Over the last decade or so, millennials have set off a wave of panic, distrust, and resentment among older executives and managers alike. The refrain we often hear about millennials is “they’re not like us” and the solution seems to be “they should be more like us.” They’re often seen as volatile intruders who are disrupting companies — and not in the good way — and not as tremendous assets to the companies they work for.
Countless articles have been written on the topic of why millennials are unhappy at work, reasons they don’t want to work at your company, and how they should work with baby boomers. Studies have been conducted, ultimately hoping to uncover just what makes us so different, and how companies can mold millennials to better fit with the current way of working.
But there’s one question no one seems to be asking and it’s one of inclusion and diversity as it relates to millennial employees. Rather than trying to decipher and change millennials, how can we celebrate and ultimately benefit from these generational differences? This group represents ⅓ of the U.S. workforce, and by 2025, we’re expected to make up 75 percent of the global workforce. While our numbers are mighty, we’re often treated as ‘different’.
But are millennials really that different from the generations before them? Yes, and no. Is this an ageist rhetoric that’s hurting you and your teammates? Absolutely.
Dispelling the myth of the millennial worker
When you think of millennials, you might picture a teenager with a cell phone, but the truth is that most of them don’t look like that.
If you’ve worked on a team with millennials, you might already be familiar with these common ‘myths.’ But first, let’s start with a definition. When you think of millennials, you might picture a teenager with a cell phone, but the truth is that most of them don’t look like that. At least not anymore. In fact, many of them are in their early 30s, some with young families, and possibly driving a minivan or SUV.
There are diverging opinions on the year that millennials first made their entry into the world — with some arguing it was as early as 1977 and others 1983. What can’t be argued is that this generation isn’t homogenous. Like other diverse groups, their motivations, aspirations, goals, and working styles vary widely. And yet, they’re often lumped together based on a handful of stereotypes. When taking a closer look, it’s easy to see that there are some common threads and trends among millennials, but they’re not as cut and dry as you might be led to believe.
Unsurprisingly, this may be one of the biggest gripes older generations have with millennials. In an article for AdWeek titled, “Entitled? Try Empowered: Why Millennials Work the Way They Do,” the author argues that their intentions are often simply misunderstood. Unlike previous generations, which followed certain workplace etiquette and adhered to a strict work/life separation, millennials aren’t as tuned into a given set of office ‘rules.’ Yes, many of them demonstrate a strong sense of work-life integration, where working hours and time spent on life as it happens flow freely. So some of them might not feel guilty about taking a yoga class mid-day on a Tuesday. But (and there’s a big but), they’re also not averse to answering emails on a Saturday night.
Millennials may demand more flexibility and trust, but when you look closely, you’ll notice that most of them aren’t actually abusing these benefits.
Stressed about millennial workers leaving you in a lurch when they hop for a cush job? You’re not the only one. It seems that the job-hopping millennial is a meme among managers who worry about constantly having to hire and retrain new talent. But it turns out that this belief, too, is more myth than reality. While younger employees change jobs more often than older ones, this trend isn’t new, nor is it as alarming as we’re led to believe. Writes FiveThirtyEight, the numbers show that younger employees have actually been changing jobs at the same rate they were in the 1980s.
Needs constant feedback
How much feedback do these kids need? If you’re used to the one-and-done annual review, you’re missing the mark not only with millennials, but all of your employees, young and old. Millennials, often driven by the desire to make an impact in their work, value training and development programs as well coaching and feedback. But studies have shown that this desire isn’t unique to a younger generation. Not only do older workers appreciate feedback, but they actually want more of it, too.
Looking for (too much) meaning and impact
Again, the misguided belief that only your millennial employees are interested in work that makes a positive impact in the world is one that only proliferates divisiveness in the office. In fact, Harvard Business Review found that Millennials, Baby Boomers, and Gen X’rs are all nearly equally invested in making a positive impact on their organization and want to spend their life working on things they’re passionate about. So, yes, (younger) millennial workers are idealistic and care about changing the world but they are perhaps the first generation to demand this out of their job, rather than just hope for it as a side effect.
These stereotypes are not just harmful to the millennials that are pigeon-holed by them, they also impair companies’ ability to win the war for talent. Take, for instance, that 33% of millennials point to future career opportunities as a top reason for choosing a job vs. 21% of other generations. If you’re more focused on naming reasons why millennials are troublesome than on creating the environments where they thrive, prepare for someone else to take your top talent.
Diversity and inclusiveness and how it applies to working with millennials
Getting the most out of millennial workers is, as it turns out, must start with a conversation about diversity and inclusion.
If, after reading the previous section, you’re still thinking that there are differences between millennials and generations before them, you’re not wrong. But these differences aren’t actually that meaningful to how millennials approach work vs. other generations. Not enough to suggest that we should be treating them like aliens.
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, millennials possess a number of positive attitudes and traits that may feel opposed to the stereotypes we often associate with them. They are “more tolerant of races and groups than older generations,” are extraordinary multi-taskers, community-oriented, entrepreneurial, highly educated, and connected with their families. And they’re optimistic, too, despite the troubling times they’ve witnessed.
