Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The "Millennials"

This post is long, but I think you'll find it well worth the reading effort...

Back in 1995, when I moved into NYC, I got my first real office job working as a creative coordinator for a corporate communications company. In typical business-jargon fashion, my title, "creative coordinator" was just a nice way of saying "gopher/whipping-boy." But what the hell did "corporate communications" mean? Sounded like an entire building full of people doing nothing but faxing memos. For my first month-and-a-half, I had no idea what the company did.

Turns out, "corporate communications" was a catch-all phrase for a whole bunch o' things that most often boiled down to employee motivation and training. Before having that job, it had never occurred to me that a Fortune 500 company might need to hire some outside agency to train their own people, or motivate them to do what they were already being paid to do. But on a nationwide level, corporate communications was a multi-billion-dollar-a-year business, so apparently, lots of upper-level manager types at Fortune 500 companies did in fact perceive such a need.

During my time in that job, there were a few different scenarios for which our services would commonly be sought.

Common Scenario #1
A large car company is about to launch a new line of light pick-up trucks. To them, this is a big deal. So, instead of just sending out a company-wide email about the new trucks, they're going to hold a big 3-day event. Aside from attracting media attention, the goals for the event are:

1. to celebrate the completion of the new truck line
2. to have fun and build company loyalty/morale
3. to educate their sales force about the features/specs/etc. of the new vehicles
4. to whip their sales people into an unstoppable frenzy of truck-selling

And in truth, the first three goals are really only to serve the last goal.

Common Scenario #2
A medium-sized pharmaceutical company has been struggling for a few years under incompetent management. They still have some very profitable drugs on the market but the ship has been sinking, and many of their more talented people have left, leaving the remaining employees in an even tougher position, surrounded by only their less capable peers. But then a larger company buys them outright. The incompetent managers are let go and rewarded for leaving with shocking amounts of money. The new heads decide to turn the two old companies into one new even larger company, poised to become a major player in the industry. An effort must be made to combine the two workforces and create a new identity for the one company that will emerge, with a new name, new logos, new business cards, new letterhead and a new paint-job in the crappers. They also need to streamline operations, cut costs and improve efficiency. Instead of just sending out an email, they're going to throw a big 3-day event!

After welcoming everyone to the event, they will have a big cocktail party to officially launch the new company (both to the press and to their own people). They'll make a big show of revealing the new company logo for the first time. It will look like art-deco roadkill, but everyone will applaud. The workers will all eat pieces of a cake shaped like the logo. The new company will then be inside them all. The icing of the cake will secretly be laced with one of the company's drugs, one which has been found to induce a mild relaxed euphoria, lower inhibitions and act as a truth serum. This will prime the employees for their next activity...

In what we creatively term "Getting to Know You" sessions, we provide a touchy-feely environment for executives to lull their underlings into revealing way too much about themselves and their co-workers, in order to help determine who might be expendable.

End of day 1.

On the overnight, a comprehensive analysis of the video-taped Getting To Know You sessions yields a preliminary list of people to consider terminating. Most of them are from the smaller company, but some are from the larger. Day 2 consists of "Team Building" exercises.

Day 2:
Under the guise of having fun and building healthy bonds of friendship and camaraderie between members of the two companies, workers in similar positions, in similar departments, etc. are pitted against each other in wacky games that test physical fitness, mental alertness, reflexes, general job knowledge and a variety of other metrics, some of which don't seem particularly relevant.

Some games force people to cooperate in structureless problem-solving tasks to see who naturally takes charge, who follows, who mocks, who sulks, etc.

Everyone is monitored at all times, but those individuals already on the potential layoff list are watched more closely to see if the initial assumptions bear out. They usually do.

Day 3:
Lots of Speechifying. Using media techniques culled from the worlds of arena-rock concerts, the Olympics and presidential politics, the new heads of the company make a series of gloriously overblown triumphal pronouncements about the new order going forward. The speeches are carefully worded to either impress or intimidate, depending on the listener's level of confidence in his/her own performance over the previous two days. Audience facial reactions are videotaped and the armrests of all the chairs in the amphitheater are fitted with electrodes measuring pulse-rate and galvanic skin response.

By the time everyone returns to the office, an exact list of layoffs has been compiled.


Other than some minor exaggeration, that's pretty much how things used to be in corporate America™.

But the other day in my office I overheard some co-workers on the other side of the cubicle partition discussing a recent 60-Minutes piece about how the younger generation of kids first entering the workforce these days is a bunch of coddled spoiled babies who've never faced any criticism. The kids who all got trophies at the end of the little-league season, just for showing up to the games. Marketing types have dubbed their generation the "Millennials." (Are you kidding with that shit? Alas, no.)

Supposedly, there are so many of these hyper-pampered children of the baby-boomers that they're changing the face of business by their sheer petulant demographic bulk. And the road they're taking us down is... well... incredibly silly and annoying. And petulant!

So, I watched the piece and thought, "Well, that's just not true. None of the young people I work with are such idiotic spoiled prima donnas. The young people I know, both in and out of the office, are just as smart and cool and hardworking and dedicated as anybody. At least, the smart cool hardworking dedicated ones are. Clearly, this 60-Minutes piece is an example of TV people just hyping something for the sake of sensationalism, because that's what keeps viewers staring at the TV screen. So really, there's nothing to worry about."

