Insights | 12.18.18
The Millennial Conundrum
*Republished from the 2018 Portfolio Print Publication
Millennials. Few subjects have caused as much consternation in the finance industry as the nature of today’s young adults. Odds are you’ve spent a lot of time wondering about them, what drives them and particularly about how to hire them.
According to Cherrie Wilkerson, a professor of the practice of management at Vanderbilt University, who specializes in research on millennials in the workforce, the key is to understand the effects that growing up in this era has had on young people and to see just how graciously that generation has weathered the storm.
Companies that want the members of Gen Y to adopt the attitudes and mores of baby boomers have things backward. The tactics that worked when recruiting people who came of age between the 1960s and 1980s, such as the potential for high earnings plus a clear and easily understood system for gradually moving up over the years, don’t hold much interest for millennials.
“It’s time for the industry to recast,” Wilkerson said. Or to put it another way:
It’s not the recruits that have to change; it’s the recruiters.
The Ghosts of 2008
Many in the financial industry today like to point to the 2008 financial crisis as the primary cause for their issues with hiring a younger generation of financial advisors. It’s often seen as a PR problem as there’s the perception that the financial crisis left millennials with a bad taste for the banking business. “Look, 2008 did not help,” Wilkerson said. “Greed, overzealousness and bad actors tarnished the entire industry.”
However, it seems as though that perception may not be entirely accurate today. For those who have found their way to the financial industry, the stigma has been lifted. “There is not a negative connotation with the younger group,” Amanda Vogel, an annuity national account specialist and member of the BISA Diversity Committee's Rising Star group, told attendees of a session on “Hiring and Retaining Next-Gen Talent” at BISA’s 2018 Annual Convention in early March. “But I think parents and grandparents have that connotation.”
"Next-Gen" panelist Esteban Zuno, region manager at U.S. Bancorp Investments Inc. and another member of the Rising Star Group said, “I don’t think the stigma is at the forefront for millennials.” The panel remarked how the financial crisis happened when they were in high school or college and didn’t re- ally consider the impact outside of their family’s personal finances. They weren’t really looking to attribute it to a larger group or understand the situation; they just knew that it happened and then dealt with the aftermath. For older generations in the industry, the financial crisis was a seminal event in their careers and lives, but for millennials, they weren’t even sure what they’re careers would look like when it happened and have been able to overcome some of those more negative feelings around it.
Something to Fear
Popular culture tends to portray millennials as fragile, entitled youths now turned young adults that need participation trophies for every- thing they’ve ever done. As with any stereotype, there is both truth and falsehood in the idea of the faint-hearted millennial.
Baby boomers and Gen X (the smaller generation in between boomers and Gen Y) came of age in times of relative prosperity and safety. Of course, there was the Vietnam War, but it was far away for most Americans. Then there was the Cold War, which hardly de- served to be called a “war.” There was an energy crisis and some nasty bouts with inflation, but American life from the 1950s through 2000 did, in hindsight, have fewer society-altering disruptions.
Millennials have lived in a very different time; one marked by terrorism, school shootings and, more broadly, very protective parents. With the proximity and intensity of tragedies like 9/11 and the Columbine High School Massacre — among many others — millennials were deeply and personally affected at a young age. The larger events in the world, as well as the mentality at home, conditioned them as children to feel that no place is truly safe.
You can hear this generational difference more easily than you can see it. The word that defined baby boomers’ attitude toward the world was “cool” — a perfect summation of the place where casualness and sophistication overlap. Even today, older people pepper their conversation with the word. By contrast, the word that defines millennials, the word that drifts in and out of their conversations, punctuating their belief that anything can happen to anyone, is “random.”
“The world they grew up in was far less secure than ours was,” Wilkerson said. Their families’ financial security was wiped out in 2008. The attacks of 9/11 triggered unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Schools became killing zones.
Wilkerson points out how this sense of menace continues to play out among millennials. At Vanderbilt, where she teaches, there are about 300 MBA students. Those students have lost three of their fellows to terrorism — one killed in Israel, two killed in the airport in Belgium. “That’s personal,” Wilkerson said. “That’s close to home.”
Find Part Two of the "Millennial Conundrum" here.
The Rising Star Program provides recognition and mentorship for high-performing individuals in the securities/brokerage industry. Applications for the 2019 program are due by January 11, 2019.
Paul Conley decided to enter journalism at the age of six. Too young to be hired as a paperboy, he convinced a neighborhood teenager to subcontract his route. Since then, Conley has continued to rewrite the rules of the communications world as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, producer, consultant and executive at companies such as CNN, Primedia Business, Bloomberg, CFO Publishing and Knight-Ridder Financial.