The Tethered Generation
By Kathryn Tyler
access to technology since a young age and a perpetual connection to parents,
the millennial generation brings new challenges to the workplace.
At 11 years old, Kate Achille had a pager for her parents to reach her when
necessary. At 13, she had a cell phone. Now 22 and working for a school, she
e-mails her mother as many as five times a day and calls her on the cell phone
several times a week.
Her mother, Jeanne Achille, CEO of Shrewsbury,
N.J., public relations firm The Devon Group, says technology allows her to
communicate regularly with Kate and her other daughter, who is 18. "I know where
my daughters are constantly because we use these communications technologies to
update each other: 'I'm still at work,' 'I'm going to the gym,' 'I'm picking up
"I would have never given my parents visibility
into this level of detail in my day!" she admits.
But this is a different day. Kate Achille and
her sister are part of the so-called millennial generation, now ages 8 to 29.
This group, also called Generation Y and the Net Generation, is made up of 80
million people in the United States born between 1978 and 1999. They are the
first generation to use e-mail, instant messaging (IM) and cell phones since
childhood and adolescence.
Especially as millennials born since 1985 begin
to show up in the workforce, HR professionals and psychologists are just
beginning to see what effect the constant "tethering" to technology has had on
the way millennials work, communicate, make decisions and interact. That effect,
along with a tethered relationship to their peers and parents-sometimes to the
extent that they have been deemed "helicopter parents"-presents challenges for
HR professionals integrating millennials into the workplace.
For those who remember life without cell phones
and the Internet, it may be difficult to understand how ingrained technology is
in millennials' lives. To prepare for millennials, it's important to understand
how cell phones and computers have changed their brain development, the enormous
role their parents play in their lives well into adulthood, and what policies
and training programs HR professionals will need to implement to transition
these young people into the workplace.
Older generations that couldn't wait to
proclaim their independence can't comprehend this generation's need for parental
guidance and influence. Years ago, "most college dorm rooms had one land line,
and, if parents were lucky, kids called home once a week. Now, students may be
going across the country, but they call their parents on the cell phone three to
five times per day," says Claire Raines, author of Generations at Work
Another big influence on this generation is
their peers. While previous generations also looked to their friends for advice
and direction, today's technology allows a perpetual connection to peers,
leaving little time for autonomy. "Except for their mothers, these kids don't
have relationships with people outside of their generation. They spend 72 hours
per week of connected time-by phone and IM"-seeking advice and input on the
smallest decisions, says Jim Taylor, a futurist, author and vice chairman of
Waterbury, Conn.-based The Harrison Group, a marketing consulting and research
services firm, which has consulted for large companies on tapping the teen
What could be wrong with young people using
cell phones and IM to keep mom and dad abreast of their every move? New research
reveals a lot.
Scientists once believed the brain was almost
completely formed by age 13. But, in the past two years, neuroscientists have
discovered that parts of the brain-specifically the prefrontal lobes, which are
involved in planning and decision-making-continue to develop well into the late
teens and early 20s.
"The prefrontal cortex is important for
decision-making, planning, reasoning and the storage of knowledge," explains
Jordan Grafman, chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section at the National
Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md.
That means millennials' brains are still
developing reasoning, planning and decision-making capabilities while they are
depending heavily on technology-cell phones, IM and e-mail-as well as parents
and friends at the other end of the technology. As a result, some experts
believe millennials struggle to make decisions independently.
When parents give teens cell phones, it's a
double-edged sword. "On the one hand, this arrangement gives the adolescent new
freedoms. On the other, the adolescent doesn't have the experience of having
only herself to count on; there's always a parent on speed dial," says Sherry
Turkle, licensed clinical psychologist and professor of the social studies of
science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in
Stephen P. Seaward, director of career
development for Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, Conn., agrees. "The
majority of millennials never experienced life without a microwave, computer,
ATM card or television remote control. Many had their first cell phones in their
early teens with parents footing the bill," he says. "This instantaneous
gratification … may have fostered unrealistic expectations with respect to
goal-setting and planning. That, in conjunction with extreme parental influence,
can prohibit creative problem-solving and decision-making."
A 2006 research report bears this out. Roughly
three-quarters of executives and HR managers at 400 companies surveyed said that
recent four-year college graduates displayed only "adequate" professionalism and
work ethic, creativity and innovation, and critical thinking and
problem-solving. Only one-quarter reported an "excellent" display of those
traits in recent college graduates, according to Are They Really Ready to Work?,
a report by the Society for Human Resource Management, The Conference Board,
Corporate Voices for Working Families and the Partnership for 21st Century
While technology has enabled children's
dependency, it has also abetted parental oversight, making it easier for
overbearing parents to "hover" well into adulthood. "Some hovering is good since
some mistakes can be catastrophic. But small errors induce critical thinking,"
and if children are not allowed to make small errors, they don't learn through
experience, argues Grafman.
