Turning Your Employees Into Owners
Phone: 314.283.1589

In a recent post ( “I Practice Age Discrimination; I Don’t Hire Anyone Under 40”) I talked about differences in professional attitudes and priorities between generations. I called the misunderstandings that develop a culture clash. But these different professional cultures did not come out of nowhere, and understanding why younger workers do what they do is key to building a company that can bridge the generation gap.

The Boomer Perspective

When I was growing up, I learned that if I got a good job and if I kept my nose down and worked hard, then I could look forward to a long and rewarding career. When I noticed colleagues from younger generations coming to work with a different attitude, I admit I problem with it.

Gen Xers wanted to go home at 5 pm whether the job was done or not. They didn’t seem like team players to me. Millennial employees wanted flex time and assumed their supervisors should act like coaches. I’d always thought that you either take a job or you leave it—you don’t tell your boss how you want to be supervised. It was hard for me to realize that my expectations were not their expectations, and that their expectations had merit.

My professional expectations and priorities reflected the economic reality of my youth. Income disparity was relatively small, the economy was growing, and there was opportunity everywhere for those who wanted it. People from younger generations grew up in a different reality.

Millennial Economics

Rightly or wrongly, people who came of age around the year 2000 have a reputation for being both demanding and idealistic. They want meaningful work, interesting coworkers, flexible hours, and supervisors who act like coaches, but they also expect to change jobs frequently. But many Millennials aren’t actually being demanding—the economic reality is that the rewards for hard work that I looked forward to just aren’t widely available anymore. So today’s young people look for different incentives.

The last twenty years or so have seen employers rely increasingly on temp positions and contract work. Real wages have fallen against inflation in many industries, even as the cost of getting an education has risen. The result is a widening gap between the those who can attend the best schools and graduate with a lot of opportunity and a much larger group who graduate deeply in debt, with no immediate prospects for long-term employment.

The reality is that this second, larger group of Millennials don’t expect to be able to earn a gold watch for twenty years of service to a single firm—they are lucky to stay anywhere for five years. They look for rewards they can access now, such as a meaningful work experience and the coaching they need to compete successfully in an extremely tight and fluid job market.

Bringing It All Together

The Millennial approach to professional life is, in part, an intelligent response to a tough economic situation. The employer who recognizes this fact has an opportunity to compete well for top talent, not just by providing the perks many Millennials look for, but by being the kind of company this generation has learned not to bother looking for. That means not just expecting hard work, dedication, and loyalty but offering it, too.

Give a Millennial a reason to stay, and he or she just might stick around and earn that gold watch.

Key Takeaways

  • Millennials approach work differently than older employees because they are beginning their careers in a different economic reality.
  • Millennials often look for “extras,” like coaching and flex time, because they don’t expect more traditional rewards, like good pay or job stability.
  • Employers who understand where Millennials are coming from are in a better position to compete for top talent.

I had a client say that to me recently—that he won’t hire young people. He thinks most people in the Millennial Generation are lazy brats. He’s wrong, but discrimination against the young is legal in most states, so it’s his prerogative. But what’s he going to do a few years down the road when Millennials dominate the workforce? If he can’t learn to adapt, he’ll watch all the top talent go to work for his competitors.

People from different generations approach work differently. It’s a kind of culture clash. In subsequent posts I’ll talk about where some of these differences come from and how business owners can attract and retain good people from all age groups. For now, let’s look at what these groups are and how they work.

The Baby Boom

This is the generation of most business leaders today—and almost a third of everybody in the workforce. Many older Boomers are actually retired or semi-retired, but there were 71 million people born between 1945 and 1964, so there are still a lot of them on the job.

If You’re a Boomer, then You Probably…

  1. Were raised to work hard, to be loyal to your employer, and to expect their loyalty in return.
  2. Were raised to expect to work in the same field, for the same company, for most of your adult life.
  3. Want an employer who appreciates your hard work and rewards you financially for it.


Generation X

These are the children of the social upheaval of the 1960’s and 1970’s. They also came of age during a recession. They’ve often been derided as selfish, cynical, or apathetic, but really a lot of them are just cautious—they need a safety net for themselves and their families. Gen X is small, but none have retired yet, so they form nearly a third of the workforce, too. As a group, they are notably well-educated.

If You’re a Gen Xer, then You Probably…

  1. Work hard during work hours, but go home at quitting time, because you, too, deserve a life.
  2. Want a job where you can further develop your skillset—you know you might get laid off at any time, so you want to be able to land on your feet and get a new position as soon as possible.
  3. You don’t feel much loyalty to your boss, but you don’t expect to be taken care of, either. You’re self-sufficient.


The Millennials

Millennials get their name because they came of age around the millennium. They’re also called Generation Y. They’re technologically savvy, often idealistic, but without any illusions about financial success. They might despair of ever paying off their college loans, but they fully expect to change the world.

If You’re a Millennial, You Probably…

  1. Don’t expect to stay anywhere very long or get paid very well—two years at the same job is actually a pretty good run. But you do expect fun, meaningful work.
  2. Want a boss who can act as your mentor or coach, as well as a collaborative, creative work environment
  3. See your job, ideally, as a way to further your personal mission. So you’ll definitely stay up till midnight answering work emails from home or telecommute from your own vacation if it helps the cause. But you also see no reason why you shouldn’t check your social media accounts from the office—work is part of life, so life is part of work.


Bringing It All Together

From the perspective of a Baby Boomer, a Gen Xer who insists on going home at five o’clock (even if a deadline is looming) looks selfish and a Millennial checking Facebook at work looks bratty. But the Gen Xer has kids to pick up from daycare and the Millennial will happily answer work emails from home. Both bring their own expectations and gifts to the workforce, just like Baby Boomers do. They’re just different.

Baby Boomer business leaders don’t have to adjust themselves to the changes that younger generations bring—but they don’t have to stay in business, either. Keeping up in today’s business world means finding a way to bridge the cultural divide between generations.

Key Takeaways

  • Each generation expects different things from employers and each offers different things. All can be excellent employees
  • Business leaders need to adapt to changes in workforce expectations
  • Leaders who tell younger workers to take it or leave it will find themselves left behind.