Stop Bashing Millennials and Start Learning to Work With Them!

Generations coming together.

This is a re-post from an article I posted on LinkedIn yesterday:

Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam

and admit that the waters around you have grown.

And accept it that soon you’ll be soaked to the bone,

If your time, to you, is worth saving.

And you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times, they are a’ changing!

I started with Bob Dylan because I’m talking mainly to you, Boomers, and more than a few of my fellow Gen-Xers, too. We need to talk about the kids today. If what I’m hearing from so many of you is true, then we are headed for certain doom. The Millennial generation and the Gen-Z that follows them are nothing but entitled, inattentive, whiny, self-centered, flighty, unprofessional, wimps, and they have zero work skills whatsoever. Whatever are we to do?

The World Has Moved On…

Look, I get it. The world is different today than it was when I was in high school in the ’90s. It was different then than it was when my parents graduated in the ’70s; and it’s most certainly not the same world in which my grandfather was able to land a job as a broadcast engineer with nothing more than an eighth-grade education in the ’50s. It’s natural for us to be resistant to change. We like routine. We like predictability. We like standard operating procedures and best practices that have been proven over decades. But that’s not the world we live in. Whether we admit it or not, we’re in the midst of the next big revolution – and this one’s about instant access to information, and it’s moving fast enough to make anyone’s head spin.

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Remember these?

I’m technically a digital immigrant, like many of you. Unlike a lot of people my age, however, I had a computer in my home even in my earliest memories. Remember that bit about Grandpa being an engineer? He had lots of spares, and we always had one. I learned to use MS-DOS somewhere around seven or eight years old, and kept up (mostly) with technological changes ever since. Most people my age and older, however, were not so fortunate.

Many of you had never used a computer until you took your first job. You used to have to go to the library and look up information in a book, or call a business to find the answers you were looking for. And to make that call, you had to drive to someone’s house, a physical business, or a pay-phone. If it could be said that information in the early modern period moved at a sloth’s pace, then we can maybe say it graduated to a turtle’s pace around the time of the telegraph. It reached a hare’s pace around the end of the twentieth century, but now we’ve hit that exponential curve, and we’re skyrocketing to maximum warp, Scotty!

Today’s younger generations are all digital natives. They’ve never known a time when you couldn’t just look up the answer to any level 1 question (see Costa’s levels of questioning) on the magic device in the palm of your hand. They’ve always had access to more information than we have, and they know how to access it more quickly and more effectively than most of us do. This makes them amazing. It also puts them at odds with older folks who are used to having to go through hours, days, or weeks trying to gather information before making a decision. Millennials are able to gather and synthesize that information incredibly quickly.

The Existential Component

According to authors Heather J. Anderson, et. al. in the abstract for their piece in Leadership Quarterly, “Employees of this generation hold different expectations regarding the centrality of work to their lives and bring different personalities and attitudes to the workforce.” (Feb2017, Vol. 28 Issue 1, p245-260. 16p.) This idea had me thinking that maybe the issue is that these young people are coming to understand certain existential realities more quickly than their older counterparts, and that naturally affects their values and decision making in ways that seem foreign to us when we compare them to our own experiences at that age. In other words, the old “What if you knew then what you know now?” question – which used to be a purely intellectual flight of fancy – is finally beginning to get an answer.

To explain what I mean by “existential realities,” let’s look at an anecdotal situation that many of us can relate to, and which, I think, illustrates my point nicely – the midlife crisis. According to marriage and family therapist Cathy Meyer, “A midlife crisis is experienced between the ages of 40 and 60. It was first identified by the psychologist Carl Jung and is a normal part of the maturing process. Most people will experience some form of emotional transition during that time of life. A transition that might cause them to take stock in where they are in life and make some needed adjustments to the way they live their life.” (Citation)

What the Midlife Crisis Looked Like for Most of Us

Photo of a faceless woman with short red hair grabbing her temples.  Lightning the color of her hair is radiating from her head indicating stress.
Existential crises are real, and they affect everyone – not just mid-lifers.

