Millennials: The Greater Generation?

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-9-44-14-amIn 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote the book Generations.  It was recognized then and today as remarkable.  The authors posit the history of America as a succession of generational biographies, beginning in 1584 and proceeds to the children of 1991.  Their theory was that each generation belongs to one of four types, and that these types repeat sequentially in a fixed pattern.

In a (now) fascinating passage in the Preface, they discuss the Boomer Generation, saying (remember it’s 1991) that “You may feel some disappointment in the Dan Quayles and Donald Trumps who have been among your first agemates to climb life’s pyramid, along with some danger in the prospect of Boomer Presidents…farther down the road.”  Later in the same paragraph:  “Perhaps you already sense that your Boomer peers, for all their narcissism and parallel play, will someday leave a decisive mark on civilization quite unlike anything they have done up to now.”  Spooky huh, as we embark on a Trump Presidency?

Generations, even that early, suggests that Millennials will be a uniquely impactful generation, mostly in a positive way, much like what they call the “GI” Generation and most of us call the “Greatest Generation.”  Well… they fall in the same ordinal slot as the Greatest Generation given the following dates of birth for each generation:  Greatest Generation (1901-24); Silent Generation ((1925-43); Boomer Generation (1943-60); Gen-X (1961-81); and Millennials (1982-2000).  They have Boomers starting earlier than the traditional view, a position I very much agree with having been born in 1945.

Earlier this month, an article appeared in the Boston Globe titled Millennials Aren’t Lazy, They’re Workaholics.  That didn’t quite fit with my impression, so I started digging a bit. I of course went on line and found a definition in the Urban Dictionary:

Special little snowflake.

Born between 1982 and 1994 this generation is something special, cause Mom and Dad and their 5th grade teacher Mrs. Winotsky told them so. Plus they have a whole shelf of participation trophies sitting at home so it has to be true.

They believe themselves to be highly intelligent, the teachers and lecturers constantly gave them “A”‘s in order to keep Mom and Dad from complaining to the Dean. Unfortunately, nobody explained to them the difference between an education and grade inflation so they tend to demonstrate poor spelling and even poorer grammar.

At work, millennials believe themselves to be overachievers who just aren’t understood by their loser bosses. Even Mom said so when she showed up for the interview. They are the only generation in the universe to understand the concept of work life balance and to actually want to find a fulfilling career. All those Gen X losers just don’t get it what with hoping to keep their jobs and pay the bills but they are just corporate drone so who cares what they think? They should be smart like Millennials and get Mom and Dad to pay for that stuff until they can work out what they want to do with their lives and then get rich doing it.

We collectively nod, thinking, “Yes, that describes them.”  Then I dug deeper.  I actually interviewed several who gladly volunteered to tell me about themselves.  Not family of course.  I also listened to a number of lectures by Neil Howe, the co-author of Generations. Here is what I’ve found so far, and there is much more to find.

  • They are our most diverse generation
  • They are by quantum measures our most connected generation, far beyond just Facebook and text messaging
  • Their generation has seen significant declines in crime, teen pregnancy, drug use and alcohol use
  • They want and very much need structure and predictability, particularly in employment
  • They actually do not relish job-hopping and would prefer long term employment, under the right circumstances
  • They want to get married and have kids, but have enormous college debt
  • They actually enjoy being with their parents (who wouldn’t given how we’ve treated them?)
  • They know they’re special
  • They love teamwork and are not lone wolves

Simply put, they are not replicas of you and me.  They bear almost no resemblance to Gen X’ers.  Mr. Howe suggests that a Millennial son or daughter is the one most likely to drive their Gen X’er Dad to rehab.  Howe posits the critical importance of understanding that teamwork and community are core values for Millennials.  Technology didn’t shape their generation; they shaped the technology.  Millennials thrive on community and have the highest rates of community service.  Gen X’er’s, on the other hand, thought community service was punishment for an OUI.

