One of my favorite episodes of Mad Men came in season four. In it, Don and Peggy argue over an ad for Samsonite, but as anyone who watches Mad Men religiously (comme moi) knows, that's not what it is about. As the old saying goes, "If the scene is about what the scene is about, you're in deep shit." This episode is much more relevant than leathery travel things.
The whole hour revolves around the idea of clashes: for money, for recognition, for pride.
It starts with the iconic Sonny Liston v. Muhammad Ali fight which is set to happen that night. Don favors Sonny because he "goes about his business," while Ali is just a "loud mouth." "'I'm the greatest!'...Not if you have to say it." To Don, Ali may be a gifted boxer, but he still hasn't proven himself in any way.
Peggy, the young, and talented copywriter, feels like she didn't get properly recognized for her work in an award-winning ad. Don, her boss, got a CLIO, while she got nothing, and he doesn't see an issue with any of it. She's also not sure how to feel about her life so far. Everything is going to plan: she loves her job, she is burning through the corporate ladder, and she's getting respect (as much as a woman in the 60's [i.e. "Smile more often, sweetcheeks"] could expect to get). But she's also not married, doesn't have kids, and just broke up with her "nice guy" boyfriend. She wonders if she's chasing the right things, a question we've probably asked ourselves more than once.
The climax of the episode happens when Peggy finally confronts Don about her bruised ego. Here's the scene:
This resonates with many of us, because when Millenniels grow up and ask for things we are told we shouldn't expect we are given a weird look and called "entitled." We are brushed off as being clueless.
But what if your whole life you were taught to expect recognition, feedback, and guidance?
"That's what the money is for!"
You were raised by parents who were heavily interested and invested in your progress. They helped you pick the right clubs to join, went to every campus tour with you, and proofed your resume dozens of times. They encouraged you every day, and never stopped looking for the best in you.
At school you were asked to perform at insane levels from day one. If you wanted to achieve your dream and "make it," you had to show merit starting from Pre-K. Fail that Triple Honors Algorithm class and your already slim chances at Stanford dropped by half. For previous generations, even thinking about the idea of going to college was a pipe dream--that stuff was only for the well-connected, so there was almost a disincentive to wasting your time worrying about it. Today, everyone has a shot, everyone can stand out, which means the pool of competitors is larger and fiercer than ever. Merit is the universal currency from age 5 to 21.
As soon as you graduate from college you crash into the immovable glacier that is "the real world." You find out that your worth to the rest of society is reset to zero, and that all of a sudden your critics drastically outnumber your supporters. You have to re-prove yourself in everything, which is fair since the rest of the world is facing the same gauntlet, but it still stings for someone who just spent 16 years in AP classes, air-tight schedules, all-nighters, and stressing out about their GPA 24/7. Yes, what you did during those school years is not everything, but it's not nothing either.
So when you start your career after college you still have that need for feedback, guidance, and recognition hardwired into your brain. How can you not when you've been surrounded by it your entire life.
When you ask for for these things you are not being entitled. You are simply asking for a teeny bit of understanding, a little help adjusting.
Here are two reasons why this gap in understanding may happen:
- You may be doing a poor job of explaining what you are asking for. You might not be asking for a "Thank you," but for some sign that you are doing it well, some guideposts that let you know your stuff is working. "Am I doing it right? I am? Oh good!"
- Your peers and boss may be doing a poor job of trying to understand where this ask comes from. It's not based on ego, but on you trying to be valuable to your team..and isn't that what every company wants, a person who gives a hoot?
This needs to be emphasized: for the most part, millennials are tremendously ambitious and driven. We want to have an big impact through our work, and we love to be challenged every day. Our needs are there because we actually care about how we give ourselves to the work. There's a lot of energy in that drive, but the gap in understanding, between what you need and what your needs look like to others, is hurting everyone.
In the episode, Peggy and Don finally bond over something that isn't about awards, or work, or money. They bond over their struggles as human beings, over the hardships we will all eventually share. After they get past their spat they co-create a great piece of advertising.
That is what's constantly missing in our cross-generational communication (and I'd argue communication in general): we forget we all have our battles, that we are all human. Once you remember that the person right in front of you is much more alike than different from you, that they have insecurities, needs, and dreams like you, then you can start doing the important stuff, that is, doing great work together.