The “emotional transition” Meyer mentions typically comes at the hands of some major realizations about one’s existential situation. For so many of us, the process of “growing up” has been the same for generations, and it takes decades. The plan goes like this:

  1. Go to school from at least age five through age eighteen and learn core educational curricula along with “social skills” which are designed to help you survive in the “real world.” (…as if the world inside of a classroom isn’t real.)
  2. If you deviate from accepted social norms during these twelve years, chances are you will be disciplined into shape, or deemed unfit for the “normal” institution and sent to a special institution (alternative schools, private schools, home-school, charter schools, etc). After all, we as educators know that part of our job is to fill in gaps left by parents and the rest of society when it comes to teaching adolescents how to be functional adults. We also know that this hidden curriculum is justified because it’s teaching kids how to “act right” in public or on the job.
  3. After high school, you ether get a job or go to more school to try and get a better job – because all of your teachers and your parents have told you that in order to earn more money, you need a better job; and to get a better job, you need a degree.
  4. If you get a job, you learn quickly (probably by either being fired or written up) how to behave on the job. You learn when to keep your mouth shut, you learn how to lay low and do the bare minimum to earn a paycheck, and to put in extra effort when you want a promotion or a raise – because, after all, that’s the end goal, right? The paycheck.
  5. If you go to college, you flounder for a year or two trying to decide what you think you want to do for the next 40 years until you retire. You learn to do the minimum amount of work to keep a 2.5 or 3.0 GPA, and how to jump through the institutional hoops so that you can get a degree, which will land you the good job and the higher paycheck – because, after all, that’s the end goal, right? The paycheck?
  6. You hit 40 and you realize that you’ve been shoved through this meat-grinder of an institutional-social construct for most of your life and you’re miserable. All of a sudden it hits you that you’ve been living your life according to everyone else’s standards the whole time. You’ve felt like you had some choices along the way, but now you’re wondering if you ever really did. You start to remember the way you used to be before you were bogged down by your boss and your job and your family and your financial worries. You want out. You make a change.

A Mid-life Crisis at Twenty

Now, what if you had all access to so much information that these realizations influence your decision making in your twenties rather than your forties? Would you do things the same way? Of course, I’m willing to grant that there are some lessons you can only learn by actually putting your hand on the hot stove a few times, but there are a whole lot more lessons out there that we learn by watching, or reading about someone else putting their hand on the stove.

Many Millennials read a lot online and are used to doing digital research. They see people our age struggling with existential issues, they look at our lives, they see the process I described above and others like it – social constructs that most older adults just accept without question – and say “That’s stupid. Why would you ever live that way?” So they don’t make choices that seem to like the “prudent” choice, because they have a benefit of foresight that none of us older folks ever had, and they realize that for themselves, those choices maybe aren’t so prudent.

The Functional Response…

Clip art graphic of a young person carrying a ladder toward a goal with a light bulb in the middle - indicating a young person finding solutions to pursue his passion.

The functional ones who see this are the go-getters. They’re the ones you read about in the papers – Malala Yousafzai comes to mind. But there are plenty of Malalas out there working locally to make their own communities better. They’re starting businesses they’re passionate about and doing work that is so much more productive than what they would be doing if they’d made the “prudent” choice and just learned to accept the work world for what it currently is.

Instead, they’re using the information at their disposal to make well-informed and strategic decisions about their lives – and those decisions can be shocking for someone who thinks it absolutely must be a part of the human condition that we spend 30-40 years doing the same job so that we have enough money to not do anything for the last 20 years of our lives. Millennials are seeing things differently, though. They see that there are other roads for them to take, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

And it’s not just career choices, either. Mellinnials are awesome at questioning everything. As a teacher I can’t imagine a better quality to have in a generation. They want to know why we’ve been doing things the way we have, and why we can’t see that some of those ways are really inefficient, ineffective, or just plain stupid.

