Millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers: Can We Get it Together Already?!

04/19/2017 10:20 am ET
An older Time magazine cover devoted to the topic of Millennials
Time.com
An older Time magazine cover devoted to the topic of Millennials

I’m a Gen Xer who often hears complaints about Millennials from employers.

"I personally never asked to sit in with senior staff for a meeting when I was at their level," one upper level manager expressed to me "but this millennial, a junior account executive, circulated a petition for other junior staffers to sit in on senior meetings. I mean, there are things that need to be kept strictly to upper management! Would we ever have done that when we were starting out?!”

There are a lot of characteristics - some might call stereotypes - that are ascribed to Millennials. I should state the disclaimer that not all Millennials are alike or fit into a neat box of categorizations. From my research however, Millennials are known for the gumption to disregard hierarchy and demand what they want. On the plus side, this shows admirable initiative, tenacity and drive. It is a sign of how things have evolved over time and how Millennials are going to bring positive change and remove confining barriers that hindered us (Gen Xers, Boomers) in the past. Some prior obstacles unfairly kept younger employees (especially female ones) from being valued corporate influencers. There has always been an element of ageism to influence biases towards younger workers until the attainment of "seniority," which is based on the duration of one's experience (rather than quality in a short period of time). The exceptions to this rule have been the famous "wunderkinds", the Doogie Howsers of the world who caught the attention of their older colleagues and were elevated beyond their years for prodigious insights and innovations. On the down side, Millennials who are less notable, noticed or less lucky, can get shooed away for their brazenness - often seen as chutzpah, egregious, out of line, disrespectful and rude.

Something has definitely gotta give and it absolutely will. Millennials keep themselves healthy (according to Goldman Sachs research, more Millennials shun smoking than Gen Xers did in their 20s. They're also bigger on exercise and eating right and live by the tech tools to keep them in check). These healthy young adults will be around longer than their senior counterparts and whether we like it or not (older folks like me), Millennials will do things their way until we have little sway. According to many employers of Millennials, the younger generation's focus on health includes an appreciation for leisure time, the recreational therapy of sports or gym time and unplugging after "business hours" - a phrase that is anathema to many a Gen Xer who despite the nature of their profession (PR, advertising, marketing..) are basically “on-call” at all hours. In fact "Neurosurgery PR" is the name I've given to the time intensive, life-consuming, 24/7 communications that some of my PR firm friends hold in high regard.

Having been in these types of firms myself, I would say there is a balance to strike. It's important to get the job done, but don't delude yourself that you're curing cancer by promoting a flying scooter from Japan that the president's son recently rode (this being a hyperbolic example).

In many work places (and I certain exclude law firms from this), Millennials have been known to clock in and then check out at COB (Close Of Business, an old fashioned or obsolete term in some industries). While their employers encourage them to really research and think outside the box, this is a generation that knows how to access information faster because their fingertips have the Midas touch. Which product is the cheapest, fastest, best quality? Boom, they already have the app to filter, select and beat you to it. They have the social media network and aren't afraid to ask the experts through Twitter or Instagram, and connect with other Millennials with tremendous followings to spread the word. The downside here is that they can be (in some cases) too fast and flippant for some of us, cutting out the necessary courtesy calls and person to person communications we value.

A self-described "Baby Boomer boss" recently asked his Millennial employee for restaurant recommendations, expecting him to casually speak with others at the firm or go through a company record book with menus. This was what he was accustomed to with former Gen X assistants. "He's on the app that filters out the creme de la creme in cuisine. It was some new place we'd never heard of," says the boss with a chuckle. "We've done things the same way for what seems like 200 years and our Millennial employees are showing us the short cuts. I'm OK with this because my generation is on its way out - retirement is nearing and if not, we've got to be up on the latest and more efficient methods for modern times. My Gen X colleagues have a harder time with the Millennials. There are questions that need to be answered after hours by junior staff and they don't check their phones for work purposes after hours. The Gen Xers have joked about going on Tinder with false profiles and setting up dates with their junior staff just to get responses! It's a whole different way of life today from when we slaved away til all hours in the office, sometimes even pulling all-nighters.”

In complete antithesis to the above, many Millennials report their willingness to work longer hours for less pay - not atypical for young people trying to get their footing in the work place.

Millennial writer John McDermott (www.melmagazine.com) explains that some "Gen-Xers resent Millennials’ willingness to work longer hours for less money and thus depressing wages in the workforce."

He also writes: "A lot of the tired stereotypes older people hold about Millennials — we’re lazy, entitled, self-absorbed, etc. — are in part rooted in, or at that very least reinforced by, age discrimination. Age discrimination has left many Gen Xers with dwindling job prospects in what they believed would be the most prosperous period in their careers, and they resent the younger generation for it." He explains that Gen Xers are in an awkward position with Baby Boomers as one bookend and Millennials the other.

