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Trophy Kids in the Workplace: An Interview with Author Ron Alsop

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Ron Alsop is a freelance journalist and consultant and former Wall Street Journal editor, who recently published The Trophy Kids Grow Up. The book is about the "Millennial" generation, those young people born between 1980 and 2001 who number 92 million in the United States alone. As this generation enters the workplace, they are certainly shaking things up with their unprecedented entitlement, demand for a work-life balance, optimism and, of course, parental involvement. In the midst of corporate layoffs and recent college graduates searching for jobs, I spoke with Alsop about his advice to the iPod-carrying generation in these economic times, what exactly it means to be a "Trophy Kid" and how current employers can capitalize and learn something from the millennials.

Kuhn: First, what is the definition of a "Millennial" or "Trophy Kid"?

Alsop: Millennials are "trophy kids" in a couple of ways. First, they often received trophies and other praise just for participating and not necessarily for excelling in sports and academics. They were rewarded whether or not they made the grade or the home run to avoid damaging their self-esteem. They are also trophy kids because many proud, protective parents view their accomplished children as their prized possessions. As a result, trophy kids feel confident and accomplished, but the coddling has led them to feel entitled and to have great and often unrealistic expectations about their jobs and life in general.

Kuhn: You first started writing about this generation in your column in The Wall Street Journal. What first interested you about trophy kids?

Alsop: I had begun to hear about how different the millennial generation was from previous generations in my discussions with business-school admissions and career services directors. They talked about increasing parental involvement in education and career decisions, the millennials' need for more personal career counseling, their technology savvy, and their excessive expectations about salaries and job opportunities. Clearly, school officials were surprised by this new generation of students and realized they had to figure out how to deal with them. I talked with some employers and realized that they were having similar experiences with millennials. So I felt there was much more to explore about this generation's attitudes and attributes, particularly as they played out in the workplace.

Kuhn: The first page of each chapter in your book has a picture of iPod headphones. Does the iPod symbolize this generation? How?

Alsop: The iPod symbolizes how this generation is always connected to at least one, and often multiple technology devices and Internet sites. In my book, I deal with the pluses and minuses of such addiction to technology and constant multitasking. On the positive side, millennials will help satisfy the workplace's growing demand for technological prowess. They will clearly be of great value to their employers with their knowledge of computer software applications, their global connections via the Internet, and their desire to work on multiple projects at once. Corporate recruiters say these new hires should be so well versed, for example, in software tools for financial analysis and business modeling that they will be able concentrate on other skills, such as learning to manage client relationships. But on the negative side, some young people are so accustomed to multitasking that they have trouble focusing for extended periods on problems that need in-depth, thoughtful analysis. The extensive use of text messaging and other electronic forms of communication also has contributed to this generation's inferior writing skills. Both professors and corporate managers complain about millennials' grammar, spelling and punctuation errors and their use of text messaging shorthand and even emoticons like smiley faces in formal reports.

Kuhn: Do you think Obama was as successful as he was because he tapped into this generation?

Alsop: I believe the millennials certainly contributed to Obama's successful campaign. His message of change resonated with them because they believe the world faces many serious problems, from global warming to poverty to AIDS, that older generations haven't dealt with very well. His cultural and racial diversity also proved appealing. The millennials have grown up with diversity in classrooms and now workplaces, and they value interacting with people of different colors and cultures and learning from many different perspectives. Finally, the Obama campaign's skillful use of social networking and other technologies proved ideal in reaching and motivating the millennials.

Kuhn: Do the characteristics of the millennial generation change from region to region in America? Does the term "millennial" apply to most people, worldwide, born between 1980 and 2001?

Alsop: I believe the millennial generation is similar across the United States. As for other countries, there isn't quite as much uniformity, but worldwide, millennials share some traits. Their technology skills are certainly pretty universal, as are their optimism and drive to succeed. Millennials in many countries enjoy close relationships with their parents, expect to switch jobs frequently during their careers, and have a strong international perspective. However, millennials from some countries, particularly in Asia, seem to have a stronger work ethic than their counterparts in America. That could spell trouble for American millennials as the economy becomes ever more global and they compete with other young people from countries like China and India who are very bright and put work ahead of their personal lives.

Kuhn: What do you think is the best quality that other generations can learn from the millennial generation?

Alsop: I believe the millennials' desire to make the world a better place is quite admirable. While some members of other generations certainly have altruistic tendencies, I believe the millennials are more committed than their elders to giving back to the community both through their work and personal lives.

Kuhn: How can employers best capitalize on the millennial generation?

Alsop: I believe employers can best capitalize on millennials by making them feel that their work is important, giving them lots of feedback and positive reinforcement, and telling them that the company will help them develop their skills and career potential. This generation isn't loyal to any one company and is likely to work for many employers. But millennials will be more apt to stay with an employer if they can see why their sometimes seemingly mundane job is important to the company's success. They also want to build their portfolio of skills and experiences through mentoring, training and development programs, and the opportunity to switch jobs within their company and to get international assignments.

Kuhn: What companies have been really good at recruiting millennial kids and how do they successfully utilize their skill set?

Alsop: The professional-services firms, technology companies and banks seem to be most adept at recruiting millennials. That's partly because they traditionally hire so many college students that they must figure out the best ways to attract young talent. Among other things, they have successfully reached out to recruit millennials where this generation spends the most time - -in cyberspace -- through their own career Web sites and through social networks like Facebook. The technology companies, not surprisingly, provide the social networking and other technology tools that millennials crave and can use so efficiently in the workplace. Management consulting firms offer a variety of work assignments that keep the multitasking millennials motivated and engaged.

Kuhn: For those millennials heading out into the work force this year, what is your advice for them when it comes to finding a job?

Alsop: Lower your expectations for the time being. Don't give up on your long-term aspirations for such things as work-life balance and meaningful and rewarding careers, but be more patient about achieving them in this dismal job market. Millennials simply can't be so quick to quit a job in this environment even if it doesn't prove to be the ideal career choice. Instead, I would advise them to figure out how they can best develop their skills and experience in their current positions so they're ready to seek better jobs when the economy improves.

Kuhn: Do you think the recent economic turbulence has changed some of their attitudes about the workplace?

Alsop: Of course, it's far too soon to tell how millennials may react to this crisis, but I believe they will likely make short-term adjustments to try to cope with the weak economy. They are apt to stick with an unsatisfying job longer and do less job hopping simply because there are fewer opportunities. I also predict that the so-called boomerang effect is likely to intensify, as even more millennials return to the parental nest if they lose a job or simply can't find one after graduation. While earlier generations left home for good when they moved away to college, many parents say their millennial kids are more than welcome to come back home whenever they choose. It's a comfy safety net in this turbulent time. Whatever impact the economic turmoil has on the millennial generation, these young people are likely to emerge from the crisis a bit more resilient and flexible. That, of course, would be a positive outcome. But I also believe that they will be no less sure of what they want in a career and an employer and no less intent on realizing their dreams. They have become accustomed to achieving what they set out to do, and even an economic jolt as severe as this one won't discourage them from trying to fulfill their great expectations in the long run.