Cats and dogs, oil and water, red states and blue states—all are pairings that instantly convey opposition, difference, and conflict.
How about Millennials and Baby Boomers? In the workplace, where older and younger generations engage side by side on a daily basis, are we destined to hold opposing visions of what it means to be an effective, productive worker?
If you feel this way, you’re not alone. Survey any random sampling of different demographic groups—the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945), Baby Boomers (1946–1964), Generation X (1965–1980), Millennials (1981–1996), and Generation Z (after 1996)—and you’ll likely hear the same refrains:
- Older workers think younger workers are lazy, entitled, and narcissistic.
- Younger workers think their older colleagues are slow to adapt, inflexible, and stubborn.
These opposing views do greater harm than we think, especially in the workplace. They are held by many organizational leaders, who influence culture and design strategy. These leaders often parrot the same stereotypes or claim that there are no significant differences—and, to no surprise, their organizations struggle to attract, retain, and engage Millennials.
The key to moving beyond this seemingly intractable battle of the generations is to understand when this particular war started. And the answer is straightforward: with the rise of digital technology. Once you understand that, and once you open yourself to considering different perspectives on the way we work today, leaders can transform any workplace from one of opposition and misunderstanding to one of cooperation, productivity, and profit. We can move from a traditional workplace to a workplace fit for a digital world.
My new book, The Millennial Myth: Transforming Misunderstandings Into Workplace Breakthroughs, helps leaders and managers do just that. Based on extensive research, interviews, and my own experience as a Millennial, I recast Millennial behaviors from misguided stereotypes into a new language. I focus on five of the most common complaints about the newest generation of workers that when reconsidered through a modern lens can be seen as positive traits that modern companies should harness if they are to survive and thrive in the digital age. Not only do I bust these Millennial myths, but I offer insight into organizational changes that leverage these digital behaviors.
Transforming Lazy Into Productivity Redefined
Myth 1: Millennials are lazy. From a traditional perspective, this is evidenced by Millennials’ desire to work when and where they want and their struggle to commit to working for a set duration, within set hours, and in a set location. In an older world, putting in structured time meant productive work coming out.
From a modern perspective, it’s not lazy; it’s redefining productivity. The work done in a digital environment is often strategic, creative, innovative, and highly cognitive. Putting in the time and achieving work goals are separate actions and, in today’s world, often mutually exclusive. Those who simply put in time may in fact be less productive than those who focus on doing what is needed to best achieve a work goal, which can include greater flexibility in work environment, hours, and location.Advertisement
From Entitled to Entrepreneurial
Myth 2: Millennials are entitled. They have seemingly immediate expectations for things like salary, promotions, and workplace culture. From a traditional perspective, this can be perceived as entitled because modern talent’s presumptions of rewards and career growth are different from those before—when in the past, simply having a job with a regular paycheck was reason to be grateful and putting in the time was a requirement for more.
From a modern perspective, growing up has inherently involved entrepreneurial spirit and the idea of pursuing one’s full potential, both for yourself and for the organization’s benefit. The approach mimics the entrepreneurial mindset of doing more with less, doing it fast, and doing it with single-minded purpose. Many of these requests are an exploration of the best avenues to get there.
From Hand-Holding to Agility
Myth 3: Millennials require hand-holding. They want to be given the answers to everything right away, and they desire praise for even the smallest things. This runs counter to the traditional mindset of having the time to learn on the job and waiting for annual performance reviews.
From a modern perspective, it’s not hand-holding; it’s agility. The desire is actually to be agile instead of encumbered in today’s information-overloaded world. Modern talent believes that they need frequent, meaningful feedback to course-correct and to focus on meeting work goals more efficiently, while maintaining job security.
From Disloyal to Purpose-Driven
Myth 4: Millennials are inherently disloyal. They leave companies within three years, if not less. Primed for instant gratification, if they aren’t immediately given a promotion or a raise, they want to move on. They don’t understand that it takes time to develop a career.Advertisement
From a modern perspective, it’s not disloyal; it’s seeking purpose. This is a side effect of growing up during a global recession and is a call to action for corporations to be held to higher standards and earn back employee loyalty that they are no longer entitled to. These higher standards involve cultivating a strong foundation in values and mission that highlights the positive impact the company is making in the world, and how each employee contributes to that impact.
From Authority Issues to Redefining Respect
Myth 5: Millennials have authority issues. From a traditional perspective, Millennials question or challenge their supervisors and other more experienced employees without hesitation, showing a lack of respect or sense of decorum for hierarchy, tenure, and elders in general.
From a modern perspective, growing up under the anonymity and transparency of the Internet, respect is not given solely because of categories like age, level, or role—it is given for what a person authentically contributes every day. Younger employees feel comfortable voicing new ideas, challenging others’ thoughts, or skirting the chain of command to meet a need. They see that as a healthy route to innovation.
These new perspectives have one fundamental factor in common: They were forged in the dynamic, fast-moving, boundary-breaking world of the digital age. The tools Millennials and others grew up using in school and in their social lives—computers, the Internet, social media, mobile devices—have translated to expectations of the workplace. And, these are changes we are all experiencing, regardless of generation. It’s that simple.
With the proper perspective, the talents and expectations of the newest generation of workers can be harnessed to form a tremendously productive and valuable workplace for the digital age—not just for Millennials, but for everyone!