Oh, Boy: A Grumpy Manager's Observations on Millennials


I always end up trading barbs with our Ann All whenever she blogs about "millennials," the young, tech-savvy generation that is, in many ways, driving old farts like me to distraction.


Ann, who has the misfortune of sitting across from my office, does a good job covering issues relating to this latest wave of new employees, who embrace technologies that keep them constantly connected and instantly gratified. We also get a lot of good information from Lisa Orrell, a consultant and author who is sharing a chapter of her book on the subject in our Knowledge Network.


Now, for my two cents' worth. I can tell you that we do actually employ a handful of folks here at IT Business Edge who were born in 1982 or later, the functional definition of a millennial, at least according to Orrell, and I'll go with her wisdom there. All of these staffers strike me as being bright and capable, but then again, they also have the great good fortune of not working directly for me.


My own experience in working with millennials comes primarily from my involvement with the student newspaper at the University of Louisville, my alma mater. Over the last six years or so, I have worked as both the advisor and a board member for the non-profit, and so have had reasonably close working relationships with dozens of millennials.


I can tell you that most of the "myths" about millennials -- as Ann and Orrell like to describe them -- are in fact a tad hysterical. Most of the young folks I have worked with will go on to become, as our younger staffers here at IT Business Edge have, valuable members of somebody's team -- and in time run businesses of their own. Obviously. But, they do have some issues to work through, and some of these issues are reflected in common gripes you hear about the new generation.


From my experience, here are a few positives and minuses to keep in mind as you find yourself managing these strange creatures called millennials in your own business.


Positive: Millennials are very industrious.


These kids work hard -- harder than I did when I was in college (which is not really saying all that much, to be honest). Almost all of them have off-campus jobs, which leaves the kids I've known with classes, a job and work at the student newspaper. I suppose this speaks to the perception that millennials are really great at multi-tasking. I can vouch for the fact that they certainly are willing to tackle numerous chores at once, but ...


Negative: Millennials often lack focus when it comes to wrapping up projects.


I've found that the energy many younger people bring to a project when it is in the conceptual stage wanes dramatically as the project grinds into the tactical phase. This is an inherent complication with any creative or conceptually oriented thinker (said the grumpy execution guy), but I've found it to be a little amplified with these kids, even those who are not unusually creative. I'll go with the herd and ascribe it to the fact that they are so wired to personal tech that they are just used to being distracted by something new every 15 seconds or so. Which points to ...


Positive: Millennials are eager to embrace new tech.


The current Editor of the college newspaper I volunteer with is working with reps from a SaaS CMS provider to re-design the paper's Web site (shameless plug). At a lot of companies, this project would have at a bare minimum a project manager attached, but here is a 20-something tackling it as a side project with little to none of the fear of tech that permeates my generation. Glass-half-fullers (I still have my guild card, thanks) may say this personal relationship with technology causes millennials to lose sight of the need to justify the business value of using tech -- tech to them is simply an ends, means, justification and lifestyle unto itself. "I Facebook, Therefore Everybody Knows I Am." Ann certainly caused a stink a while back with her snarky headline (and perfectly reasoned post) suggesting that maybe employees should not be engrossed in personal tech all day. Orrell and most other experts suggest that crabby old managers like me (and yes, I have a Facebook account, too) must come to realize that always being connected is part of this generation's view of work-life balance. That will work itself out in the wash, I bet.


I certainly hope the same is true of the last negative I'll note, which candidly has always been my key frustration with the millennials with whom I've worked.


Negative: Millennials could stand to improve on their problem-solving skills.


This one may sound a little weird, because you often read about how this younger generation is unafraid of challenging conventional ways of thinking and doing business. That is absolutely true, I can tell you, and that is in no way a bad thing, on the face of it. But what I have also found is that when whatever new and novel approach millennials propose doesn't work out, they just get kinda stumped -- plans B-Z are not part of their worldview. I was fascinated once by an article that suggested millennials' fearlessness about failure -- again, sounds great -- is fueled by the video games they played growing up, where when you "die," a re-do is just a button-push away. Cute thought, and I do gravitate toward simple, one-note answers.


But I also think it's because through much of their education and young lives, millennials have been put on a highly constructed path to success. If they work hard and execute the proposed plan, they expect positive results. When something goes south, through no fault of their own, they just kinda shut down. Young reporter after young reporter has explained to me how they did in fact try to contact obvious sources for a story, but that source just didn't get back with them. Observations that the story is still lacking vital information, and that maybe they needed to just redouble efforts and find other sources, etc., have often been met with reactions that I'd expect were I speaking Venusian to them. It's not that the kids are lazy -- nothing could be further from the truth. It's just that in their worldview, their efforts on plan should have yielded positive results. When they don't -- and that's how it goes -- I think many millennials still get the idea that their work is done, and I suspects it's because that has always been their experience.


Would it were so.


If I sound like I am totally down on millennials, nothing could be further from the truth.-- they are smart and they work hard, and that will get you a hell of a long way in life. And I was delighted to read Ann's recent post that noted millennials are reaching out to older generations for advice. I hope we old farts do the same, because millennials' willingness to challenge the status quo is as useful to us as our understanding of permanant, no-do-over-button consequences will become to them in time.


It will all work itself out in the wash.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Oct 15, 2009 12:23 PM Collie Collie  says:

I am a techie by default. Went to Uni a little later than some. Studied communications, writing, film, video, all the visual creative stuff. Thats how I find myself now in QA. I love it. I am good at it. But I agree with your point about focus and problem solving. I don't know what happened since the 60s perhaps it's to do with afluent society. Kids seeing parents not having to bust a gut to pay for a TV, Game Boy, PC, Laptop etc; and easy credit too, that the parents of milenials who are slightly older than I, have not had time to teach discipline and problem solving, they are too busy and things came too easy. I think actually those born in the 80's are the first generation of the 20th century to be more conservative than their predecessors. Nice article.


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