Are Millennials Really That Different from Other Generations in Today’s Workplace?


MilennialsOne of the questions I hear most often when I give presentations on managing generational differences in the workplace is:

Are Millennials really that different from previous generations entering the workplace?

In other words, haven’t older employees been bemoaning “kids today” for generations?

My answer:

Yes. And no.

Yes, managers have always worried about their entry-level employees’ levels of talent, skills and maturity. The Traditionalists of the “Mad Men”era worried about “hippies” entering their ranks in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Baby Boomers called me and my Gen Xer peers “slackers.” And today’s Boomers and Gen Xers complain about the “entitled” Millennials.

There seems to be a human tendency to believe we were smarter, harder working and more humble when we began our own careers, and to feel like “kids today” have it easier and don’t work as hard. Perhaps it’s because technology keeps improving or because curmudgeonly outlooks increase with age. Nevertheless, it’s helpful to deconstruct this phenomenon and see what we can learn from it.

How Millennials are the Same as Previous Generations of Young Workers

Here’s what I believe remains the same about young employees entering the workforce from generation to generation:

It’s hard to suddenly find yourself at the bottom.

In every era, it’s challenging to make the transition from top-of-the-totem-pole college senior to bottom-of-the-totem-pole entry-level employee. Recent grads of every generation often feel some disappointment that they no longer hold leadership or social status in the “real world.”

Grunt work is boring.

Yes, it’s a necessary and valuable part of the majority of entry-level jobs — in fact, I often tell Millennials that approaching grunt work with a positive attitude is a great way to stand out from the crowd — but even employees with the best attitudes can get tired of tedious tasks and frustrated when they’re not using their full skillsets.

You don’t know what you don’t know.

Another universal characteristic of every generation’s entry-level cohort is the belief that they can do things smarter, faster and better than the previous generation. Optimism and a desire to contribute are fantastic, but there are often very good reasons why more experienced employees do tasks a certain way or make the decisions they do. That’s not to say that the “old” way is always best, but sometimes it is and it can take a while for newbies to learn why.

How Millennials are Different from Previous Generations of Young Workers

Given those universal entry-level tendencies, here are the ways in which Millennials really are different:

They’re “digital natives.”

That means they’re naturally skilled at communicating and working through fast-changing technology. This is a clear asset in today’s high tech world, but it also causes a lot of discomfort inside organizations.

Think about it: for centuries, the more tenure you had in the workforce, the more skilled you were at the most important tasks related to your job (farming, teaching, designing buildings, selling real estate, whatever).

But today, while industry and functional experience are still extremely valuable, technology skills have become increasingly crucial. And in many organizations, the interns are better at skills such as coding and using social media than the CEO. At the same time, because Millennials are so comfortable with technology, they’re often lacking in proficiencies such as face-to-face communication and phone skills that companies used to take for granted in entry-level hires.

They have no expectation of working for one employer for the long-term.

In the past, employers and employees had a lot more time to acclimate to one another because people stayed with their jobs and companies for decades. Today, with companies laying off or restructuring workers on a regular basis and employees always looking for a better opportunity, every relationship feels temporary. The average tenure for Millennials is two years, compared to five years for Gen Xers and seven years for Baby Boomers, according to PayScale and Millennial Branding.

Many companies complain they don’t want to invest in their young workers’ training because they’re likely to lose those employees anyway. Unfortunately, they’re often correct. This is why smart companies are developing rotational programs, entrepreneurial incubators and other innovative initiatives to keep their hottest young talent engaged, and developing robust alumni networks to keep in touch with talent that leaves and might boomerang back someday as a lateral hire or perhaps as a client or shareholder.

They will be required to take on leadership roles at an earlier age than other generations.

Because the Baby Boomer generation is so huge (about 76 million people in the U.S.) and the Gen X population is so small (about 46 million in the U.S.), there simply aren’t enough Gen Xers to fill all the leadership roles Boomers will be vacating as they retire over the next decade or so.

According to PwC, 63.3 percent of U.S. executives will be eligible to retire in the next five years. This means that Millennials will have to step into leadership roles five to 10 years earlier than previous generations.

To help Millennials prepare, I’ve written a new book, “Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders” and consult with companies on how to make sure today’s young people are ready for the challenges ahead.

How do you feel about Millennials? What is your company doing to attract, retain and train them? Please share in the Comments!

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