The Contempt for Millennials: Reconsidering a Generational Divide

TAGS: Generational Divide, positive work relationship, job leaders, Generation X, baby boomer, millennial employee, productive employees, workforce, company success, Millennials, Michael Speidel

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I am a new initiate to the over-40 crowd. This hasn’t bothered me very much so far, as I have often been accused throughout several seasons of my life of possessing an old soul. I didn’t go into mourning when my 40th birthday was celebrated. I don’t consider myself “over the hill.” I am extremely well married. I have tremendous kids. I am involved in meaningful work. If things only get better with age then bring on the gray hairs and wrinkles, because my blessings are many. I do admit that I don’t particularly enjoy being the ”old guy” in the gym very much, watching the kids with healthy joints and low-stress lives do the stupid things we all did when we were that age and train for hours and hours with little care towards technique, programming, or recovery. But this isn’t unique to the present younger generation — it is simply a byproduct of being a beginner, and I am not the first or last worn-out dinosaur to shake my head at these up-and-comers, out of both confusion and a little bit of jealousy.


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The gym isn’t the only place where these generational differences are called out. Age gaps in the workplace have and always will provide some degree of tension and drama. This is simply a predictable reality whenever you depend on a diverse workforce. Each generation grows up with different circumstances, perspectives, and cultural phenomena that mold and shape their personalities in a multitude of ways. An individual born and raised in the 1960s Midwest is probably going to have a very different worldview than someone who was born in New Jersey during the late nineties. Nobody should have to apologize for this, and all should work hard to find common ground enough to develop a positive working relationship. That would, of course, be the mature thing to do. However, I have recently seen a trend emerge in professional settings. It seems to me that there is more hostility and a more mean-spirited attitude than what I have typically witnessed in years prior when dealing with generational differences. Specifically, I've seen a trend of contempt toward millennial employees by other generations — my own generation included.

Anyone who knows me well would be quick to say that I don’t generally align with our politically correct, safe zone culture. That said, I have been taken aback by the high volume of YouTube videos, memes, and water cooler conversations that basically label the millennial worker as an unengaged, entitled, and otherwise worthless employee. This goes far beyond the baby boomer and Gen Xer tensions that dominated my early professional years, as I don’t recall these ever taking on this level of sheer nastiness. I am profoundly disappointed by this trend, as it only drives the wedge deeper and makes our jobs as leaders more complicated.

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In my profession, I employ a ton of millennials. I have found that they—like every generation before them—bring unique perspectives and qualities to the workplace that benefit their co-workers and customers alike. They like their social media and their phones, but this is not what defines them. Below is a short list of qualities that I have come to very much appreciate about my millennial employees, and I compile it with the intent to help those who struggle to relate with finding a more positive common ground.

1. Unlike any other generation before them, I have found that millennials will passionately embrace any job with a well-defined “cause.”

If you want them to truly care about the organization’s success then make certain you are very clear on the purpose and mission of your company. Practically all businesses have a service component to their operations. From healthcare to a hardware store, it is easy to see how most organizations benefit mankind. I am often reminded of an old story about former President John F. Kennedy who, while touring NASA in 1962, saw a janitor in the corridor. When the President asked him what he was doing, the man answered, “I am helping put a man on the moon.” While I would argue that everyone who works for you needs to be reminded that the words of your organization’s mission statement are more than corporate rhetoric, it is even more important that millennial employees are frequently reminded how their contribution benefits the whole. They want to be part of something, and if you give them purpose they will almost always over-deliver.

2. Millennials have massive bandwidths.

I continue to be amazed and impressed by how much information my millennial employees are able to quickly process and adapt to. They have been raised in a “speed of light” culture that makes information of all kinds accessible simply by turning on their phones. They have adapted to this new reality, and the resulting ability to find, receive, process, and synthesize data is truly staggering. If you give them the responsibility of handling multiple stimuli at once, they will generally thrive. It will fight off boredom that I feel is often mistaken for apathy.

3. They respond to compliments, encouragement and coaching better than practically everyone else.

If you obtain a consistent reputation with your millennial employees as a positive and complimentary influence in the workplace, you will build a foundation of trust that then allows you to engage more deeply in coaching them towards a high level of performance. You want to do this for all employees of all ages, of course, but I have found that millennials are far more open to mentorship and direction when they trust their supervisor. We often criticize our young associates for being the generation of participation trophies, but rather than looking at this as a liability, consider it a pretty easy prescription to follow to bring out the best in them. If you protect their esteem and make positive deposits into their emotional bank accounts, they will be productive employees.

It might sound cliché, but our millennial associates represent the future of our companies and our country. I refuse to see the value in perpetuating the sarcasm and negative stereotyping that seems to be disturbingly acceptable. Embrace them and work hard to understand what motivates and engages them. Harness what they are good at and meet them where they are rather than wishing they would change. I know that you will not be disappointed.

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