Volume 18, Number 12 -- March 23, 2009

As I See It: Generation Gap

Published: March 23, 2009

by Victor Rozek

File this one under "just when you thought you'd seen everything." As the millennial generation comes of age, the 76 million children spawned by industrious baby boomers are entering the workforce. But unlike past generations, they are not coming to the workplace alone. They are bringing their mommies and daddies.

Reliable sources report that corporate mangers and HR departments are being monumentally annoyed by Boomers who accompany their children to job interviews, review their job offers, intervene on their behalf in salary negotiations, and badger the boss when their nestling fails to be promoted. And they can be irritatingly insistent.

Danielle Sacks, writing for Fast Company, reports that "Last year, when a 24-year-old salesman at a car dealership didn't get his yearly bonus because of poor performance, both of his parents showed up at the company's regional headquarters and sat outside the CEO's office, refusing to leave until they got a meeting." Saner minds prevailed, and they didn't get a meeting with the CEO. What they got instead was a meeting with security which, quite appropriately, escorted them out of the building.

Much has been written about narcissistic boomers raising spoiled, self-indulgent children. And why not? More than any other generation, boomers rode the crest of the American experience. They flourished during a time when middle class jobs were plentiful and well paid. Healthcare, education, and housing were affordable. Sun tans were healthy, energy was cheap, credit was abundant, ecological systems were not noticeably collapsing, and everyone thought the party would go on forever. Being the model of self-indulgence themselves, the boomers assuaged their guilt by showering their nippers with toys. Cars, clothes, computers, flat screens, iPods, cell phones, Wiis; the millennials got whatever they wanted (whether they worked for it or not), all the while being told how wonderful they were.

For millennials, the taste of failure was unfamiliar. Coincidentally, school standards fell, allowing kids to graduate with grades they did not earn, while parents were quick to challenge any teacher who dared reprimand or flunk their progeny. High school transcripts were considered so unreliable that many universities began distrusting reports of glowing grades. As a result, when these kids enter the workforce, they are "simply stunned when they get any kind of negative feedback." So says Cindy Pruitt, a professional development and recruiting manager. Sacks writes that one of Pruitt's summer hires broke down in her office after being told his structure on a memo was "a little too loose." Now, for most of us having "loose memo structure" is not career threatening but, said Pruitt, "I practically had to walk him off the ledge." An act of kindness to be sure, because she probably wanted to push him off the ledge.

According to beleaguered managers, millennials are only comfortable receiving positive feedback. They want it early and they want it often, and when it is lacking, watch out for Mom. After a 22-year-old was denied a promotion, "his mother called the human resources department the next day." In fact she called 17 times and left increasingly shrill messages: "You're purposely ignoring us" or "you fudged the evaluation" and then "you have it in for my son." If the company didn't have it in for her son before, they certainly did after.

Hard to know when it all started. Maybe with Nathaniel Branden, the groundbreaking psychologist who began the Self-Esteem movement in the 1970s which, like many worthy ideas, was soon twisted by lesser minds beyond all recognition. Chalk it up to unintended consequences. Brandon wrote extensively about the value of self-esteem in human development. Self-esteem, he argued, was essential to psychological well being, achievement, and healthy relationships. It necessitated six practices: self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living consciously, living purposefully, and living in integrity. Note that these "practices" require that an individual make moment-by-moment choices and has a profound commitment to a disciplined course of action. Thus, self-esteem can be nurtured, but cannot be provided by outside sources such as parents or teachers.

But somewhere along the line, a great many parents and educators came to believe that the best way to nurture self-esteem was to ensure that children not be allowed to fail. And since failure is a frequent by-product of competition, competitive situations were defanged so that losers could feel good about themselves. In little league sports, for example, everybody got to play and, win or lose, everyone was awarded a trophy. From a young age, kids were taught that performance and reward were not linked. Not coincidentally, it was about the same time that fathers started haranguing coaches about playing time for their "stars."

In school, kids grew up being complimented for everything including putting their shoes on the correct foot. When they got into trouble, parents interceded, and teachers who dared discipline kids got into hot water. By the time millennials went off to college, the explosion of personal communication technology made it easy for parents to keep in touch with their kids no matter where they were. Just when young people should have been establishing their independence, they found it difficult to break away from parental influence and easy to rely on it. Sue Shellenbarger, writing for the Wall Street Journal online, reports that "a study at Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT, set for release at an August meeting of the American Psychological Association, found college freshmen are in contact with their parents more than 10 times a week." That this is a topic for psychologists should serve as a cautionary tale.

Hiring companies are just the latest targets of boomer angst. Shellenbarger recounts the dismay of a recruiter. "It's unbelievable to me that a parent of a 22-year-old is calling on their behalf," says Allison Keeton, director of college relations for St. Paul Travelers. After taking many calls from parents "telling us how great their children are, how great they'd be for a specific job," she's started calling this generation "the kamikaze parents--the ones that already mowed down the guidance and admissions offices" and now are moving into the workplace.

For their part, corporations find themselves coping with four dissimilar generations of employees. They are looking for ways to help them understand each other, while adjusting traditional practices to accommodate an increasingly needy workforce. This being America, they turned to inter-generational consultants in the hope of finding feel-good solutions. Why the other three generations have to be subjected to forced encounter groups is not clear. Maybe corporations could save themselves some money by simply giving the problem kids a time out. Better yet, send the parents to bed without their martinis.

The whys of parental intervention are as complex as individual families, but there are a number of theories. Perhaps boomers simply forged strong and lasting relationships with their children. Perhaps their offspring are hapless and unable to stand up for themselves. But the theory I like best (since I know a number of boomers with dependent adult children) is voiced by Shellenbarger. "Parents may fear kids will never leave the nest and want to give them a push." Statistics support the fact that more adult children are staying home longer. The Census Bureau says "11 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 still live with their parents, up from 8.7 percent in 1980." And with the economy in the tank, more kids will find home-cooked meals and laundry service a pleasant alternative to homelessness.

Ultimately, whether the children of boomers are so unprepared for life that they need their parents to run interference for them; or their parents simply want to ensure their kids get the best possible break, misses the point. As a friend of mine who facilitated personal growth workshops for young adults was fond of saying: "Adults don't have Mommies and Daddies; they have ex-Mommies and ex-Daddies." Perhaps the best we can say is that although all millennials may not have had a happy childhood, a number of them appear to be having a long one.

The notion of an extended period of almost-adulthood during which grownup responsibilities are postponed is a relatively modern invention. Things weren't always thus. In 1793, William Parker joined the British Navy at age 11. A year later, he had his first taste of war. By age 20, he was captain of his own ship.

As far as we know, the Admiralty wasn't pressured by his parents to give him the promotion.

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