McDermott spoke with Cam Marston, owner of Generational Insights, which advises companies on generational issues in the workplace. Marston told him "Gen Xers feel 'squeezed' by the generations on either side of them. They’re in their primary earning years and can’t get the Boomer generation out of the way so that the Xers can assume roles of leadership which will allow them to earn more.” Pew research indicates that more people are continuing to work into their older years than ever before http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/07/number-of-older-americans-in-the-workforce-is-on-the-rise/.

The fact is: older people are living longer lives though not necessarily aging healthfully when you consider the general population http://www.businessinsider.com/people-living-longer-but-not-healthier-2015-9. As those who've put in more office tenure slow down, Millennial methods will inevitably rev up. As older people move on, either professionally or towards retirement, Millennials will establish work environments...until the next generation ushers in a whole new set of resentments and subsequently implements their own changes.

Many Millennials feel they are clear, strong, articulate and they know that things need to change in the workplace. Many of their older colleagues seem to them to be stodgy and not as quick on their feet, especially when it comes to easily accessible technological shortcuts. Another big problem - and it's one that Gen Xers can acknowledge as well - is the way women are treated or condescended to in the workplace, the modern micro-aggressive nature of sexual harassment that can make a woman question her sensitivity to what's insinuated. Millennials, by and large, are more comfortable calling out the bullshit. However, they report being told in response to this, to (effectively) sit down and shut up. The bottom line: Generations in the workplace need to open the lines of communication and really figure out how to collaborate well. Rules need to be established as well as middle grounds and brand new methods that challenge older practices.

There are consultants that specialize in the organizational psychology of inter—generational office harmony (I.e. the above mentioned consultancy Generational Insights). HR managers may also want to set up mentorships pairing Millennials with Gen Xers (or Baby Boomers) for a monitored program focused on the exchange and sharing of best practices.

"We worked so hard to get where we are. We knocked ourselves out for our superiors and never gave them flack like the Millennials give us," one Gen Xer lamented to me.

"We have a lot to contribute and we grew up with Internet and social media so we have a huge advantage,” responded a Millennial. “Without conceit, there are things we know how to do better and faster because we grew up with more advanced technology."

The bottom line to all generations: We can learn from each other. It's a worthwhile investment for companies to really implement steps towards figuring it out, whether that involves outsourcing a consultancy or devising a thorough HR plan.

Anecdotes: (names have been changed)

Cara, a Millennial: “I work for a large tech company that prides themselves on diversity and acceptance, but the fact of the matter is, you can only say on a larger scale that is your vision. You can't control what's going on in the smaller details. So, for instance, how your leaders are treating your employees. I’ve been passed on for a promotion by a far less qualified male with no rhyme or reason...only for that person to leave the company 2 months later. THIS is what women have been dealing with all their lives... and here we are! I just couldn't believe it and there's no one to take accountability for it except for me.

You can't PROVE something like this happened unless something has outright been said. But you just know. You know when the less qualified male gets the job over you. You know when he's been at it 3 months to your year and a half. You just... know but you can't prove it and it's a very defeating feeling. I've been told I'm a too passionate Millennial and being passionate can cause people to make bad decisions. They don't have a specific example for this, but just deem it to be a character flaw. However, my ‘passion’ is equal to caring, so damn... It sure does suck that I care about what WE do, huh? I feel that Millennials need to have the door open to speak out. The way positive change gets made is to remove fear on the prior stigmas that remain before us. In the workplace, there's an ancient stigma about speaking out as a younger staffer. When we remove these stigmas, we create a better connection between all people in the company. I believe that Millennials will change the current workplace today if given the opportunity and if they don't hold back and I know I'm not the only ‘passionate’ one out there.”

Simone, Gen X: “When I hired a nanny, we went the Millennial route because my husband wanted someone with energy. It was a disaster! First, she didn't seem to understand that you don't just start out being excellent because you think are excellent. You work hard, learn a lot, and then you prove to others you are excellent. My nanny thought she knew it all, even though she barely worked, and she approached every situation as if she had all the answers. Way too overconfident. You have to earn that type of confidence.

There seems to be this idea missing that you build a career or reputation and once you build it, you can be confident and ask for things. She asked for days off in the first few months. I would not think of taking any days off in the first few months of a new job! She did not clean up like we had agreed upon during the hiring process. I think that because she felt her child development skills were so strong she didn't need to. First you clean and prove that you are too awesome to clean and then we can do away with that. Just a footnote to that: I hired a cleaning lady and then she ended up hiring my cleaning lady for herself! With all that was going on prior to that, it was humorously frustrating.

I have a Millennial nanny now and she has a much stronger work ethic though she asked for a crazy raise last year. She earned a raise, but asked for a more exorbitant one. I don't know if that is a Millennial issue. I very much value that she works harder than most Millennials we’ve encountered and is reliable (the previous one rolled in late every day which was crazy because then I was late to my job every day).”

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