But then I attended the Moth Ball this past Monday night. I was responsible for providing some video material for the entertainment portion of the evening. I arrived early to check on the tech set-up and was informed that I was forbidden to touch any of the gear. Only the in-house tech guys could touch the stuff. Um... okay... May I ask why?

The reason for this was simple. If they are the only ones touching the equipment, then they can make sure nothing goes wrong, and if anything does go wrong, there won't be any ambiguity over who is responsible. Fine. I appreciate being shielded from the scorn that would result from a technical glitch ruining the huge super-elegant Gala Benefit show, in the presence of lots of rich & famous people and stars of the NYC literary world.

So, this meant that someone else, a person who didn't make the videos, would have to cue up the material to the right place at the right time, and press 'play' and 'pause' at the right times. Simple enough, except for the fact that the first of the little videos was a series of very short clips, each to be introduced live by the author George Green, founder of The Moth. The person pressing play/pause would need to be familiar with the material ahead of time in order to finesse the start-stops just right to go with George's remarks. The guy running the video player obviously didn't know the material ahead of time, whereas I had made the thing and rehearsed it with George already. So... I was to stand next to the guy running the video, and tell him when to press 'play' and when to press 'pause.' Ridiculous, obviously. Awkward, certainly. But not particularly difficult or problematic. All he'd have to do was start the disc at the beginning, and then press one button about a dozen times, on my cues. I couldn't imagine anything going wrong.

I'll admit I was a teeny-tiny bit put off by the fact that the young man, clearly a "Millennial" as defined by the 60-Minutes piece, didn't seem to be paying much attention to the show. He was IM-ing back and forth with friends, or some skank (I'm assuming) on his laptop much of the time, but I figured, "So what? It's not like I need him to perform a lung-transplant or anything. I just need him to push a button a few times, and only for a couple of minutes. A chimpanzee could be trained to do it."

Well, the show started, and everything was lovely. First there was some live music, then some brief host remarks and then it would be time for our thing. When the host introduced George Green, I alerted my Millennial Tech Guy that this was what we'd been waiting for. George went into his shpiel, introduced the first video clip, and I told techie to press 'play'. He did so, but for some reason he had the video cued up somewhere toward the end of the series of short clips, and instead of the first clip, the sixth one began to play.



I told Techie Guy that this was not the beginning of the disc. He said, "Yes it is."

I punched him over and over again in the face until he was dead. No.

I, who made the video, informed him that, no, in fact we were not at the beginning of the disc, and that he was an idiot pig-fucker who was currently killing me (or at the very least, ruining my evening, and possibly my reputation as well) and then I punched him over and over again in the face until he was dead. No.

He kept insisting that he was starting the disc at the beginning. Meanwhile, George cleverly ad-libbed to save the show from total ruin, while also buying me time to remind the tech guy of what the content at the actual beginning looked like when we ran through it before the show (oh yes -- we had even rehearsed the thing already). This managed to convince him to at least attempt to find the beginning of the disc and stop relying on his own personal made up notion of where to start the video. He ejected the disc, re-inserted it, and the disc did then start playing back at the real beginning. So he quickly pressed pause. I informed the guy directing the show that we were now finally in place to play the thing correctly. He got word to George on stage, who then re-introduced the video, and all proceeded normally from there. The comic timing was pretty much killed, but soon enough the show got back on its feet and everything was basically okay after that. Thankfully, it was an open bar event, and I took prodigious advantage of that for the rest of the night.

So... maybe 60-Minutes has got a point after all. The tech kid never apologized once. He blamed the gear though. I think that's how Rome fell.

But no... you can't fault an entire generation for being coddled dipshits who refuse to take responsibility for anything. It's not "Millennials" who are the problem. It's assholes. And you find them in every generation.

I know. I've been an asshole more than a few times myself.

Not lately I hope, but still.


mike r said...

Like the time i played fly by night on the wrong side of the tape for mass hysteria when I forgot to flip the tape when cuing it? :P

But @ least I showed up :)


Dr. Brainwave said...

Was I still in Mass Hysteria when that happened? (cuz I don't remember that.) Ah to be that young and silly again!

Leonardo said...

you know one day back when literary ambitions weren't considered foppish, if such a day exists, ok lets call it 1996 or 1997 or such

i went to this Moth event. seemed interesting. seemed like a good idea. good wrtiers were present to read. i'd say it was early in the career of said Moth events, perhaps the first or second of such?

alas, the hostess was a total fake. the entire night was a sham. the readings, bereft of hunger, were devoid of insight and flavor. the Moth, in short, was a fantastic disappointment and merely an exercise in how to be high-brow.

so this little tale comes as no surprise to me.

Dr. Brainwave said...

Leonardo- to be fair, the Moth has come a long way since those early days. You should check out a Moth Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe if you get a chance. They're all listed on the Moth events calendar at http://www.themoth.org They're not highbrow and I think you'll find the hunger level to your liking.

Leonardo said...

fair enough!