“Now, don’t get me wrong. Expertise has an important place in any advanced economy, but we’ve taken it so far that even many of the best experts are highly dependent on other experts for anything outside their specialty. The result is that people defer to the experts on almost anything, so getting the 10 percent to lead in government is a major challenge, because business leaders will always wonder why the political experts don’t just do it.”
-Leadershift, by Orrin Woodward and Oliver DeMille
The point that Woodward and DeMille make here in Leadershift is a big one. In reading that paragraph this morning, I found myself drawing comparisons with my own experience, both in the corporate world and in my social circles. What I would like to postulate here is that perhaps some of the Millennials whom everyone apparently thinks are terrible, are actually just very useful generalists stuck in an economy and a culture that doesn’t know how to use them because they aren’t experts in any small niche.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. There are some Millennials who are definitely not stepping up to the plate. Anyone who neglects the “hard work” step of the “follow your heart and do what makes you come alive” process of living one’s life, or who thinks that now that they’ve got a degree, they should have a job, is clinging far too closely to a credentialist view and is well overdue for a study in meritocracy (that is, being judged based on one’s performance and results as opposed to the titles or degrees one has).
But there are some folks around my age who have degrees in things like “Communications”, “Interdisciplinary Studies”, or in my case, “Comparative Cultures and Politics.” These degrees don’t necessarily fit square peg in square hole with jobs in the corporate world. (Bing “Communicator Jobs”, “Interdisciplinarian Salary”, or “Jobs for Culture and Politics Comparer” and you’ll see what I mean). But what a lot of these folks have, that isn’t spelled out letter for letter in their degree, is a wide-angle lens that’s been keenly developed by studying something that isn’t as much the ABCs as it is a can of alphabet soup, with which they’ve been allowed to do with what they please. These people may not be able to design, build, and launch a rocketship, but they can put together the right team to do it, and they can probably manage the whole project cradle to the grave, because they can see the way it’s all supposed to happen. More importantly, the Millennials with all these silly, vague degrees often understand the “why” of doing things, in addition to the how.
No doubt, this creates tension between employers who are looking for specialists to come in and do a specific task and Millennials who know THAT they can do, but may not know WHAT to do just yet. And I would argue that their feeling of confusion and apprehension isn’t altogether their fault. They’ve been trained to succeed in ways that our current economy doesn’t always know how to handle. But consider this: were you a company, would you rather hire someone with a set of individual skills, or someone who has learned how to learn skills and is adaptable? If you’re a huge, gigantic company that’s been around since the stone age, you’ll probably go for the specialist. And that’s not inherently wrong. They’ll probably be great at what they do. But if you opted for the more adaptable, wide-lens generalist, you’d have someone that will probably be great at what they do, and will have a good handle on what a lot of other people in your organization do as well.
Now, I’m not saying that Millennials with pointless-sounding degrees should be hired in droves because they can all do everything. That would be ridiculous. What I am saying is that if most hiring decisions are made on the basis of qualifications (credentials), and most firing decisions are made on the basis of character (merit: lack of work ethic, morals, teachability), then maybe it’s time to give a shot to the people who have the character to learn and adapt, even if they don’t have a degree with the same name as the job posting. We’ll probably find that the generalists who understand “why” things are done just as much as the how, and who have a good grasp on the organization itself, its goals and its fit in the world, make for better long-term business partners because they can more easily align with the purpose of an organization and come alongside it to take ownership of the cause. After all, aren’t most people who hate their jobs really just lacking in purpose and fulfillment? If our organizations looked at “why” just as much as “how”, and we hired people who did the same, wouldn’t we all feel more fulfilled and have more purpose? Again, just postulating here.
As to Woodward and DeMille’s point about leading in government, what they’re really talking about is top leaders in society taking ownership for watching the government to make sure they aren’t overstepping their bounds (something that we do sorely need in this country). But I would go as far as to say that we need people taking that sort of ownership at all levels of our society, and that perhaps Millennials are starting to do it. We do live in an age where information is just a click away (the determination of its quality, much more distant), and internet activism to the tune of “Facebook likes” for change, but it’s a start, even if a misguided one. Even if it’s just because they have nothing else to do, or because they don’t have a “why” in their role as a Junior Assistant Flippity Flop at XYZ Services, Inc, there are Millennials paying attention to “stuff” and doing “things.” Even if they can only digest serious, high-concept issues in the form of lists of GIFs on Buzzfeed, Millennials want to feel like they know what’s going on and they want to feel like they’re doing something to make the world a better place. They’ve seen the world of experts with blinders on, toiling away as Senior Executive Flippity Flops at XYZ Services or Founder and CEO of MNO Tech (XYZ Services’ competitor, founded by a former Senior Executive Flippity Flop at XYZ, fed up with feeling underappreciated and undervalued in her old role). They’ve been told that they should go to school, get good grades, get a degree, and get a safe, secure job, and follow that same path, and they asked “why?”. They’re looking for more. And I would go as far as to say that if they can leverage their vagueness and indecision and frustrating apathy with things that credentialists think matter, then maybe they can dig out their own, wide-lens, community-based niche in the economy and rise up as conscious leaders in a country that needs more people who understand why we do things, and not just how.