Millennials At Work: How 'Going Viral' is Paying Off


A few weeks ago, Marina Shifrin made a video about why she was quitting her job at Next Media Animation (a Taiwanese animation video production company) that went viral. When I first saw the stunt, I thought it was unprofessional; for my field in government affairs and lobbying, it would have been. To my surprise, her former employer wished her well and she received a job offer from another firm. Turns out, her risky approach fits precisely with the prevailing attitude among young millennial professionals: that a calculated, strategic hail-Mary can earn you both accolades and success, provided it fits the brand you want to create for yourself and the field you want to pursue.

Members of Generation X seem split on the trend. J. Maureen Henderson, writing for Forbes, couldn't get past the way that Shifrin’s revolutionary approach flew in the face of convention, and more formal, ways of resigning. "Professional etiquette’s loss is YouTube’s gain," she wrote. Meanwhile, Jeff Yang at the Wall Street Journal interpreted Shifrin’s video as a "logical strategic decision" and pinpointed exactly why she was successful: she knew her field (video) and she used that knowledge to build her brand. Publicly expressing dissatisfaction that would otherwise be reserved for an exit interview (if that) is a dangerous game, but millennials in particular seem more and more willing to go public and take a risk with their professionally.

Millennials, raised with unfettered access to technology and a filter-free internet platform, see reputation is a fluid concept. Many millennials seem comfortable with publicity, both good and bad. We've grown up on social networks rich with feedback, followers, cheers, and jeers. Though there is a great deal of risk to having an exhibitionist approach to our lives, it’s not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to surprise success. Take Hannah Hart, who took drunken cooking to unprecedented celebrity, or the comedy production group Not Literally that reimagined their unintentional viral success by converting it into a viral video churning machine — for profit.

A few years ago, the New Yorker noted in a profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that the success of the company is dependent on "shifting notions of privacy, revelation, and sheer self-display," which is a notion that goes much further than Facebook. In the professional sphere, that translates to being more willing to take on visible risks to set ourselves apart in a hyper-competitive environment. All the traditional ways of standing out, like getting good grades and a college education, are now what we do just to keep us level.

We are the most educated generation ever, and also the most unemployed. We can’t rely on a degree to set us apart when so many of our peers have degrees, nor a solid GPA when the average GPA is 3.3 for private and 3.0 for public schools. We're competing with an average of 250 applicants for every corporate job.

That translates to a generation more acutely interested in building a market for themselves — and we've been raised on the social media tools to do so. Reputation is still currency, but credibility can be built on celebrity and punctuated innovation; a certain creative sparkle.

The average human attention span is down in the past decade from 12 minutes to five minutes. Marketing, technology, and other industries have changed the way they reach consumers. In the context of a struggling job market, a virtual stunt is one way to stand out. Think of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde applying to Harvard Law School with an application video featuring plenty of sequins and glitter.

Millennials are acting more as careerpreneurs than job-seekers and are increasingly urged to take control of their virtual selves as part of the personal branding process. While referrals reign king in getting someone’s eyes on your resume, there are limited prospects for a candidate to otherwise set themselves apart. It can’t just be about LinkedIn, no matter how beneficial a professional network may be.

Logically, there isn’t much room for repeat success with the exact same approach. The internet doesn’t forget (at least not immediately), and though plenty of people will watch new renditions of the Harlem Shake or a cute cat, they won’t necessarily watch multiple videos of millennials quitting to Kanye West.

So we're left with finding new ways to make waves, something we're very good at — and companies, realizing our innovative spirit, occasionally follow suit. Some job postings are blatant, like this company in Denver requesting applicants accompany their resumes with a single sentence about their candidacy, or this one describing compensation on the hot pepper heat scale.

In this economy, we have the freedom to be more authentic, attracting the type of work we want and repelling the work places where the authentic "us" isn't welcome. The trick is simple: know yourself, know your industry, and know your audience. Risk-taking fits with the nature of the job market today and with the technical chops of the newest generation to enter the workforce.

Given that we're a generation completely plugged into the world, it actually makes perfect sense.