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Millennials in the Workforce: Identity

Cassandra Rose, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

It’s no secret that the world of work is more diverse than ever. With an unprece­dent­ed five gen­er­a­tions in today’s work­force, peo­ple and cul­ture pro­fes­sion­als face the unique chal­lenge of unit­ing employ­ees in the midst of this gen­er­a­tional diver­si­ty. Age and life expe­ri­ence great­ly impact employ­ees’ expec­ta­tions of work, enjoy­ment of their jobs, abil­i­ty to offer feed­back, and ben­e­fit pref­er­ences, just to name a few.

As the largest and most influ­en­tial gen­er­a­tion in the work­force pop­u­la­tion, mil­len­ni­als are poised to make their marks on today’s rapid­ly chang­ing cul­tur­al land­scape. How­ev­er, despite their cre­ative ener­gy, mil­len­ni­als are often mis­un­der­stood when it comes to work, par­tic­u­lar­ly in regard to iden­ti­ty. As a gen­er­a­tion, mil­len­ni­als have a keen sense of self. When the medi­an-aged baby boomer was born (1955), there were 2.8 bil­lion peo­ple in the world. No inter­net. No glob­al­iza­tion. No cell phones. No 24-hour news cycle. No Insta­gram. No Face­book. No hav­ing 2,000 ​“friends” or 10,000 ​“fol­low­ers”.

In the 50s and 60s, geo­graph­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties were large­ly seg­re­gat­ed; most peo­ple were sur­round­ed by oth­ers who looked, act­ed, and believed quite sim­i­lar­ly to them. The idea of a ​“per­son­al brand” was far from anyone’s mind. The con­cept of a ​“self­ie” would not only have been per­ceived as incred­i­bly vain but also quite cum­ber­some giv­en the size of cam­eras in the 1950s.

This is not the world (Amer­i­can) mil­len­ni­als grew up in. Mil­len­ni­als came of age in a world that evolved as much in one year as it did in the pre­vi­ous decade. By 1988 (the medi­an birth year of mil­len­ni­als), the earth had picked up a cool 2 bil­lion extra peo­ple, total­ing 5.1 bil­lion lives. Life hasn’t been pri­vate for mil­len­ni­als since they were in col­lege, high school, or even mid­dle school in some cas­es. Dur­ing those years, social net­work­ing became com­mon­place and pho­tos of their dai­ly shenani­gans began to be plas­tered all over the world wide web. All of a sud­den, the scope and access of the world expand­ed expo­nen­tial­ly. One’s rep­u­ta­tion was no longer based on long-term rela­tion­ships with­in a tight-knit com­mu­ni­ty; instead, it coa­lesced with the opin­ions of strangers based on cur­so­ry ​“scrolls” of one’s newsfeed.

So, why are millennials seemingly so self-absorbed, vain, and image-conscious?

Well, that’s easy. Remem­ber the movie, The Tru­man Show? It turns out, Truman’s unique real­i­ty of liv­ing his life on dis­play for the world to see fore­shad­owed the future of mil­lions. Mil­len­ni­als are the first gen­er­a­tion to live a ​“Tru­man Show” exis­tence. In that light, it’s under­stand­able that image-man­age­ment has become such a thing, isn’t it?

So, where does that leave us? What is the upside of all this ​“per­son­al brand­ing” and iden­ti­ty-seek­ing? In a glob­al soci­ety, a con­nect­ed soci­ety, an incred­i­bly diverse soci­ety with a boom­ing pop­u­la­tion, indi­vid­u­als pur­sue more than ever to be just that — indi­vid­u­als. ​“Self-dis­cov­ery”, find­ing out who you real­ly are, is seri­ous busi­ness in the lives of mil­lenials. We, the mil­len­ni­als, want to firm­ly estab­lish who we are and what we are about.

Yes, we are incredibly open, tolerant, and most take a ​“you do you” approach to life; but this does not negate the yearning to be unique.

And this pur­suit to define one’s self trans­lates to iden­ti­fy­ing with caus­es, brands, cities, lead­ers, and, yes, employ­ers.

To be a mil­len­ni­al means to be fierce­ly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic. We are a com­mu­ni­ty-ori­ent­ed gen­er­a­tion that strives to main­tain our unique style, voice, and per­spec­tive amidst a sea of oth­ers. This per­spec­tive is matched (if we are liv­ing with authen­tic­i­ty) by what we wear, what we eat, where we spend time, and where we work. If a mil­len­ni­al is going to find a home with an employ­er, that com­pa­ny must be authen­tic and must seek to under­stand and appre­ci­ate the indi­vid­ual they hire. The minute a mil­len­ni­al feels like a num­ber, like their effort and labor are all that mat­ters, they’ll go and press the ​“seek­ing” but­ton on LinkedIn; and when they do make that job change, their 2,000 friends and 10,000 fol­low­ers are going to hear about it.

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