opinion

Ita Buttrose is right about sensitive 'millennial' workers. But there's more to the story.

Ita Buttrose is right. 

"Millennials" are high-maintenance to manage. 

In case you missed it, this week Ita - off the record, it must be noted - spoke about what's changed in the media workforce over the years. Her comments made headlines, blew up Twitter and got Whats-apped to people like me tens of times. As a result, a generational workplace war is simmering again.

Image: Getty.

Here is an extract from the Sydney Morning Herald outlining the comments that the publishing legend and Chair of the ABC reportedly made at a Chamber of Commerce meeting on Wednesday.

"What does change is the expectations of staff, that's where the change occurs," Buttrose said. "The younger workers like more transparency."

Buttrose said this was in stark contrast to when she was a journalist, when she said not hearing from proprietors like Sir Frank Packer and bosses was a good thing because "no news means good news".

"But it seems to me that today's younger workers, they need much more reassurance and they need to be thanked, which is something many companies don't do.

"They're very keen on being thanked and they almost need hugging – that's before COVID of course, we can't hug anymore – but they almost need hugging.

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"You have to understand that they seem to lack the resilience that I remember from my younger days," Buttrose, now 78, said.

Cue, generational battle lines drawn. 

You've heard the arguments before, no doubt: The young people don't know how lucky they are. They've had everything handed to them in an era of affluence. They have no resilience. They are snowflakes; pretty in photos, but delicate and easily broken.  

And the old people? Well, they don't know how lucky they are. They had everything handed to them in an easier time. They don't understand technology and move too slowly. They're hoarding power, money and are resisting change. They're bigots; stuck in the mud.

And it's into this mess that Ita Buttrose's comments landed with a splat.

I am thirty years younger than Ita, who I have admired throughout my career, and that doesn't make me young. I have worked, like Ita, in the very specific world of media, for almost three decades (not at the same level, it must be said, with a bow). And although all of this discussion is based on coarse generalisations, there is a lot to agree with in her comments. 

I work, overwhelmingly, with "Millennial" women (let's say, under 35, some very, very under 35). I have done for years and years. I have been their colleague, their employee, and their boss. And these are the stereotypes I would be comfortable saying, in my experience, are broadly true.

They do need tonnes of reassurance and regular recognition. 

They do demand a high level of communication and information at all times. 

They do get emotional at setbacks and are highly sensitive to criticism.

They do expect a fast career progression and get restless without it. 

They do expect a lot from their managers and bosses.

But here's what I've come to realise: Thank God for that.

From the moment I set foot in a magazine office as a work-experience intern in London, I knew that writing and working in the media was what I wanted to do. And I gave it everything. 

Stories from my own early working life prove that the same broad strokes of generalisation are true about my generation, X.

I "worked my way up" from the shit jobs, always pulling late nights and weekends, rarely getting paid for it, rarely complaining.

I considered myself "lucky to be there" - even though actually, as an educated, white woman of reasonable ability, there really wasn't anything that remarkable about it.

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I didn't often push for pay rises and promotions. I had a broad understanding that if I worked hard and was good at what I did, it would be noticed and rewarded in time. 

Was it? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. 

I didn't expect (or receive) recognition unless I'd done something exceptional. Otherwise, it was a given that I would deliver.

I had some bosses who would shout, swear and abuse. 

I had male bosses and colleagues early in my career who made passes. Who joked about me providing the tea and sandwiches for meetings. Who touched a little too much. 

I hated it, but I didn't push back. I thought it was how things were. Because it was how things were. 

None of these things are badges of honour. I'm also not complaining about any of it. They're just facts. 

I did well. I have a great job. I've done a lot of things I've wanted to do. I write books, which has always been a fantasy. I've had a lot of adventures I wouldn't have had in any other profession. There's still so much more ahead of me. I am aware of that extraordinary privilege.

But when the battle lines are drawn over who was born when and what it all means, I am a generational traitor. 

Because I've come to stand in admiration of the young women I work with and have worked with who know their worth.

Of course, a sturdy work ethic, resilience, commitment and loyalty are excellent traits in any employee. 

They are also traits that I see around me in spades in these women. None of them are incompatible with any of the observations from that other list above. 

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud, Mamamia's podcast with what women are talking about this week. Post continues below.

I see them being clear about where they want to be and where they want to go. 

I see them intolerant of the notion their gender would hold them back at work. 

I see them hungry to learn and improve through the feedback older managers find so tiring to give. 

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I see them being realistic and honest about mental health challenges, something unheard of even 10 years ago. Then, you burnt out and broke down at your peril. 

I see them refusing to sacrifice their time, health and relationships in the unquestionable service of businesses who would, likely, replace them in a heartbeat. 

I see them demanding parity with others. Passing on the learnings that they crave. Craving an understanding of how decisions are made. Wanting to stand for something. 

And it makes my tired self - tired from giving all the feedback and handing out what Ita might classify as 'hugs' - it makes my tired self hopeful. 

I get it. It isn't possible to hand out promotions like lollies. It can be infuriating to feel like you need to thank everyone just for turning up every day.

But at its core, what some 'older' bosses are complaining about is that it is exhausting managing people who refuse to just work hard and shut up.

Well, get used to it.

Generation "lucky to be here" are over. They've seen through the lie.

They've seen historic institutions crumble and entire industries that were always safe bets vanish almost overnight. 

They've seen leaders replaced within a news cycle, authority being stripped by a Twitter storm.  

They've seen the number of humans needed to make and do things reduced and reduced and reduced as technology takes over. 

They've seen jobs morph from something you got and held onto into a transient "gig" that you might need five of to survive. 

And they're still striving. Isn't that resilience? 

And, isn't this what we wanted? A generation of young women who believe in themselves? Who ask for what they want? Who know what they deserve?

Well, here they are. And they're living and working through times that would stiffen the flimsiest snowflake. 

I learn from them every day. 

All they want is some recognition, some respect. And maybe, the occasional hug. 

Feature image: Getty.

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