"Parents' most important task is to help young
people to become independent and autonomous. When we infantilize our young, we
stifle their development," says Robert Epstein, visiting scholar at the
University of California in San Diego, and West Coast editor of Psychology
Epstein tells the story of a helicopter parent
meddling in his college-aged daughter's courses. "In class, I announced I expect
hard work and sacrifice from my students and any professor who said less than
that was cheating his students. This young woman's father-a California Superior
Court judge-sent a letter to the chair of my department saying his daughter was
intimidated by my warning. His letter arrived on judicial stationery."
Epstein brought the matter to the attention of
the judicial regulatory board, which later reprimanded the judge. Imagine when
this young woman enters the workforce and her father dislikes her workload, he
"Parental involvement in the lives of their
offspring seems to be increasing every year. I've seen parents come to campus
protesting a low grade. When I caught one student cheating on a paper, his mom
called and demanded I let him write a new paper," says Epstein.
Most colleges now hold orientation sessions for
freshman students and their parents, separately. The parent orientation talks
about how to "cut the apron strings."
However, it often doesn't achieve the desired
effect, says Robert W. Wendover, director of The Center for Generational
Studies, a research and training company in Aurora, Colo.
"The kids leave everything to mom and dad,"
says Wendover. "The kids encourage it; they're used to it. It's easier to use
the parent as a surrogate than to think for yourself. There is a point at which
the child fails to learn resourcefulness. It's a learned helplessness."
Not everyone agrees this is detrimental or even
prevalent. Barbara Dwyer, CEO of The Job Journey, a soft-skills training firm
for high-school and community college students in El Macero, Calif., says, "This
generation is closer to their parents than any other generation. They see their
parents as friends. It's a good thing." Dwyer believes helicopter parents are a
small percentage of the total parenting population.
However, many college professors and career
counselors say otherwise. "Parents have called to set up interview appointments
for their children. The students lose a sense of self-reliance," says Toni
McLawhorn, director of career services at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.
Helicoptering in the Workforce
As millennials move into the workforce, their
hovering parents do, too. "Parents are writing resumes, applying to jobs and
even attending interviews," reports Steven Rothberg, president and founder of
the CollegeRecruiter.com career site, headquartered in Edina, Minn.
Ann Reynolds, director of university career
services at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, says she has received
feedback from employers about "parents calling to find out why their child was
not hired or offered more money. A few want to be involved in negotiating
Susan Revillar Bramlett, PHR, an HR generalist
for a defense research contractor in Fort Wayne, Ind., and a millennial herself,
"overheard a parent yell at the HR person because her daughter was turned down
for a promotion."
Wendover has another disquieting but
increasingly common tale from a pharmaceutical company. "They had a 23-year-old
new employee with a pharmacy doctoral degree show up for the first day of work
with her dad. He wanted to see where she worked. The dad stayed for about four
hours. The manager was aghast," he says.
Another HR professional, who asked not to be
identified, tells of withdrawing a job offer from a young candidate after he
failed a required drug test. "Within 24 hours, his mother called me to say their
family takes a lot of herbal supplements and we shouldn't hold this against him.
Then she kept talking about what a good person her son was and how he could do
great things for our company. After I refused to discuss the situation with her,
I didn't hear from them again."
When it comes to dealing with helicopter
parents, there are two schools of thought: beat 'em or join 'em. HR
professionals will need to decide to which school they subscribe and develop
policies and procedures accordingly.
Some companies are courting the parents and
applicants simultaneously. At many Enterprise Rent-A-Car offices, for instance,
the company offers to provide information to the parents of prospective
candidates, and about half of the candidates accept. Remember, though, any
parental involvement should always be at the request or discretion of the
In contrast, if a company chooses not to
communicate with helicopter parents, it will need to enforce strong privacy
policies and train managers on how to deflect parental interference. The unnamed
HR professional above refuses to discuss anyone's employment with his or her
parents. "I remain polite and explain we don't discuss employment-related issues
with [outsiders]. If they continue to push, I suggest they discuss the matter
with their [child]. If the employee follows up with me, I say why it's
inappropriate, and I hope it won't happen again."
How To Prepare for the Millennials
Policies to manage helicopter parents aren't
the only preparation companies will need to consider for the millennial
generation. Experts suggest HR professionals plan to:
Increase basic skills training.
