“Oh, those &%#@@ Millennials!”
Tips for Working with Generation Y


By Joseph Shaffner,

North Rock Leadership


Lately I have been hearing a lot about the challenges of working with Millennials (people born between 1981-2001) from many of you Generation Xers (born 1965-1980). I also have some clients who manage Millennials and have expressed their frustration in trying to better understand and motivate this unique age group.  First, it’s important to say that labeling any group of people with generic tag lines such as “iPhone glaring,” “Social Media Bingers” or “Trophy for Everyone generation” is not the best way to begin to understand individuals who are part of this group. While generalizations might help us provide labels for quick shallow perceptions, they are often not a fair reflection of an individual’s ability to be effective and successful in the workplace. Based on my experience, here are a few tips and strategies to consider when working with the Millennial generation.


First, let’s face the fact that Millennials are the bulk of the current labor pool since many Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) are aging out of the workforce and some lucky Generation X folks are also retiring or transitioning into Career 2.0.  Most senior executives today are Gen Xers.


Second, history often repeats itself. Although today’s technology revolution has many parallels to the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, I won’t go back that far for my history lesson. But let’s first look at how the basic pillars of attitudes toward work and work-life balance compare between Baby Boomers and Generation X.


Baby Boomers’ Work Pillars

• Security from, and loyalty to, the institution

• Promotions based on tenure

• One employer for entire career

• Wait to be told what to do

• Respect based on position/title


Generation X Work Pillars

• Security from within individuals

• Promotions based on performance

• Loyalty to the team

• It’s OK to leave a job after five years

• Hard work pays off

• You must earn respect


Millennials’ Work Pillars

• Work life balance

• Meaningful work

• Opportunities to collaborate

• Having fun

• Freedom of choice


There is also a sub-generation called Xennials, who were born between 1977 and 1983. They are described as having an analog childhood and digital adulthood. They know how to use a modem and are comfortable ordering food from their phone.


My first experience with managing a Millennial was when one young woman joined my team in 2013.  I immediately set out to help her plan a career path and provide her with some tools to help prevent the burnout that was common in the high tech company where we worked. When I approached her about some of these “helpful” tips, she replied that she was perfectly happy where she was for now and that I should not worry about her working evenings and weekends. I realized that I needed to change my approach I had used for almost a decade in managing Generation Xs. I also noticed that she was perfectly comfortable walking up to C-level executives to express her opinions, something that I had always felt was an earned privilege and a protocol to be respected followed.


According to Denise Cummins Ph.D. in her book, Good Thinking, “Gen-Xers tend to be highly independent and goal-oriented, focusing on getting the corner office and other trappings of success. Millennials, in contrast, value purpose and meaning in their careers over money or power. This is sometimes summarized as ”Gen-Xer’s live to work, while Millennials work to live.”


Source: Joan Kuhl, Founder of Why Millennials Matter


As a coach, I work with my Generation X clients to help them understand the importance of actually trying to achieve work-life balance and find a higher purpose in life. Millennials, on the other hand, already seem to have a leg up on this. This contrasting view of what our work lives should be like can obviously create some friction in the workplace. Generation Xers also need to consider the challenges of world that the Millennials were born into a world with: High cost of education, an unpredictable economy, high cost of living and  an environment at risk due to a culture of mass consumption in the last two decades.


Now that we have some perspective, let’s get to some strategies on working with Millennials;


1. Unconditional Acceptance - Millennials are different. They are not good or bad, just different and want to be treated with respect. Millennials are also a more racially and ethnically diverse group, so watch your biases.


2. Sharing and Openness - Tell them what your values are, your strengths and weaknesses. Millennials need to build trust, whereas Generation X built trust by questioning authority.


3. What’s in it for them - The turnover rate for Millennials on average is two years. That is a huge cost to your organization. Ninety percent of people leave jobs because of their bosses, not the organization or their salary.  Research suggests that Millennials are less loyal to organizations, so make them loyal to you and remind them why they should stay and build an environment that aligns with their values and motivators included in this list.


4. Money - Millennials are not as motivated by money and career advancement as GenXers and Boomers.  Work-life balance is very important to them. So consider that as more of a motivator than money or career advancement.  Offer flexibility. A 2012 study of the generation by Griffith Insurance Education Foundation discovered that Millennials will sacrifice pay for increased unpaid vacation time and the ability to work outside the office.


5. Be a coach or Mentor: Lead, Don’t Manage - Strict treatment and watching them fail does not work. From my perspective as a pedant and employer of Millennias is much of what succeeds in the world of Millennials boils down to leadership versus management because of the nurturing world they were brought up in—they don’t like to be managed. But they love to be led and inspired. Think of some of the Millennial athletes, like Peyton Manning or Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. They listen to the coach, but they like to call the plays. If you give them that freedom they are more likely to score for the team.


6. Teamwork - Millennials were educated in a more team-centric environment than Generations X’s “every man for himself” perspective. They highly prefer a sense of collaboration and unity over competition and division.


7. Technology - Millennials had a working knowledge of phones and gadgets by the age of 10. They are tech-savvy and love to continually expand their knowledge. You can learn from their technology and networking prowess.  But, also make sure you remind them not to have the phone out while working and meeting with clients, especially Generation X clients. This is a sure way to turn someone off and make them feel they are not important.


8. Optimism and Positive Reinforcement - Encourage Millennials’ innate self-assuredness, attitude, and positive self-image. They are ready to take on the world because their parents told them over and over again that “you can do anything.”  Positive reinforcement is powerful, so don't squash or contain them.


9. Feedback – Millennials need consistent, frequent feedback. “They want feedback on how they are doing, they want that feedback often, and they want it right now,” says said Chad Halvorson, founder and CEO of When I Work.


10. Multi-tasking - Teach them that multi-tasking is not an effective way to work.  The research is conclusive that quality goes progressively down if you are focusing on more than one task. A study at Stanford (see study here) indicated that “Heavy media multi-taskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multi-taskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.” “The low multi-taskers did great,” Ophir said. “The high multi-taskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains.”


There is a lot of extensive research on Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers. I spend a great deal of time reading through it. (Some of it only a statistician would love!) My conclusion is that we have a lot more in common than we think, and if we better understand what makes each other tick, not just from a generational perspective but our own unique characteristics, we can work and learn well together.  And don’t forget, Millennials will be your largest customer base very soon.


I would love to hear about your experiences with the different generations, so feel free to contact me at joe@northrockleadership.com.


Here are two very comprehensive studies on Millennials and other generations:


Generations Differences Chart


MILLENNIALS: A Portrait of Generation NEXT - Pew Research Center


Also, check out this piece on millennial by Clicktime:




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