I’m a Millenial: Media at my Fingertips and the Dopamine Drip (Long Post ahoy)

Millenials (including Gen Y’s) have a shithouse reputation at work. Management articles and corporate pseudo-psychs talk about us like we’re a lost cause. We are a source of utter confusion for our Gen X and Boomer managers. The world we lived in is incredibly different to theirs. 

The belief seems to be that there is some ‘secret sauce’ which will give some key to managing us successfully. These articles are underpinned by the belief that Millenials need to be understood. We confuse the shit out of our older colleagues. 

There has never before been ‘social media’, an online existence, or such a magnitude of available information as there is today. The rate of change in technology in the last 20-30 years has been exponential. My grandparents wouldn’t even recognise the world today relative to the one they were raised in. 

This raises an interesting dynamic in the workplace: though young people are entering the workplace following an alien upbringing and an intense reliance on technology, the business models we are joining remain largely unchanged since the 90s. We’re applying old paradigms to new technology, and hoping for the best. 

Baby Boomers, who are nearing retirement, are working longer due to longer life expectancy. They were raised in the post-war era by parents who knew the harsh realities of life; the answer for these parents was hard-work and long-time loyalty with a single company. Dependency and safety were the desired qualities. Baby Boomers grew from these attitudes to become very entrepreneurial, competitive, diligent and persevering as a generation. They learned from their parents that the way to get ahead was to work hard and climb the food chain within a single business which would take care of you and your family.

The children of the Baby Boomers, Gen X, are very different. They were raised by the optimistic and indulging Baby Boomers who were able to give their children an upbringing sans the hardships of their own. Some argue this made Gen X the generation of entitlement (cough cough. Entitled Millenial, or ‘snowflake’, is catch cry for the white middle class recently…)

Millennials are different again. Raised by protective parents who haven’t faced too much trauma in the changing world; a generation ‘in between’. We’ve been given access to more information than any generation before. Millennials are criticized for requiring high amounts of praise, believing we are special and that  all businesses are a meritocracy. We think we should get ahead on merit, even where that means leapfrogging seniors who have far more experience. This brashness, coupled often with a lack of emotional intelligence, can result in confusion on all sides.

With these challenges in mind it can be easy to see why the Boomers and Gen X’ers are searching for some ‘trick’ for managing Millennials.

We don’t understand each other at all and we may need to ‘agree to disagree’. Millenials will rule the day eventually, and have to put up with Gen Zs. It’s a pernicious cycle.

I believe there is a much larger, underlying question at play in the management of Millennials: what is the impact of our reliance on social media and technology, and does this reliance affect the way we work?

I was born in 1988 and 8-10 years inside of the 1978/80 to early 2000’s age range bracket commonly accepted as the ‘Millenial’ years (a range which seems to be defined by the media). I am sick of reading articles implying, or flat-out stating: “Millenials are the worst” (I’m looking at you The Atlantic). I understand why we may be an exasperating bunch, but we have some redeeming qualities, and we are a great bunch to have heading up the next wave of change in the world.

With this personal bias in mind, I am about to make a claim that is not so complimentary. We Millennials are addicts. We are not the only generation to suffer from it, but we are probably the most hooked. The addiction I am talking about is our reliance on dopamine.

In truth, all human beings are addicted to dopamine. It is the chemical in our brains which makes us eager to tick items off our to-do list, achieve something, and gain satisfaction from closing out a task. It is the same chemical which gives us that familiar buzz when we check our smartphones, open our email, get caught in YouTube loops or hear the Facebook notification ding. It is a very shallow high however; short lived and unsatisfying in either the short or long term. We waste hours consuming media which turns the drip up, with little outcome. 

Dopamine is the transmitter which rewards us for taking action. It is so important to our motivation to search for what we need to survive, including food, shelter, sugar, etc. Mammals need Dopamine to convince them to venture out into danger to get the resources they need to survive. 

In our modern era, with no predators chasing us and food at our fingertips, Dopamine has become an abused drug for many people (I mean Me). When we seek that dopamine release, we take short term action for a short term high. Sure, you may feel very productive in completing your to-do list, the ticking off of items will cause a dopamine release. But Dopamine is a fickle and short term gratification. It doesn’t help you to build long-term rewards

I struggled with dopamine throughout my 9 years of off-campus (and self-driven) under grad study. I got to a point 2 years out from graduation where the short lived hits of dopamine I got from completing an assignment or exam were just not enough. I would procrastinate my arse off, leaving tasks to the last minute and relying on the dopamine hit to motivate me to get it done. Fast and sloppy with grades to match.

Sometime around 4am one desperate morning I hit a wall. I needed something longer term to make it to graduation, something more than ‘if you finish this chapter you can have some chocolate’ (see, I was all about the dopamine).

I wrote on my whiteboard: “Less than 2 years left, and then you’ll miss it. So appreciate it now and feel satisfied at the end”. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but this was my attempt to enlist future-forward chemicals in my brain which could help me take the short term pain, for much longer term reward. The problem was that my dopamine-addled, Millennial brain, which had developed on social media, distracting information, and frequent media use, could hardly hang out for this long-term reward.

