When the Millennial Generation makes headlines, the articles tell all about our disdain for organized religion, our political independence, and our dismal unemployment rates. Most thinkers paint us as coddled and self-absorbed: people “who were never spanked and received trophies for participating,” as the popular Internet quote reads. Some would-be allies claim Millennials were raised to believe college degrees would lead directly to stable and highly-paid careers, and that this ingrained philosophy has turned an entire generation into a cohort of insolent moochers. Professionalism, then, is not something for which my generation is known, any mention of Millennials’ positive qualities is difficult to come by.
In the Digital Age, technology has become a necessity for businesses and professionals alike. Each generation handles new developments differently, however.
Baby Boomers—who largely lack formal computer education—struggle to adapt to advancing platforms and often breach etiquette rules the rest of us have learned through osmosis. It seems everyone under forty has a horrific or hilarious story that involves teaching a parent or grandparent to use a new technology; mine focuses on my father’s ignorance regarding the use of asterisks in password privacy measures. While some Boomers have become computer literate, many—if not most—lag behind younger generations in this regard.
Generation X are currently the most well-equipped to use technology for business; their first exposure to computers and the Internet presented them as educational tools, and these came with them into the workplace. And while Gen Xers have embraced social networking, their usage of media platforms trends largely toward connecting with friends, family, and coworkers, allowing them to keep their private and professional selves merged.
Millennials are not so lucky, however. We grew up with the Internet and wireless communication. Rather than being tools for education or business, these were entertainment platforms, and when they merged together to produce smartphones, Millennials spotted convenience where others saw frivolity. We have no problems using technology for gaming, streaming video and music, or casual conversation.
Ironically, our rollicking engagement with social media has injured our ability to transition into the professional world. While the few Luddites among us do not—for obvious reasons—fare as well as those of us who have grown up surfing the Web, they may be at a distinct advantage. In childhood and adolescence we were warned not to divulge online intimate information about ourselves, but now that rule must be broken, and our online profiles list our locations—hometown, high school, university, current city—for professional reasons. Worse still, even though we may have never given out our addresses or telephone numbers online, many of us have left damning digital trails, which are easily picked up by simple Google searches. These trails may very well expose poor grammar, controversial religious or political beliefs, or grainy photos from the latest bachelor(ette) party.
More now than ever, our social connections have the ability to end careers before they start. The problem is that we have no way of knowing which connections are suspect. Consider the following:
- Harold’s grandmother tags him in a photo from a family cookout. He is eating barbecue, sauce all over his face, with a sweating Budweiser by his plate. Does his connection with his grandmother convey that he is close to his family, or will prospective employers think him slovenly? Is being perceived as a family man even beneficial at all to Harold in his job search? Will that lone beer instantly condemn him as an unstable alcoholic?
- Jenny posts that she has been stood up and wants to make new plans for the night. She receives offers ranging from a movie night with a friend to a sexually-harassing proposition from a near-stranger. Will employers think she is unlikable because she got stood up? Is she desperately seeking domesticity because she wanted to schedule another social engagement? Is her limited—and, in this case, unwilling—association with seedy men a liability?
- Carrie is actively searching for a job, and has just broken up with her longtime boyfriend, Nelson. She silently updates her relationship status, hoping to avoid public discussion, but Nelson’s sister posts a long, profanity-riddled rant directly to her Facebook page in the middle of the night. When she discovers it, Carrie deletes it just as quietly as she hid her breakup, but she cannot be certain that her employers have not already seen it. How will they view her if they have?
No matter who you are, the fact is that you probably love—or are—someone with a spotty public record. Maybe your aunt has no filter, or your brother uses Twitter exclusively to heap poorly-researched scorn on politicians with whom he disagrees. Maybe your sister recently spent time in prison for shoplifting, or your best friend only posts photos of himself shirtless and brandishing automatic weapons. You have embraced these people without judging them, and accepted their poor decision-making skills without copying them. To potential employers, however, you could be guilty by association. It would be rude and hurtful to sever all ties with these people just to improve your job prospects; they would never understand your reasoning, and you would ultimately lose more than you gained.
When Millennials pursue careers they are forced to create new identities in order to be successful. It isn’t forgery; the desire to achieve professionally lurks in every one of us. Instead, it’s akin to the separation older generations made decades ago. Consider this: if Anna Wintour likes to watch cute cat videos, we will never know, because for her to reveal such a predilection would violate her no-nonsense façade. Every one loves a bit of light-hearted fun, but where Baby Boomers and Gen Xers know how to hide it, Millennials are predisposed to share everything.
Where Baby Boomers have fought hard learning how to use new communication and entertainment platforms, Millennials, who have always known how to navigate the Digital Age in this manner, must adapt to using technology for business instead of pleasure. Unlike Boomers and Gen Xers, most of us began using social media in our adolescence; our teenage angst and indignation are readily available. For those of us who are active members of Facebook and Twitter, these pubescent failures will be difficult—if not impossible—to scrub away.
