The End of Soft Skills
Every twenty or thirty years a major trend comes along that shapes an entire generation. We are entering one now. The signs are everywhere, documented in the book Screen Schooled by two veteran public school teachers. The basic premise is that technology overuse makes kids dumber.
As they grow into adults, basic life skills like face-to-face communication are at risk. Messaging replaced texting, texting replaced email, email replaced phone calls, and phone calls replaced good old-fashioned face-to-face communication.
In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr makes a case that adolescents’ increased interaction with technology is actually changing the neuroplasticity of their brain. The problem is compounded as multinational companies like Snap and Epic Games (developer of Fortnight) identify ways to keep youth addicted to their devices. All of this takes this new generation, which I call Second-Wave Millennials, away from the development of those necessary interpersonal skills.
These are soft skills, and they are critical to life and work. Life throws curve balls, and soft skills help you navigate them. In the workplace, it is said that hard skills get you hired, but soft skills get you fired.
The Adolescent Worker
Earlier this year, the medical community changed the official age of adolescence—extending it from 19 to 25. In other words, 25 is the new 19. Indeed, kids are growing up more slowly and delaying the traditional markers of adulthood like career and marriage. And, in the meantime, parents are not introducing the basic soft skills like how to introduce yourself to an adult, communicate clearly, or proper etiquette at the dinner table.
The Perfect Storm
There are two reasons Second-Wave Millennials seem to lack the interpersonal skills they need to succeed in the workplace: one reason has to do with parenting and the second has to do with technology. Together they’re making a perfect storm for a soft-skill crisis in the workplace.
GenX parents (the lawnmower parents) have perfected the path their kids must follow in order to get good grades, high test scores and access to the best colleges. Their kids’ schedules are so packed—particularly with academics—that there is little room for anything else.
There is no “free time,” and on the weekends young people are being tutored or participating in scheduled sports instead of having a job at 7-Eleven or the hardware store. Their inexperience with part-time jobs through high school and college makes their first “career” job much more challenging.
When Second-Wave Millennials do have free time, they usually spend it in front of a screen, and this is the second reason they are lacking soft skills. More time in front of a screen means less time in front of people.
Hard Skills not Lacking
Ironically, Second-Wavers are pretty solid on hard skills. Learning an obscure component within an agile software process is a hard skill, but holding a fork properly at a client dinner where you are clearly explaining the obscure component is a soft skill. Having a certification in SSL, Java, or BASIC are hard skills, but selling your boss on an idea is a soft skill. Get the drift?
Remediation in the Workplace
Often, corporate training departments are not set up to train in basic soft skills, and there is a feeling of resentment among older generations about these new hires coming in without this knowledge. In fact, alarms have been raised by so many employers I spoke with that I started a company called Second Wave Learning to address the soft skill gap for these second wavers. I encourage you to check it out at www.secondwavelearning.com.
In the meantime, as a manger, you can fall back on “feedback” — one of the core needs of Millennial employees. Provide them with constructive feedback and helpful information on how and why writing for business is different than writing on Snapchat or Instagram, invite them to rehearse presentations in front of colleagues, and teach them when to step up as a leader and when to back off.
As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, Millennials need coaching, not managing. Coaching can only help them improve in the soft skills they came to the workplace lacking.