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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

What Millennials Really Need (Hint: It's Not Feedback)

These days, you can’t make it through a piece of media content on Millennials in the workplace without coming across the same, solemn prognosis: “Need for constant feedback.”

Houston, we have a problem here. It’s not the prognosis itself that bothers me as a Millennial (it’s accurate) so much as the dismissive, condescending, and ultimately misguided belief that it always belies: My generation’s need for constant feedback is ultimately founded in narcissism, self-absorption, or some other greater failing of our overall character.

Stop to consider this for a second: Maybe workforce-age Millennials haven’t figured ourselves out yet. And no, I’m not talking about existential ideas of “What fulfills me?” or “What is my purpose in life?” I’m talking about fundamental, concrete questions every professional asks oneself: “Am I good at what I do?” “Am I meeting expectations?” “Where are my professional weaknesses?”

Recently, a New York Times feature on Millennials concluded with this wry quip from a group of marketing researchers: “No one truly understands millennials. Not even millennials.”

Isn’t this indicative of a generation that is not so much narcissistic as we are uncertain? Everyone’s calling for humility, but what I see is a need for direction. On a professional level, there is compelling evidence that Boomer and Gen-X mentorship is the cure for bridging the generation gap and “fixing” Millennials, for the betterment of all parties involved.

To that effect, here are the three biggest reasons we Millennials need elder generations to adopt and mentor us in the workplace.

1. We’ve Come of Age During a Time of Massive Uncertainty

9/11. A Great Recession. A taxpayer-funded bailout. Two lingering wars (never mind the War on Terror). Record-low approval ratings for Congress.

I could go on, but the point here is that my generation has been uniquely, dramatically shaped by the major events (mostly lowlights) of the new Millennium. Moreover, we are entering an increasingly globalized world where everything is constantly changing and the idea of a “heroic” public figure seems as antiquated as a $20 CD.

The result: We have no reason to trust institutions, and that goes for employers as well.

The proof here is in the pudding. At 28, I can count on one hand the number of peers I know still working for the same employer they joined upon graduating college. Contrast that with my Greatest Generation grandfather, who spent his entire career working for Heinz.

Small wonder that Gen-X journalist Rick Newman recently presented one of the fairest appraisals of my generation I’ve yet heard: “Cynical, untrusting and mercenary,” that is, the traits we consider “necessary to survive.”

Look: We watched the CEO of the world’s sixth-large energy company refuse to accept blame for a devastating oil spill. From his yacht. Yes, we badly need respectable professional mentors.

2. We Are Conditioned to Expect a Constant Feedback Loop

It’s no secret that Millennials are the most educated and tech-savvy generation in history. Our generation (myself included) entered law school in record numbers, completed unprecedented Ivy League applications, and now shoulder monumental levels of student debt.

Why? Our parents drilled into us a desire to succeed, to set ourselves apart, to become the unique, special snowflakes we’re rapidly learning to be as real as Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

The need for constant feedback, on a subconscious level, goes back to these origins. Studies have identified that Millennials were raised with a heavy emphasis on structure and measuring systems, constant coaching, and feedback. And now, we expect it to continue in the workplace.

Bottom line: Our desire for parent-like oversight, nurturing, and feedback in the workplace at times borders on unreasonable. That being said, the indicators, here and elsewhere, point to mere occasional doses of coaching as an effective solution for addressing Millennial need for feedback. Experts have denoted that “encouragement doesn’t always need to be a substantial time investment” and that “even a few minutes can help make employees feel valued and strengthen company ties.”

3. We Sense Your Antipathy and Measure Ourselves Against Peer Success

Ticking off some of the most recent, unflattering characterizations of Millennials—“narcissistic, godless, precious, lazy and probably much worse,” Newman drives home an important point about workforce-age Millennials: We hear all the disrespect, disdain, and downright antipathy being heaped upon us by our elders.

When major news articles are declaring you likely the most maligned generation in American history, you know where you stand.

If we seem obsessed with how we are performing, it’s because we Millennials have spent years being bombarded with not just a constant stream of negative mainstream media coverage, but daily, self-promotional social media updates from friends and acquaintances celebrating promotions, graduations, and career milestones, ad infinitum.

Case in point: I failed the bar exam, twice. Both times, I watched my successful colleagues unleash a non-stop wave of jubilant posts all over Facebook and social media.

All this goes back to the fact that Millennials, subconsciously, measure ourselves against our parents’ generation, and against one another. We think about the six-figure student loan debt on our back. Most critically, we recognize the fortune and opportunity that comes with our youth: We still have time to reach our maximum potential. Here, ultimately, is where the pleas for coaching and constant feedback originate.

Baby Boomers and Gen-X workforce members: Expect a return on your investment if you adopt a Millennial in your workplace.

Why take my word for it?

Six months ago, I entered Lamp Post Group, a startup incubator in Chattanooga, populated by Millennials and run by Gen-X entrepreneurs-turned-venture capitalists, who started mentoring me the second I arrived. They have enabled me to unlock untapped potential, set new professional goals, and provide a vital role to my company, Ambition. That’s the power of mentorship.

So I beseech my prospective Boomer and Gen-X mentors out there: Mentor a Millennial. A lot of my colleagues are where I was six short months ago—they could use your help, too.

Photo of man on bench courtesy of Shutterstock.