What 'The Big Lebowski' can teach us about employing millennials

By Mike Cook 
For The Bellingham Business Journal

A conversation I had recently with my just-turned 30-year-old son prompted today’s writing.

He is a millennial, and has all the traits that I hear so many business owners complain about. He has changed jobs four times in the six years since he left college. He wants more responsibility than he should probably expect. He expects to be asked for his ideas and that they will be listened to. He wants to have a sense of purpose from his work, and — probably most irritating of all — he is not afraid. If he isn’t getting what he wants from his employment circumstance he moves on, confident that he will land on his feet.

My son, like many in this millennial generation, does not live to work, he works to live. Oh, he may work 50-55 hours at times, come in at 4 a.m. when needed, but not for the reasons you might think.

He works from a sense of responsibility for what needs to be done, not obligation. Don’t take that for granted, and don’t try to buy his weekend with pizza and soda pop. He expects to be rewarded, never taken for granted, he knows what he is contributing. He will not abide your lack of recognition.

What is the enduring quality of the character in the American psyche that just doesn’t seem to give a hoot about “the dream?” You know what I am talking about, that anti-hero resurrected every so often to reaffirm that idea of “I could walk away from all this if I really wanted to”

He might have first been represented by Charlie Chaplin’s classic character The Tramp, a figure who mocked shortcomings of the modern industrial life.

In recent times, however, he is admirably symbolized as The Dude — Jeffrey Lebowski, central character of the Coen brothers’ 1998 film “The Big Lebowski.” The Dude is one of the more unlikely, yet profound, mentors for two generations of employees in our places of work.

Many of us upstanding, solid character types might have considerable difficulty admitting our identification with this man who at first exposure seems at best the classic slacker our parents raised us not to be, yet a label we often apply to millennials. Yet he has always been with us, there in the background of our culture.

Everything about The Dude serves as an outright rejection of that in us and our organizations which is not authentic. His personification may be somewhat easier to address if we consider him not literally but as an extreme expression of every employee, if they did not fear retribution for their honesty.

The Dude eliminates the oppression of this fear by simply not caring, and for many of us this is just too much honesty! Absent his respect, The Dude, like many of our employees, is not above using us for his own purposes — thereby perpetuating the notion that the best we can expect from that relationship called employment is a sort of sad, smirking conspiracy where “I’ll use you and you’ll use me” is what we’ll settle for, as long as we make our numbers.

We kid ourselves by reading “Good to Great” but we’ll settle for good every time if it proves profitable. But at what cost do we perpetuate the inauthenticity that seems now to be so obviously rejected by our millennial generation?

If we cannot take our guidance from a man who shops for milk at midnight in his bathrobe then maybe we’ll listen to legitimate types like James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II. These are the authors of “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want” (And is it such a big leap to also go further: what employees really want?) Gilmore and Pine go to great pains in their book to expose us to what The Dude simply lived as a matter of personal expression.

Gilmore and Pine give us five genres of authenticity to consider:

  • Natural authenticity: raw, of-the-earth, rustic, stripped down and, best of all, sustainable

  • Original authenticity: the first of its kind

  • Exceptional authenticity: stresses uniqueness, the aesthetic appeal, not like anything else

  • Referential authenticity: evokes an iconic time, person, group or place

  • Influential authenticity: implies or provokes change

If your place of work does not have the appeal of one or more of these categories you can be sure that, like my son, neither Gilmore, Pine, The Dude, or many of his millennial admirers would be found there, at least for very long.

 Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at mike.cook@vistagechair.com

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