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Working with Millennials

April 15, 2010



We recently got a call from a potential client asking  for help with one segment of their large workforce, “We need some help on improving the communication between our Millennial employees (born after 1980) and our Traditionalist (born between 1925 and 1945) customers.”

No surprises here.  While some believe that the whole generational issue is too generalized and over-blown – our experiences working with multiple generations  demonstrates to us that the differences between them can be real and quite substantive.  Those differences impact behavior, feelings, assumptions and expectations that affect every aspect of the workplace.

The so-called Millennial (aka Gen Y) age cohort (79 million strong) is entering the job market in what author Jim Heskett (HBR – How Will Millennials Manage?) refers to as a “millennial watershed.”   Up until now, the Baby Boomers comprised the largest group in the workforce.  But that is about to change – radically.

What kinds of changes will Millennials bring to the workplace?

What’s it like to work with and for Millennials?

And most compelling – how will Millennials change the nature of work, or will they?

More has been written about the Millennial generation than any of the others (Gen X (born 1965-80) Baby Boomers (1946-64) and the Traditionalists.

Millennials have been described as: over-protected, over-coddled, over-scheduled, over-confident and self-entitled.  On the other hand, they’ve also been called: civic-minded, risk -taking, bold, innovative, entrepreneurial, flexible, optimistic and balanced in their views on the role of work and life.  A recent Pew Research Study describes Millennials as: “confident, upbeat, self-expressive, liberal and open to change.”

What Shapes the Millennial Mindset?

While many factors go into the shaping of values and the cultural and individual mindsets of a generation, one thing stands out about this generational cohort – Millennials are digital natives – they have never known a world without digital technology.

As a result, this generation has experienced and formed  a world view vastly different from even their nearest cohort – Gen Xers.  Of course, the Millennial’s relationship to technology can be seen as one of their greatest strengths, or weaknesses, depending on your perspective.

Dr. Clare Graves, a student of motivational psychologist Abraham Maslow, described “values” as a basis of human evolution. Graves thought that values imprinting was at its peak at age 10.  If you reflect back on what was happening in your personal orbit and in the larger world the year you were 10, you’ll get a sense of the events and trends that were shaping your own values structure.

In 1995, the world of a ten year old Millennial looked like this:  Bill Clinton was  President:  The Oklahoma City Bombing took 168 lives:  Yahoo was founded; the DVD was introduced;  O.J Simpson was acquitted: the  Dow Jones hit  a world record; the first computer animated film, Toy Story was released;  Batman Forever was the Best Picture; Seinfeld, the most popular TV show and Kiss from a Rose by Seal  won the Grammy.

“The Millennials will become to the world, what Baby Boomers were to America. but in a sustainable, emancipating  way, humanizing the world.”                                                        Siva Subramaniam

That’s quite an expectation, let’s hope it’s accurate!

Like all generations, Millennials face an uncertain economic future.  Expectations of easy employment, workplace flexibility and escalating earnings may elude Millennials, at least for the near future.  Generation watchers speculate that the economic upheaval of the past two years may “discipline” Millennials and force them to readjust their expectations.

While it’s too soon to know what the effect the downturn will have on this generation’s work behaviors and patterns, it is clear that many Millennial work values could serve them well in a reconfigured work world.

The Millennial’s vision of work and their  preferences for balance in their work – life may position them to take advantage of the changing landscape of the post-recession American workplace.  Gen Y expectations are vastly different from their elder cohorts in ways that may maximize their adaptation to the new environment:

  • Most Millennials are not expecting to make a life time commitment to a job or company and are more content to work on a project or consultancy basis. While that may pose challenges to employers in terms of retention, it’s also more suitable to shifting economic conditions.
  • The majority of Gen Y’s are not looking to employers to guarantee health and pension benefits. They may look instead for work flexibility and trade-off traditional benefits for more freedom from the grueling schedules so many Xer’s and Boomers are keeping.
  • As more businesses and institutions tool up for greater social media connectivity, global commerce and communication, the Millennials are perfectly poised to jump into the driver’s seat to make it happen. They are intuitive about networks and innovate easily. They love to learn and change is a welcome challenge. (According to the ’08 Pepsi Optimism Project, 95% of all Millennials of the 2,008 surveyed had positive associations with the word change). Their boldness is what’s needed to regenerate economies right now.
  • They are naturals at teamwork. They like to share power and ideas  and that makes them perfectly suited to an interconnected global workforce.
  • Gen Y’s desire meaningful work.  Sustainability and community matters to them.  They could be the catalysts to accelerate the  pace of change that is so needed to remake business and institutions to  survive and thrive in the 21st century.

What is true of all the generations is that what we want and what we do in work – and in life – is driven by our values. While we may not be consciously aware of all the ways that our values drive us, we can be sure that the key to understanding our motivations and those of our multi-generational kin is by exploring values.

We often hear other generations lament that the Millennials lack work ethic values.  So it’s always interesting to hear a Millennial describe, often with great clarity and passion, what work means to them and how they approach it.

To be sure, there are many differences to explore between the generations.  As our workplaces become more populated with Gen Y energy, thinking and behavior, the way we work will inevitably change.

Author John Hollon (Millennials at the Gate) puts it well: ” Maybe that’s the one thing the Millennials can teach the rest of us: that work is the means to help reach our goals but not the end goal itself. They are going to do it differently, and like it or not, better be ready. Once this generation fully takes over, our workplaces will never be the same.”

 If you are a Millennial, what’s your experience of your generation’s take on work?  If you work with Millennials, what has your experience been? 

And before you go…… check out the  How Millennial are You Test?

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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