All of us have been hearing for years that potential employers can, and will, search for us online to review our social media profiles as part of the hiring process; hardly a week goes by that someone has not made the news for being fired after posting an insulting rant directed at an individual or group. Somehow, many Millennials have managed to delude ourselves into believing that this 1) would never happen to us, or that 2) we can always make a turn around. Now, we are each left with a decade’s worth of detailed records—including friendships, breakups, bad decisions, and fickle loyalties—shared ingorantly by our teenage selves, following us around the Internet: evidence of who we were in previous lives and how we became who we are today.
For those of us in creative fields, it gets even trickier. Not too long ago, philosophy held that a burgeoning artist’s work spoke for itself; the creator—his life, values, and personal interests—meant nothing in comparison to his creation. In a society where the entire developed world connects instantly and simultaneously, however, the artist has to be not only accessible, but also likable. Just as her work cannot be boring or trite, she herself must be just as interesting. But personal interests may be just as suspect as your interpersonal relationships.
The rules of etiquette have yet to catch up to social media. Most of us know better than to type in all caps or put our naked photos on the Internet, but we haven’t figured out the small things yet. Unfortunately, the small things are sometimes the most important. Look through the pages you’ve liked on Facebook. Do those comedy feeds spell great sense of humor or unprofessional? Is your appreciation for the new Hobbit films whimsical or immature? Will liking particular political candidates or sports teams prevent you from getting that job? Will scrubbing your profiles entirely of Likes and Followings make you totally boring and unhirable?
Previous generations needed only to keep their political and religious beliefs out of the workplace, and how to network over cocktails and dinners, in order to succeed. Today, they can easily rest on their laurels, without worrying about whether or not their Internet personas portray them as business-minded, because their solid job histories speak first and loudly. Millennials, again, do not have this luxury; with little or no work experience, even less in a related field, and a dearth of entry-level positions, we must become über-candidates—engaged, interesting, intelligent, and talented—and we must strike a balance between being active members of our online and real-life communities without oversharing or revealing our unprofessional sides.
Millennials are navigating a job market that—with less than half of all US Baby Boomers still working—is rigged to favor Gen Xers over us. I don’t say this to cast blame or cry cronyism; employers’ decisions are, if not reasonable, then certainly understandable. Every company hiring today wants years of experience and concrete evidence of success from its prospective employees; logic dictates that the hiring process must become more selective in a poor economy. But what happens when Generation X enter retirement and employers are forced to hire candidates they have snubbed for a decade? If most Millennials are under-qualified now, they will be unhirable by that time. Attempting to foster careers through functional resumes, unpaid internships, and online networking is our only option, but it only fuels our reputation for being self-important and overly-confident.
I created a public Facebook account when I began building my brand and web presence. It seemed impossible to part with my personal, private account, which I have had for almost ten years, for numerous reasons: I couldn’t ask my friends and family to understand why I erased their presence for a chance to advance my career; sending out a mass message to Facebook friends—“Don’t tag me in anything, I’m a professional now.”—would only be snobbish and invite sabotage; the time and effort it would take to polish that account to uncontroversial, professional brilliance would be mind-numbing, and I could never be sure that some damning, immature snippet hadn’t sneaked past my scrutiny. Left with no other choice, I joined Facebook anew under my real name, assumed a new identity for my private account, and updated my status to let the people with whom I interacted most know about the changeover: “Proceed as normal, only my name has changed.”
Splitting my identity in this way has not been easy. For one, my radical name change caused a period of mass confusion. More importantly, it’s easy to feel indignant at the idea of needing to present oneself in a not-false-but-different light in order to be hirable, and I expect this is more than just a personal experience. After all, every Millennial I know holds to the adage that if they don’t like you for who you are, then they aren’t worth your time. Another rule broken: we now have to mold our likability and edit our social interactions to business standards.
My professional Facebook profile is basic, a near carbon copy of my LinkedIn page. At first, I assumed that this was the proper way to go about building a professional web presence: don’t be frivolous, no one cares what television shows you enjoy, never tell them you play video games, etc. As I realize more and more how much personality matters for aspiring professionals using social media, however, I am left unsure how much to share with my readers, and potential clients and employers. I won’t lie to make myself appear more literary, but I wonder, are my favorite texts intellectual enough?
I’m not sure anyone has the answers to questions like mine, but I do know that the Millennials who are now struggling to enter the workforce need a new volume on professional etiquette. We want to work and be successful, but we have no idea what will convey this desire to hiring managers. We know how to use the Internet for everything from academic research to casual gaming, but most of us can’t write a functional resume to highlight our skillsets.
Millennials are fighting without allies in an uphill battle against a negative intergenerational reputation. We’re in dire need of guides to this new battlefield. If I find any, I’ll let you know. I hope you return the favor.
A new feature called Scraps will premiere this Friday at 12:00 EST. Be on the lookout!
Are you a Millennial pursuing a professional career, or a hiring manager with advice for the graduate crowd? Do you feel I missed something, or got something wrong in this essay? Let me know in the comments!