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.
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.
- 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.