Why Millennials Are Who They Are—and What Employers Can Learn from Them

By Christina Folz Jul 20, 2016
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​It’s a tale as old as time: Middle-aged and older adults kvetch about the younger generation and speculate on what this world is coming to. For example, business author and consultant Jamie Notter recently shared a reference to young adults’ lack of respect for elders and poor work ethic—from the ancient Roman philosopher Cicero.

“Every 20 years, a new generation comes into the work world as adults, and we all freak out about it,” said Notter, who co-wrote the book When Millennials Take Over (Idea Press, 2015) and gave a keynote speech at the Association Media & Publishing 2016 annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in June. As the most populous living generation, Millennials (those born between 1981 and 2000) have perhaps borne more than their fair share of scorn.

“We are really mad about how many trophies they got,” said Notter, who is a member of Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980) and founding partner of WorkXO LLC, an organizational consulting firm with offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C. “We’re constantly saying they don’t get it, they don’t know how to work in the real world.” In truth, however, members of this generation likely understand more about the future of business than anyone else, given that they are shaping it. “They have a lot to teach us,” he said. “We need to shift conversation away from complaining and more toward being curious.”

Start by examining the common grievances about the Millennials:

Complaint #1: Millennials are impatient. This is the No. 1 criticism Notter hears from older workers. “They will ask for a raise in eight minutes” after starting a job, he said.

Explanation: They are the first generation to grow up with the Internet and the instantaneous connection it provides. “We didn't have power to own a business at 11 years old,” he said. “We gave them that power.”

Complaint #2: They are entitled. Millennials expect resources to be there when they need them, Notter said.  

Explanation: They grew up with unprecedented abundance. For example, U.S. adults currently spend $24 billion annually simply on storing their possessions. ”They’re not expecting that you will use software from 1994,” he said. “Their basic needs have been met so higher order needs are what they focus on.”

Complaint #3: They don't respect tradition.

Explanation:  “They grew up with diversity,” Notter said, which leads to innovative ideas that upend traditional thinking. Previous generations moved the needle incrementally, but Millennials have experienced big changes, including the first black U.S. president and the first female Secretary of State. They also expect differences in general—in thinking, perspectives and problem-solving. “This is a mashup generation.”  

Complaint #4: They don't respect hierarchy or authority. People often complain that Millennials will do end runs around management rather than playing by the rules, he said.

Explanation: Millennials were raised in a society that elevated the status of children. Parents used to talk to other adults about “adult topics” such as politics, business and the economy, Notter said, while the kids played outside. Today, however, parents not only involve kids in many of their conversations, but opt to talk mostly about their children when they are alone with other adults.  

“[Millennials] do understand hierarchy,” Notter said. “But what they expect—because of the elevated status [they’ve been given]—is to have access to people who have more power than them.”

For their book, Notter and his co-author Maddie Grant researched organizations that were aligned with the typical Millennial approach to business. These companies tended to be:

Digital: This is about more than technology. It’s a philosophy based on the concept that software must work for the user—by being customizable and constantly updated. “We need to bring that mindset into leadership and business,” Notter said. The American Society for Surgery of the Hand, a Chicago-based organization with about 20 employees, shaped its whole enterprise around the needs of the employees rather than management—by letting people wear what they want to work, for example—and the organization has experienced off-the-charts engagement as a result.  

Clear: “It’s not just transparency for transparency’s sake,” he said. “It’s about making things visible in order to improve the quality of decisions that get made.” Menlo Innovations, a technology firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., pairs two software designers at a single workstation; one comments on the code as the other is writing it—and each pair has their tasks posted on a wall so they know what is expected at all times. “They charge more than competitors and still have people lining up,” Notter said. “The product is that good.”

Fluid. The hierarchy is still there, but everyone is actively engaged in the organization’s mission. At Quality Living Inc. in Omaha, Neb., a rehabilitation facility for people with brain and spinal cord injuries, there is a standing rule: No matter where a person is on the organization’s hierarchy, he or she must connect their decision-making to the hopes and dreams of the patient. “For this to work, you need to be crystal clear on what defines success,” he said.

Fast. All the organizations Notter and Grant studied were agile and quick—in part because employees are trusted to make choices themselves. At Menlo Innovations, for example, “decisions get made without e-mail and boring status update meetings,” he said.

Instead, employees communicate and resolve issues using something Notter referred to as “high-speed voice technology.”

In other words, they talk to one another.

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