Are Millennials So Different from the Rest of Us?

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Six Guidelines for Resolving Intergenerational Conflict

Tips on dealing with intergenerational conflict in the workplace.

We've been hearing for some time now that workplaces will radically change thanks to the millennials, the generation born 1982 or later that is just now entering the workforce in large numbers. Consultants like Lisa Orrell, author of the book "Millennials Incorporated," make a nice living advising organizations on how to help millennials (also called Generation Y) more easily adapt to the workplace. Their business is booming, with the federal government and others making concerted efforts to attract younger workers.


When I interviewed her last summer, Orrell shared some of the characteristics of Generation Y, quite a few of which I had heard before: technology savvy, need for frequent communication (praise, constructive criticism), desire for flexibility.


My take on at least some of these characteristics was that they weren't necessarily a generational thing. For instance, who doesn't want more flexibility at work? The difference with millennials may be that they are more comfortable voicing these desires than previous generations.


That may be due to the fact that today's technology makes it easier to work remotely, so many knowledge workers can put in all or some of a work day from home or another off-site location. Thanks to technology, there are plenty of real-world examples of folks successfully doing it (I am raising my hand), whereas in previous years such people may have been harder to find. Orrell told me:


The bottom line is that the millennial generation, also known as Gen Y, doesn't want anything different from a workplace than the generations before them. They are just more vocal about it, and they are demanding it sooner.


I think technology helped create and encourage some of the other commonly cited characteristics of millennials. If they are more "social" and feel a greater need for "connection" than previous generations, maybe it's because they grew up with Facebook. (Many of us older folks still feel a little weird when someone who we've never met tries to friend us.)


I'm not alone, judging by some of the comments following a Harvard Business Review piece penned by author and researcher Andrew McAfee, a big advocate of Enterprise 2.0. McAfee opined that work will change millennials more than millennials will change work.


The post garnered more than 60 comments, with the majority agreeing with McAfee. Even many who did, though, indicated millennials' comfort with technology will likely result in some fairly major changes in the workplace. Wrote a reader named John Balla:


... Societal standards are changing and the millennials are coming of age at a time when when major institutions and leaders are unable to maintain their hoped-for images of integrity. Part of that is driven by new capabilities for transparency (exposure, if you will) and the power of the individual to have a voice. As millennials bring a native-level of comfort with technology to the workplace, they will amplify and accelerate the pace of change brought about by technological innovations in ways we have not previously seen. In the spirit of full disclosure ...


A reader called EyalTMTMTL made a similar point, noting that millennials are entering a workplace already radically altered by technology:


... It's not the Gen Y that is changing the workforce, but rather the technology, which is radically changing the way we work, communicate and collaborate. Gen Y is entering a workforce that is radically different than the one previous generations entered. For one, U.S. business model is very different -- we hardly make anything anymore, and most business is focused on moving information around. So the skills Gen Y'ers need, and the way they apply them are indeed radically different from earlier generations.


A reader named Sharon Daniels chimed in with another thought that generally occurs to me when talking to experts like Orrell or reading any kind of "how millennials are different" coverage. Instead of looking for examples of how different these younger workers are from us oldies who have been in the workplace 10-plus (who I am I kidding, 20-plus) years, maybe we should try harder to look for common ground. Wrote Daniels:


... At the end of the day employees are just people. They all seek respect, financial security, and new work experiences. It is important we do not focus on so-called generational differences but instead focus on providing employees the experience and education necessary to help them succeed and excel at any age and level.


I'm wrapping on a contradictory note, by linking to a post that contains "a grumpy manager's" (IT Business Edge's Ken-Hardin's) impressions of millennials. While I think it's important to look for common characteristics, being mindful of generational differences will help managers working with multi-generational teams, in much the same way that acknowledging gender influences on work styles can help those working with coed teams.


An interesting difference mentioned by Ken: Millennials are less likely than older colleagues to have plans B-Z ready in the event Plan A doesn't pan out. He wrote:


... 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 suspect it's because that has always been their experience.


Like most of the commenters on McAfee's post, Ken thinks millennials and older generations have much to learn from each other. Let's hope the result is an improved work environment for all.