Many millennials may lack basic spelling and writing skills because they have
come to rely on spell check. Moreover, some millennials have become so
accustomed to using IM abbreviations, such as "b/c" for "because," that some
don't know how to spell it correctly. Wendover recommends asking candidates to
write a letter from scratch without the benefits of grammar or spell check.
"Then, you'll know what their writing skills are," he says.
In addition, millennials need to learn how to
conduct old-fashioned research in books and other primary sources. "It doesn't
occur to them to go to the library, but there's a whole bunch of stuff not on
the web," says Wendover.
Millennial Bramlett agrees. "New college grads
strongly believe all Internet information is valid, and if it's not available on
the Internet, then it doesn't exist. This can create problems in work quality if
someone is relying 100 percent on Internet resources."
Explain the reasons behind processes.
To gain compliance from millennials, you need to give the rationale behind your
instructions, says Wendover. If you tell a person to stock a grocery shelf but
to be cautious opening the boxes, he won't be. "This person takes a box knife to
open a case of Wheaties and slices across all the boxes. Then you have to
discount that box. But, if you explain, 'In the grocery industry you only have a
1 percent profit margin, the box sells for $5, you're only making 5 cents, and
by being forced to discount the box you have lost any profit that could have
been made,' [this is how] you engage them. You need to teach them why they're
doing what they're doing," says Wendover.
Place clear parameters on
communication frequency and methods, particularly IM. Millennials need
to be told when it is acceptable to call and how to reach their superiors. Don't
assume they have traditional standards for appropriate behavior, such as knowing
it isn't acceptable to make a business call in the restroom.
"Some of our interns expect staff members to be
available to them instantly, even when the issue is not urgent. They don't
appreciate that our workdays are full and we need to prioritize our tasks.
Sometimes, their requests must wait," says Rothberg.
Provide more frequent job performance
appraisals and other feedback. "This generation has grown up sitting in
front of a monitor playing video games. Players always know how they're doing by
the score on the screen," says college career director Seaward. "Therefore, this
generation won't want to wait for a semiannual or annual performance review.
They will require ongoing feedback."
Bramlett agrees: "If I do something wrong, I
expect my manager to let me know immediately, not at my next performance
evaluation. If I've given a major presentation to company executives, I
immediately follow up with someone who sat in on the call to gain feedback on
how I did and how I can improve."
Focus on outcomes. "They can
do their job, surf the web, IM friends, have a chat with colleagues on the side
and pay attention to everything," says Wendover. "It's unrealistic to expect
them to have no personal calls during the workday."
HR must measure outcome-based performance. "If
they are getting the job done faster than you anticipated, give them more to
do," says Wendover. Don't settle for poor quality, but don't fuss if they are
also conducting personal conversations while they're working.
Keep them engaged. "I will
stay with a company as long as my skills are developing. If something major
doesn't change, I move on. This happened with my last HR position," says
Bramlett. "The only reason I didn't leave [right away] was because I felt
responsible for a major project where employees were depending on me.
Millennials can be loyal, but it's based more on relationships than on the
Therefore, HR professionals will need to be
vigilant about helping millennials with career planning and job rotation
assignments. "If a company doesn't have a good internal placement program, they
may find many of these folks leaving to gain new experiences," says Bramlett.
Expand work/life balance programs.
According to a study by Spherion, a recruiting and staffing firm headquartered
in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., millennials highlight "time and flexibility" as the
most important thing in keeping them loyal to their employers (followed by
financial compensation and benefits). No other age group named "time and
flexibility" in their top three retention drivers.
Bramlett confirms this. "Just because a person
is single or doesn't have kids doesn't mean they will accept responsibility of
having to work a majority of the overtime or travel more than others in the same
position," she says. "Work/life balance is important to this generation, and it
shouldn't matter why they want the time off."
"My generation is going to be
high-maintenance," acknowledges Bramlett. "We were brought up to reach for the
stars. Many millennials don't recognize the idea of starting at the bottom and
working their way up. Millennials come to work on their first day with great
ideas on how they're going to change the world. Management will need to be
sensitive to their aspirations when responding to their ideas so as to not shoot
Dwyer agrees: "This generation is going to come
to work with higher expectations than any other. They will be quickly
disappointed if it's not as good as they had hoped. With one click of the mouse,
they can tell thousands of other people, 'Don't go to work for XYZ company.'
It's going to be challenging."
Concludes Taylor, "The main thing HR people
have to deal with is how to take people who are well-educated, intelligent and
quick to draw remarkably accurate conclusions and immerse them in the
Kathryn Tyler is a Generation X freelance writer and former HR generalist
and trainer in Wixom, Mich. She has written business-related articles for the
past 12 years.