Their unique experience makes them a huge asset, not a drain, to your business — and the sooner you realize this, the better positioned you’ll be to leverage their diverse strengths. Getting the most out of millennial workers is, as it turns out, must start with a conversation about diversity and inclusion.
Although not much talked about, the problems that arise from this ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mindset is not unlike the one that’s been gaining steam over the last few years. Apple believes that “diversity is critical to innovation” and many companies, both public and private, have made great strides toward fostering a culture that welcomes all groups.
So what can we learn from them?
5 things to start and stop doing, right now
Diversity and inclusion experts have spent years working with companies to bridge communication gaps, and coach managers to create stronger teams a result of diversity, not in spite of it. So how can these learnings be applied toward millennial workers?
1. Check yourself
A millennial is someone who is finishing their last year of college. But it’s also someone who has over a decade of experience, and values good health benefits for their family as much as the perks of a free lunch at the office. Much of your anxiety about working with millennials stems from the assumptions that you’re making about who they are. Adjust your worldview to accept that the millennial worker isn’t a type, so much as a broad category. Are there differences between millennials and generations before them? Sure, but that’s not a bad thing.
Diversity has been shown to be a key driver of innovation, and this applies not only to people, but ideas. Accept that there are some differences between millennials and the generations before them (in addition to differences among millennials themselves). But rather than fostering fear and attempting to mold future managers and leaders to your existing models, celebrate differences of ideas, and rethink your training programs to foster this diversity.
- Consider your stereotypes of the millennial generation— you may even want to write them down. Then, think of someone you know (a millennial, for the sake of this exercise) that disproves each stereotype.
2. Listen & communicate
Diversity and inclusion experts know that ongoing communication and education is the key to helping different groups better understand each other and work together. So make a commitment to learn from your millennial workers: get to know what they are passionate about, what stresses them out, and create an open and honest space for two-way, not one-way feedback. Remember: bringing emotion to work isn’t a bad thing and communication is as much — if not more — about listening as talking.
A number of studies have shown that millennials face some unique challenges at work; many of them are looking for more meaning, more feedback, and help managing stress. Helping them — and other members of your team — develop the skills they need to better cope with these struggles often comes down to being better communicators. It’s a ‘soft’ skill that is so often swept under the rug but is becoming more and more important.
- Schedule a weekly 1-1 meeting with each team member, emphasizing that you’re there to listen more than to talk.
- Then, actively listen so you can build a richer picture of the individuals that make up this vague ‘millennials’ group.
3. Build programs that work for a diverse team
Many of the studies that have been conducted suggest that millennials differ greatly from their older colleagues. But the reality is that people’s motivations differ depending on their current life situation, their background, their culture, and many other factors. If you’re going to try to understand how to motivate and inspire your employees, take a look at where they are in life now, and match your programs to these needs. Here’s an example: you wouldn’t train managers on ‘how to work with women’ but you might train them on ways to help transition new parents back into the workplace.
- Set aside time with your HR manager or a head of diversity, if you have one, to discuss programs you can build that will leverage the strengths of each team member.
- Do your part to develop a culture of transparency where feedback is welcomed and differences of ideas are celebrated.
4. Create a culture of coaching
According to a recent Gallop poll, only a small subset of people say they report to the sort of leader they actually want: a coach, not a boss. You might not be ready to change your title from CEO to ‘coach’ but internalizing the differences between these two leadership approaches could make a huge difference to your millennial employees. Bill Campbell, one of the most well-known business leaders in Silicon Valley, was famously called ‘Coach’ and emphasized the importance of caring deeply about your people. A commitment to coaching is one of the best ways you can lead a millennial-strong workforce. Don’t just help them do well in their job, help them do well in life, and you’ll reap the rewards of their existence.
5. Don’t be dismissive
Studies have shown that individuals who set ambitious goals are often happier. And millennials, filled with optimism and a go-getter attitude, are one of your most important assets, if you allow them to be. Don’t dismiss their talk or downplay their ambitions. Empower them to tackle the challenges they aspire to overcome, and allow their enthusiasm to serve as inspiration to all workers.
- Watch your language: the words you choose to communicate with your team are powerful. When people come to you with frustrations or ideas, emphasize your eagerness to learn, understand, and support.
It’s true, millennials are different than the generations before them. They want you to help them grow and learn, and they don’t view their job as just a job. But ask yourself this: aren’t these the same things all generations want? And perhaps these changing norms of modern work aren’t just a reflection of how different they are from everyone else, but simply that all people are different depending on their circumstances, and good leaders should take a whole person approach to leadership, first and foremost.
Creating a workspace that’s diverse culturally and generationally is your secret weapon to staying nimble and endlessly innovative. At end of the day, the accountability for creating an open and diverse culture lies with all of us. Yes, even you.
Original art by Vaclav Bicha.