You can't go far without reading a story about Millennials. How to market to them, what they're thinking, even how they're changing. But what's really surprising is how many negative stereotypes are propagated, despite the fact that Millennials now make up 50% of the workforce. As with many stereotypes, you may find some truth--somewhere in the claims. But that truth is often shrouded in misconception, misunderstanding, and generalization.
I like to think I relate well to Millennials--as far as one can "relate to" an entire generation of people. A Gen-Xer myself, my two siblings are Gen-Y. Various experiences throughout the years have allowed me to work alongside Millennials, train them, manage them.
I've also learned from them.
When I read a major article that portrays Millennials in a negative light, I cringe. It's like looking into a dysfunctional household, where parents fail in communicating with their teenager. You know how it is--the parents, although wise and experienced, stop listening to their child and become overly critical. The child, in turn, gives up on the parents ever understanding his or her viewpoint.
You could surely apply this to Generation-Y in the workplace. These poor young folks have often been characterized as party-seeking, anti-work, spoiled brats who are difficult to please. Surely, some of them are. But I've known and worked with countless Millennials, many of them possessing an amazing work ethic. They're extremely committed to their jobs and consistently go above and beyond the call of duty.
There's a host of research out there on Gen-Y, and it's natural that we form generalizations based on that research. This is even helpful at times; those generalizations give us a starting point from which we develop empathy and understanding for a generation different from our own.
For example, one study by Ernst and Young of nearly 10,000 workers in eight countries showed that close to 80% of Millennials are part of dual-income couples, where both partners work full-time. In contrast, only 47% of Baby Boomers, who occupy a majority of top management positions, have a full-time working spouse. These facts help explain why Millennials place increasing value on workplace flexibility and paid parental leave--factors that weren't as important to their predecessors.
Generalizations, however, quickly turn into ugly stereotypes. Increased value on workplace flexibility and paid parental leave becomes “spoiled and demanding”.
The truth is, there is major anger and disconnect between the generations in today’s workplace. I've seen it firsthand consulting for various companies, from the Fortune 500 to small businesses. Read any article attempting to characterize Millennials, and you'll see a firestorm of comments at the end: Millennials eager to defend their generation against negative propaganda, and those from other generations who support the attack. The emotions and feelings expressed are real, and they are indicative of a major communication gap.
But there's another group that stands out. These are the Boomers and Gen-Xers who stick up for Millennials. Those who realize that this generation of young, bright, impressionable workers is still finding their way. They realize that Millennials make their share of mistakes, just like the rest of us (yes, even the most experienced).
Does this young generation have it all figured out? Of course not.
Are there moments of brash arrogance? Surely.
Is all of this something we were--or sometimes still are--guilty of ourselves? Heck yeah.
Where do we go from here? When it's time for a difficult conversation, the message recipient often responds in the same manner they are approached. Continue to stereotype Millennials as lazy or taking everything for granted, and they'll lash back. They'll look at us through eyes of contempt, counting the days until we retire. Or, they'll simply go somewhere else. Where does that leave us? They are the future.
So this is for all of you, my fellow Gen-Xers and Boomers, business owners and employers: Stop being critical of your Millennial employees. Speak to them. If you can't understand why they do something the way they do, ask them. Not in a condescending or patronizing way–do it sincerely. Search for your common ground, and build on it.
As you listen--non-judgmentally, with the goal of working together, remember: Maybe you can learn something from them.
Do this, and your Millennial employees might follow with something you're not expecting:
They'll become eager to learn from you, too.