… And the Not-So-Functional Response

Black and white photograph of a young woman sitting on a stone bench in front of a brick wall.  Her head is hung low, and her long hair covers her face.  She sits between a happy emoji graffiti on the left side of the wall and a sad emoji on the right side of the wall.

I don’t want to give the impression here, though, that all Millennials are amazing go-getters. It’s absolutely true that some Millennials are a bit more fail, a bit weaker, a bit less motivated, and therefore less well-suited for the corporate world many of us came up in. Again, though, let’s go back to the existential issues I was talking about. We’re dealing with people, here, not machines and not commodities.

Those people have very real existential hopes and fears, and people in general have a tendency to take the path of least resistance. If you were a 20 year old who suddenly had the equivalent of a “full-on mid-life crisis” realization about how you were probably going to be spending the next 30 to 40 years of your life, you might show some weakness, paralysis, or anxiety, too. So we can cut some of them slack just like we cut some mid-lifers slack when they abandon their families and buy Corvettes. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it’s not a mystery.

So let’s get to it, then, shall we…

How to work with Millennials

  • First, get it out of your head that you automatically know more than they do because you’re older. There are certainly areas in which you do know more because of your experience, but it’s not a given for all situations. If you’re over fifty, chances are the twenty-two-year-old new hire is much more efficient at gathering and processing information than you are.
  • Rather than expecting them to just defer to your judgement on issues, ask for their input and let them fully explain it to you. If you don’t understand the details, swallow your damned pride and ask!
  • Ask them in the interview what they really want to be doing with their lives, or what they think they can bring to the organization. If you find out what they’re passionate about, you can almost guarantee that’s where they’ll put their attention and energy. Of course, not every video gamer is going to be a game designer, but knowing how video games operate will tell you a LOT about how that employee’s motivation structure works.
  • Let them fail at low-stakes projects at first. If you really think they’re weak, then train them to be tough. Teach them how to take a loss. Give them some responsibility, but not enough to cause disaster if they fail. I mentioned video games for a reason in the last point. Games do just that. You fail, you start over, you learn, you get good. Give your younger employees your trust on some small-stakes projects, and let them take ownership of it. See if they don’t impress you after a try or two.

Final Thoughts

Blue background with silhouette in the foreground of one young person helping another climb to the summit of a peak.

When I hear some well-off suburban parent talking about how Millennials are soft because their particular kid isn’t as tough as he was when he was a kid, I cringe. I taught high school for five years in one of the poorest regions of my state. I taught Millennials that had to put up with conditions that would have made that parent break at lightning speed if he had to endure them.

I taught kids who literally wore the same pair of sweatpants, the same pair of shoes, and the same sweatshirt to school every day for the last two years of high school. I taught kids who didn’t eat if they didn’t come to school. I taught kids who had to take care of and parent their four younger siblings because mom worked the day shift and was sleeping while dad worked the night shift. Those kids, by the way, made their high school one of the top 3% of high schools in the nation, let alone our state, and they did it despite being Millennials.

If you think your child, or your students, or your employees are lacking some critical life skills, I have an idea. Have a talk with them about it. Ask them what they think and really listen to their answers. They might surprise you with how much thought they’ve already put into their decisions – you know, the ones we so often write off as being imprudent because of their age? It might not solve the problems, but I can guarantee that an open dialogue – one in which you take the role of mentor instead of critic – will be much more productive than simply ignoring and writing off the younger workforce. Like it or not, they’re the workforce we’ve got, for the times, they are a’ changing.

3 thoughts on “Stop Bashing Millennials and Start Learning to Work With Them!

  1. This is a really great article and so relevant! So often I hear people that are frustrated with millenials in the media and in the workplace, but we have to learn to work WITH them and use their unique strengths. The fact of the matter is that they have strengths we don’t! Thanks for sharing. 🙂


  2. Pingback: Fearless Friday: Embrace Your Multiple Potentials | Brandonia

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