The Paradox of the smart Millennial



It could be you; you’re a millennial, highly educated, and you raced through your studies with one cum laude after the other. The world is at your feet and you are now going to make the difference everywhere with your sharp insights and enormous developmental urge. They are world conquerors, master networkers, flexible digital natives who have co-creation and collaboration in their DNA. Super-autonomous creatures who know everything about innovation. The perfect picture? Think again!

In my daily work, I have been coaching more and more millennials in the high-tech world, advocacy, and accounting. My coaches are almost all very driven and ambitious. Even so, they all run into the same problems they share with me:

1: Am I good enough for the organisation in which I work?

2: Performance stress, lying awake at night worrying about their job.

3: Am I moving fast enough? Shouldn’t I have been further along in my career by now, shouldn’t I know more, etc.

Behind the facade of self-assurance, you can generally find many concerns that make them insecure. When it comes down to it, you could say that from a young age, smart millennials have been exposed to a huge extrinsic motivation by parents, sports clubs, schools, and universities. Stickers from the teacher, medals for participating, unconditional praise, city trips after exams, mobile phones, laptops, and much more; anything and everything to give the reward centre in the brain an “instant high”. Cash on the nail. A stick with a juicy carrot.

But once millennials start working, they enter an environment without unconditional praise and structural short-term rewards. Employers and managers assume the millennial is here to contribute to existing processes and structures that focus on business goals, shareholder value, competitiveness, and profitability.

We’re glad you’re here, millennial, but it’s time to act normal, work your hours, and be of added value. This is not your party; you are a guest at our party with our rules, norms, and values.

This corporate culture generates a lot of confusion and tension in millennials. What I see is that many millennials struggle to paint a realistic image of who they are, what they can do, what can be expected of them, and most of all, what they want.

They appear to be self-confident performers, but are actually often unsure about what is expected of them. Within organisations that pay little attention to “onboarding” new people, the average smart millennial will try to independently figure out what is expected of them. They do not enter into a dialogue with their manager. They set the bar (too) high for themselves and “benchmark” themselves with colleagues who have 10+ years of work experience.

Because many millennials have been extrinsically motivated all their lives, they look for reward. Their self-image depends on whether or not they receive rewards. They have difficulty assessing their own achievements and successes for value and look at their surroundings for a pat on the head.

Where an average 40+ manager will think: “Yes, of course you did that, that is your job”. Millennials start to worry. “Am I doing okay, should I work even harder?”

The millennial and his/her manager have a shared responsibility of getting the smart millennial to operate properly.

Talk to each other. Show interest in each other’s knowledge and experience. Together, define SMART goals for the short, medium, and long term. Regularly have a coffee together and see how things are going. Ask for help as a millennial; offer help as a manager.

As a final tip for managers: help the millennial discover the pure pleasure of intrinsic motivation and intrinsic pride. Help the millennial take the last essential step toward becoming and being an independent, responsible professional and human being.

Alexander Hilberts is a Post HBO certified trainer, consultant, and coach, and is connected to Prospectory as a partner.