I would constantly check social media (one more time), watch TV while studying (yeah, it wasn’t a great strategy), and distract myself constantly. Throughout my university years I had a laptop, iPad and smartphone. 

Facebook didn’t come about in Australia until the year after I finished school (roughly 2006) and Instagram much later. No sarcasm: I was an ambi-verted and sometimes anxious kid. Instagram and facebook would have ruined my self-esteem and prevented the development of my much needed social skills. Social media during high school would have ruined my ability to focus. At least I had some idea by living through highschool with only MySpace and MSN Messenger, of what life can be like without these platforms. I’m a slow learner and I needed most of my 20s to understand how shallow these sources of interaction are. 

What does this dopamine dependence mean for Millennials in the workplace?

It means we are more easily distracted than any generation before us. We are looking for that short term dopamine hit that we are conditioned to getting from our media intake and social media interaction. This may make us less suited to big, meaty, long-term projects which are essential to becoming experts in our fields. 

We can lack some of the fundamental emotional intelligence that is needed in the workplace. Social media doesnt set you up for effective interaction or tough conversations. 

My hypothesis for the emotional intelligence impact is this: Oxytocin, known as the ‘trust’ hormone, is released when we develop trusting, reliant and secure relationships with others. Can we successfully build the kinds of relationships we need for this trust to develop, via social media? It needs to be through shared challenge and shared experience.

If you’ve spent some or all of your formative years interacting through a medium, it is unlikely you’ve built up the connections in your brain necessary for emotional intelligence required for the workplace.

Simon Sinek stated to the Glen Beck radio show in the US that the school shootings across the world are due to loneliness, not moral turpitude or inherent evil. He posited that kids who are interacting with and experiencing the world through social media and the internet are not building the relationships and social frameworks which are a must to fulfil our need for connection. This can lead to isolation, anger, insecurity, and, in some circumstances, violence. Add bullying and mental illness to the mix and you have a volatile and heartbreaking combination for kids who just want connection. 

I cannot imagine the person I might have been had I been able to, as a teenager, retreat into simulated environments like Facebook and internet forums, where the people are real, but the connection is not. With this taking up space and time in my life, I would not have developed the trusting friendships I needed to understand who I am as a person, and what life means. I have shared experiences with friends, teachers and family and had the opportunity to overcome challenges – giving me the necessary building blocks for lessons to learn in my adulthood. 

Teenagers and young adults are notoriously selfish before we learn these lessons. We grow up thinking the world revolves around us, owes us something. They are lessons not easily come by – and I believe that one of the necessary conditions to getting to these is:

  • Long term reward in spite of short term pain. This means we need to overcome the ‘Dopamine Dominance’, and
  • A willingness  to forge connections with others

So, if you take the dopamine reliance and the lack of real connection with others, you have a real problem ahead. How do Millennials overcome this? Well, some of us don’t. Some of us are taking detoxes from social media to return to our real selves. Some of us are living lonely existences, fueling ourselves with short term dopamine highs from superficial ‘sharing’ and interacting on social media, rather than involve ourselves in the murky and messier possibility of real connections with other people. We think we are doing the right thing and involving ourselves more in the world, but this could not be further from the truth.

Social media and social networking, in spite of its inclusive and positive message, can be the most isolating network of all. I believe that you can’t safely interact through these mediums until you know:

  • Who you are
  • What you believe
  • What you value
  • And why you are an inherently valuable being

Perhaps Heidegger, a German philosopher who passed away long before social networks and social media existed, understood it best even in his lifetime. He believed that modern technology changed the natural order of things and by doing so it lessened our ability to have an authentic sense of being.

What are we if we are not authentic beings?

How do we respond to this in the workplace?

I am sure that many Millennial’s (myself included) will take some time to come to the realisation that we need real, authentic connection with others to feel successful in life, to get past the dopamine and instead access oxytocin and serotonin. 

We need to be our authentic selves to build any real trust with others. We can’t rely on our sparkling social media presence to get through our day to day lives. Being fake just won’t cut it – we must be honest with ourselves and with others to be satisfied and to contribute to our society. This is hugely liberating, but also incredibly terrifying.

The answer is to understand this dopamine driver. If you have a task at work – how do you focus on the long-term rather than on the short term buzz? You’re lying if you say you’ve never checked the news sites repeatedly some days, when you have a tough task ahead of you.

The solution for Millennials and Managers is (again, courtesy of Simon Sinek) to have a long-term vision for yourself and for your company. As humans we need to know that we are working for a cause greater than ourselves. Most people, Millennials included, are looking for meaning and satisfaction in their work. You get this by working with and for others, to make the world, even if this is via a company, a better place. Millennials are going to want more than financial reward and corporate-ladder seniority to find our place in the world and in our workplace. To give our lives meaning and give us a team to work within where we can satisfy our human need for authenticity, honesty, trust and value.

What more could any employee ask for?

Fuck “Millenials”. It’s time for a new tag. 


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