Think Millennials Are the Issue? Think Again

Friday, May 20, 2016

“What are we going to do to prepare for these kids?” This was the question posed to the audience of a talk which I recently attended. The person asking the question was a local business leader, and the intent was to initiate a brainstorm around preparing for the influx of Millennials into the workforce. 

In full disclosure, I am a Millennial. And while I appreciate the speaker’s goal, the question (as well as the manner in which it was asked) was not the ideal conversation starter. From how the discussion was started, it seemed as if the speaker was uncertain as to the actual outcome that we were supposed to create. The question, “What are we going to do to prepare for these kids?” comes across more like throwing darts at a dart board rather than a focused conversation about strategy. However, not all discussions about Millennials and generations in the workplace need to be as cloudy. Listed below are three fairly simple adjustments to facilitate a more meaningful conversation on this topic: 

First, drop the term “kid” when referencing Millennials. At best this is an inaccurate reference (the oldest Millennials are 35), and at worst it can be an insult. Also the term “kid” reinforces many of the misconceptions (entitled, unfocused, job-hopper, “Generation Me”) surrounding our generation. Instead consider this: the average tenure for people in their 20s is almost identical to the same demographic from the 80s, and Millennials are graduating from college at a higher rate than any other generation in history. Millennials are more focused on completing their schooling and not nearly as job-hoppy as previously thought. The list is growing of surprising, or maybe not-so-surprising, revelations about the Millennial generation that erodes the “they’re just kids” mentality. 

Secondly, the window to prepare for Millennials in the workplace is essentially over. Millennials are here. As of 2014 Millennials are the most populous generation in the workforce. Most likely the next employee to join your company will be a Millennial, and it looks to be that way for a while. While considering how to “prepare” for Millennials, it is helpful to consider the needs of Millennials that already work for your organization. 


Lastly, and most importantly, if an organization is focused solely on preparing for Millennials then it is missing out on the much larger opportunity. For the first time ever there are five generations in the workplace together. Five! To date the Millennial generation has dominated the attention of employers and managers; the commentary about Millennials in the workplace is seemingly endless. Substantially less has been discussed regarding how to engage all of the generations within our organizations. 


Despite the concern from the business leader I previously referenced, Millennials are not kids who pose a problem for organizations. The development needs of Millennials are more leadership in nature, and in line with development needs of past generations at similar career stages. In terms of behavior, the most unique qualifier about this generation is (respective to other generations) a deeper belief that as an individual they can make a positive impact. For most companies, this is a healthier, more desirable, and ultimately more mature view of the world. And in case you’re tempted to double down on the label of simple naivety, it is worth reiterating that Millennials are the most educated generation (ever) to enter the workforce. Kids, they are not.

Having five generations in the workplace together doesn’t have to be an insurmountable challenge. There has never been more knowledge and expertise together in the workplace at the same time, and from a Training and Development perspective that is a very exciting thing. However, this is a limited-time opportunity and the window to reap these benefits is rapidly closing. More so than ever, as this multi-generation workforce evolves in terms of it’s needs, we as developers of talent must evolve with them. 

At ATD 2016 in Denver, Megan Gomparts, Amanda Marschall, and I wish to discuss with you the topic of generations within your organization in our session Focusing on Millennials? You’re Doing it Wrong. We are all Millennials, we are all trainers, and we looking forward to sharing with you interesting data and personal experiences regarding what it means to be a Millennial in today’s workplace. More so, it is our goal to shift the conversation from focusing on Millennials to taking a broader generational approach towards collaboration and effectiveness.

About the Author

Rick Rittmaster is a talent development professional who partners with individuals, teams, executives, and external resources to build a more capable and engaged workforce. Working in L&D and talent strategy, he enjoys the sometimes-tricky job of building people-centered solutions that advance enterprise business goals. Rittmaster also advises on innovation strategy, learning strategy, change management, and employee engagement.

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