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Robert W. Goldfarb: How Young People Can Help Revitalize Aging Companies

CEOs and Millennials don’t see eye to eye, but their future success may depend on joining forces.


Veteran fighter pilots refer to Millennials in their squadron as SNAPs, Sensitive New Age Pilots. They’re seen as eager for awards pilots aspire to — assignment to Top Gun school, flyovers at sporting events, promotion — but reluctant to spend hours sharpening the skills leading to coveted duties and advancement.

CEOs I consult with harbor similar disdain for Millennial applicants and employees, labeling them as undisciplined, lacking relevant skills, always seeking shortcuts along the career path, as far more high-maintenance than older workers.

Millennials I’ve interviewed impatiently dispatch these assessments to an “Old Men Talking” folder. They insist they have the capabilities and determination to attain their career equivalent of Top Gun school, but not if doing so requires mastering skills and observing rules of behavior they consider irrelevant.

I speak every week with unemployed and underemployed young people, most recently to a roomful of Columbia University graduates unable to find full-time work. A recentstudy by Accenture found that 46 percent of recent college graduates are in jobs that don’t require a degree. I’m also in daily contact with corporate officials who make or break careers. The two stand on opposite sides of a generational divide, looking across at one another with suspicion.

But something is happening in the workplace that might convince employers to enter into an alliance with young people, however uneasy that relationship might be.

According to a new study by the Brookings Institution, American companies are becoming more like the nation’s population, “old and fat.” While the number of companies 16 years and older continues to grow, there has been a sharp and continuing drop in newer organizations. Since the early 1990s, there has been an increase in the number of startups failing across all categories, all locations, leading —according to Brookings — to a decline in productivity, innovation and new jobs. The study concludes, “If we want a vibrant, rapidly growing economy in the future, we must find ways to encourage and make room for the startups of the future.”

Encouraging startups is important, but mature organizations must inspire within themselves the excitement and willingness to innovate that spark new ventures. Growing older need not mean growing fatter. Long-entrenched companies can foster an entrepreneurial culture by recruiting and training young people whose energy, creativity and technical expertise can revitalize an enterprise.

Not long ago, employers recruited broadly educated young people because they brought a productive disruption to the workplace. They suggested fresh alternatives to old practices, questioned conventional wisdom, brought new vision to organizations at risk of growing stale. Older employees generally rolled their eyes when tasks they had performed for decades were questioned. But someone in the company, less threatened by change, almost always took notice and began mentoring new employees, freeing them to test their ideas. The outliers and those who made it safe for them to be disruptive helped some of this country’s most venerable companies remain youthfully innovative. Such synergy might have saved Kodak.

Over 80 percent of Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995) say that innovation and entrepreneurship are needed to strengthen the nation’s economy. Perhaps because they’ve encountered few restraints, many young people I meet share the entrepreneur’s confidence. I hear more than inexperience when they tell me, “I know most of my resumes will be deleted, but I’m not going to stop until someone out there sees my value, and someone will.”

Certainly among 80 million Millennials — over one-third of whom hold at least a Bachelor’s degree — there must be some who can bring competence and commitment to the workplace. According to Forbes, Millennials bear an average of $45,000 in tuition loans. Goaded by debt, young people need no reminder that they must add immediate value to any organization that employs them.

Some managers I consult with are gradually beginning to accommodate to characteristics they see as universal in recent graduates. The human resources vice president of a major bank told me he accepts that Millennials require immediate gratification: “I see it in my own kids; it’s there and unlikely to change. Instead of wishing that need didn’t exist, I’ve got to make it work for us. We still demand performance before promotion, but we’ve narrowed the gap between lower rungs on our career ladder.  If someone continually exceeds expectations early in their tenure, we broaden their responsibility in 10 months instead of 18. Their salary increase is smaller, but they see we quickly reward merit and work even harder. We rarely lose young people we want to keep.”

In Silicon Valley, a senior manager told me he was taking a new look at those he hired: “Change is so constant out here that an engineer five years out of school runs the risk of becoming obsolete before he or she is 30. I’m now looking for a breadth of vision that data-obsessed engineers often lack. Technical expertise is a given, of course, but I’m willing to hire a broadly educated applicant less driven by algorithms than by a hunger to create products and services that keep us ahead of our competitors.”

Some household-name companies are reaching beyond college graduates to low-income young people age 16 to 24 with at most a high school diploma. The Gap, Starbucks, Bank of America, UPS and others are investing in young people they call “Opportunity Youth” who are determined to fight their way out of poverty. Companies provide stipends while participants are trained in basic life skills by nonprofit organizations like Year Up before entering paid internships. Your barista at Starbucks might have completed the program and could be attending college at company expense.

Many Opportunity Youth at UPS’s massive Louisville operations center have taken advantage of the company’s Metropolitan College program, earning tuition-free associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees while working at night. They remain with the company far longer than other hires, and many have gone on to managerial, supervisory and skilled position in the company.

Organizations that invest in young people — college graduate or dropout — have an opportunity to harness a combination of innovativeness, technical fluency and a desperation to find relief from tuition debt or poverty. The New York Times recently reported that students at the University of California, Berkeley, devised an app so effective in finding openings in crowded courses that the administration adopted it.

In just 11 years, Millennials will account for 75 percent of the global workforce. Before long, they’ll be working for your company. Instead of lamenting their deficiencies, why not help them add immediate value when they do come.

(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)

Goldfarb headshot

Robert W. Goldfarb is a management consultant and author of “What’s Stopping Me From Getting Ahead?”




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