I Want to Write About Millennials . . .

I recently set out to do a deep dive to better understand this generation labeled the “Millennials.” Much has been written, and no doubt more will be as this group of Americans fully enters the world of work. Many ‘Baby-boomers’ and ‘Gen X-ers,’ who have been hiring and working with this burgeoning group, have developed their own opinions about them as a group, and for the most part vent more about their frustrations with the “M’s” than offer any positive experiences. I want to share a few observations and begin a dialog on what to me is one of the greatest topics we all face.

The M’s, those born between 1980 and 2000, are beginning to reveal their uniqueness and differences and are receiving their labels just as the Gen-X generation (born 1964-1980) and the Boomers (born 1946-1964) did prior. Each generation has its own character that is shaped by the number of births, as well as the economic and world conditions that occurred during the formative years. My generation, the Boomers, was the largest America ever saw until the M’s, and now is in the later stages of our working lives, careers and wealth-building phases. We began to retire a few years ago, and by 2030 we will for the most part be out of the workforce. Gen X has been moving more into the middle and upper levels of management, and is the smallest in terms of numbers of the three generations filling our organizations. Statistics now confirm that the M’s have surpassed the Boomers in sheer numbers in the workforce and obviously will be the key driver in our work, social, economic and political arenas for the next 50 years.

As I interview and poll Boomers and X-ers about their experiences and opinions about the M’s, I am struck by the similarities of how all older generations view the upstarts who are younger and were raised in different periods in time. I remember from growing up in the 60’s and coming into adulthood in the 70’s that our parents were confused, outraged, disappointed, afraid when faced with dealing with their long-haired sons and short-skirted daughters – who were driving for more social freedoms and breaking away from old norms and values. I can still hear their voices as they dealt with this young generation that was liberated, experimental, diverse and better educated – we challenged just about every premise the War-generation held sacred. Many thought we wouldn’t amount to much, were taking advantage of their situations, or were going to take our country down into some negative future pathway. Funny, that’s the same commentary I am now hearing and reading from many in my generation about the M’s.

I am an ardent student of human nature, and have come to my own understandings of what our shared  needs, desires and motivations are, particularly as we focus on work and business. Since before the internet I have tracked the many studies and lists published in business journals about what are the top motivating factors that people are looking for in their jobs. The list below has been so very consistent over the past 30-plus years, not only in the content of what people say they most want, but in particular the order of importance they rank those very desires. The list typically is as follows:

  1. Interesting work
  2. Full appreciation of work done
  3. Feeling of being “in” on things
  4. Job security
  5. Good wages
  6. Promotion and growth opportunities
  7. Good working conditions
  8. Personal loyalty to employees from the management
  9. Tactful disciplining
  10. Help with personal problems

No matter the industry, geography, categorization of worker (blue-collar, supervision, management, etc.) sex or education level, these 10 almost always make the list, and in the relative ranking as shown above. This data confirmed and affirmed my own sense and direct experience about people and work over the past five decades, and I have been wondering how the M’s viewpoints and desires might differ. I began my own polling of the M-Gen, and have some early data points that prove revealing. When asked what do they most desire and want from their work experience, the most frequent responses I get are:

– Meaningful, important work

– Want their organizations to have a clear purpose (beyond making money) and operate through common values

– Working in environments of high collaboration, connection and communication

– Having their voices heard and being able to contribute; plus see the results of their contribution

– Autonomy on ‘how’ their work gets done (don’t ‘tell’ me, ‘involve’ me)

– Be frequently recognized

– Want more training and development, to learn multiple jobs at their place of work

– Frequent ‘real-time’ feedback

– Have fun and a friendly atmosphere

– Work / life balance important

As I assess the M’s list, and compare it to the list that has held up over the test of time, it appears to me that we all want similar things from our work and careers. Yet I sense there is a growing gap of misunderstanding between the M’s and those older. I think the challenge for those of us Boomers and Gen-X’s comes from the M’s requiring a more evolved, mature, open-minded style of leadership. Command-and-control, “do it because I told you so,” bureaucratic, and even the high-achiever form of ‘management-ship’ will prove woefully inadequate for this new generation.

What type of leadership style this new generation needs will come from people who themselves are more self-aware, have developed abilities to handle complexity and have a deeper affinity for the human condition than the alternatives. This new generation demands that we all up our game and learn to be more skillful at trust-building, communication and conversation, teaming and collaboration, conflict resolution, group problem-solving, responsibility and accountability, and human dynamics.

I believe these Millennials will require the long overdue breakthrough paradigm shift in the way we all approach our work-life and business activities. The old forms of capitalism, management, strategy, organizational design, and ‘business-as-usual’ mindsets must evolve. Choosing to ignore this, or wish it weren’t happening – or worse yet to condemn and fight it, will only result in our own collective diminishment. As a leader I know I must continue to evolve, to expand my own levels of awareness and understanding of myself and of others, and to be open to shedding beliefs and fears that interfere with my healthy interaction with people much younger and with different life experiences and expectations.

What say you on this topic? What are you experiencing and what new ways of working with the M’s are you seeing and doing? Much more will be shared in this space in the coming time ahead . . . let’s keep a healthy dialog on this and be the change we all want to see in our relationships, our work and the world!

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