger warning at all on your annual review.

ANOTHER PLUS IN millennials’ favor: They’re unafraid to publicly challenge their elders, even when it makes them look deeply foolish. Back in October, Germaine Greer, who turns 77 this month and is the author of such seminal works of gender theory as The Female Eunuch, Sex and Destiny and The Whole Woman, gave an interview in which she voiced the opinion that post-operative transgender women aren’t really women. It’s not an opinion she arrived at in light of Caitlyn Jenner; it’s part of a process of pointing out the heavy hand of patriarchal oppression that has occupied her for decades. Back in 1999, she wrote, “The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.” This could be the springboard to an interesting philosophical discussion of identity: What makes a woman a woman, or a man a man? Is gender in the body or the mind, or both? In the perception or the one perceived? Instead, commenters on a Jezebel post about Greer’s statements went straight to nuclear:

Ms. Greer has been a valued voice, but this ongoing transphobia … is disappointing and discouraging. Move into the twenty-first century, please.

Seconded. It’s time for her to sit down and let contemporary feminists speak.

That, or learn something by listening, instead of this constant retrenching.

And then it got better:

Is it awful of me to admit I thought she was an actress rather than a feminist, and was surprised she was still alive?

Judy Greer? I make the same mistake, too.

Pam Greer?

The funny thing is, when an interviewer asked Greer if she didn’t understand how “hurtful” her comments were, she exploded: “People are hurtful to me all the time! Try being an old woman!” Too late. Transgender activists at a Welsh university at which she was scheduled to speak on the topic “Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century” demanded that her speech be canceled. She canceled it herself. Her audience has left the room, and it won’t be back.

That same month, on the very day that then-69-year-old Princeton professor Angus Deaton was named the latest winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, Vox’s Dylan Matthews posted a treatise titled, “Nobel Winner Angus Deaton Is Very Critical of Foreign Aid. The Reality Is More Complicated.” Which led Gen-Xer Michael C. Moynihan of the Daily Beast to tweet a tart link to Matthews’s piece:

I love when omniscient 25-year-old bloggers Voxsplain to newly minted Nobel laureates

I find it immensely heartening that as the Gen Xers mature and we boomers die off, they’re assuming our burden.

BUT BACK TO THAT MATTER of content vs. delivery. In October, Time magazine announced it was acquiring a website with the meaty name “Hello Giggles.” Hello Giggles was founded by, among others, the actress Zooey Deschanel, who that same month announced that she had named her newborn daughter Elsie Otter. As Deschanel explained to Today, she and her husband “both love otters — they’re very sweet and they’re also smart. … They’re wonderful animals.” Elsie Otter, meet Astral Defiance and Defy Aster. And thank your lucky stars your parents don’t love sloths.

Hello Giggles is intended to appeal to millennials. Clearly, Time believes the website is adept at this mission, since it’s paying a reported $20 million for the acquisition. When this news broke, the Hello Giggles team reassured its audience that nothing was changing; despite the new overlord, it would “continue to stand for the same mission we always have: to bring positive, empowering, smart, funny stories and videos to our readers … and give them a safe space to express themselves across the wilds of the internet.”

In my never-ending quest to understand how millennials experience the world, I recently spent some time on Hello Giggles. Understandably, I made a beeline for a piece with the catchy headline “Smart, Perfect Literary Journals for When You Need a Break From Your Web-Surfing Ways.” Among the suggested reads were Okey-Panky (“If you’d like some fiction but you don’t have much time or attention span”), the New Inquiry (“the sharpest, smartest looks at everything gossip to policing to witchcraft” [sic]), and the Literary Review (“one of those print magazines that not only contains [sic again] a wealth of absorbing stories, essays and poetry it [sic three] also looks great. It’s the kind that you leave out on your coffee table as ornament as well as something to pick up while you’re lazing on the couch”).

Thus reassured as to what millennial women are reading, I turned to what they are writing, or hope to write, at least. Imagine how excited I was to see an article headlined “Super Helpful Resources for Budding Writers.” One never is too old to learn. The writer, Stephanie Watson, began her article on a sympathetic note:

Real talk: Being an author is hard! Sure, it’s totally awesome but it can also be super difficult. There are moments when we look at our bookshelves and we’re just like, “woah. There are so many incredible books out there already. How can we compete?”

How indeed. That’s it. Enough. I surrender. Come bury me in one of your shallow, shallow graves, my young friends.

Published as “Point of Order” in the January 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.