I could go on.  The point is that they are, albeit special, sensitive, and high maintenance, very conventional.  And according to the Boston Globe article, very hard working.  The Globe article lacked supporting substantiation, so I looked for some.

Bruce Tolgan, author of It’s OK To Manage Your Boss, says “They will be the most high maintenance in the history of the world, but they may also be the most high performing.”

Then there is Gallup’s How Millennials Want To Work And Live.  Gallup confirms that today they are the least engaged employees of any generation, and the most likely to switch jobs if they are unhappy.  We already knew that didn’t we.  Millennial turnover costs US companies annually $30.5 Billion.  Ouch.

Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup, offers these six truths that he suggests must be respected by today’s businesses if they are to succeed in tomorrow’s world:

  • Millennials don’t just work for a paycheck—they want a purpose.
  • Millennials are not pursuing job satisfaction—they are pursuing development.
  • Millennials don’t want bosses—they want coaches.
  • Millennials don’t want annual reviews—they want ongoing conversations.
  • Millennials don’t want to fix their weaknesses—they want to develop their strengths.
  • It’s not just my job—it’s my life.

Now I will grant you I get some of these, but not all of them.  I get the first bullet which resonates with us Boomers, and particularly those who came of age in the 60’s.  As Studs Terkel wrote in his 1974 book Working, “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread.” That resonates with most serious people, but particularly with Millennials.

So why are Millennials important?  Because by 2020, they will make up 50% of the workforce.  They are slowly but surely filling the ranks of middle and upper management of organizations across the country.  Rampant misconceptions of Millennials by Boomers and Gen-Xers significantly hinder companies’ opportunities over the next two decades to thrive. Millennials are a reality of our workplace, so we must first understand them, and then inspire them, because they have the capacity to be the engine that drives the future.  What comes through the studies and the literature is that the Millennials, over time, will dominate our workforce and have the potential to do great things if they are enabled.

Their lack of engagement is not completely their fault.  Well, we know that nothing is their fault.  [I just couldn’t help myself.]  It is to a significant extent the result of a failure of leadership from the front line managerial level up to the CEO.  The truth is that Millennials are dying for leadership.  A slightly different kind of leadership, yes, but leadership.  They want to work for ethical companies, and yes, they need feedback.  Not so surprising.  They got that all their lives up to now, usually sugar-coated.

The point?  As Neil Howe says in one of his talks, if people are viewed primarily in light of their faults, leadership becomes almost impossible.  THAT is what we have today in our workplaces.  Don’t fall prey to that trap when it comes to Millennials.  To motivate and inspire any group of employees, leaders must know what they want and need.  For Millennials, leverage their specialness by letting them know that special things are expected from them.  They are into teamwork, so use them in teams.  They have long term time horizons, and actually are not excited about changing jobs every 18 months.  So give them structure and glide paths.  They need regular feedback, so do reviews more informally and at least every month rather than once a year.  In person.  Give them a reason to stay and thrive.

There is so much more to say here, and my learning curve is steep.  What does this have to do with healthcare?  Everything.

11 replies »

  1. I think some of this is very valid, important to contemplate

    Most connected, most motivated, most activist. yes.

    But question some of the finer data points

    Millennials drink less?

    Not from what I’ve seen in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Brooklyn.

    Less inclined to drug use?

    Travel to Colorado, California and other states with legalized marijuana sales and tell me if you’re still ready to argue this. Perhaps spend a weekend at Coachella. Then take a look at the opioid crisis in New Hampshire, Vermont and the Midwest. A largely white, millennial (and generation X) driven problem.

    What does this mean?

    Don’t think responsible.

    Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.

    Think activated, connected and outspoken.

  2. It’s worth noting that GDP in 1939 was only about 10% higher than it was in 1929. It was a tough ten years to put it mildly.

    Also, I think there were far more people working and living on farms back then and it was much more common to have several generations of the family living in the household including grandparents, adult children and grandchildren.

  3. I suspect that the 1940 number was a leftover of the Great Depression, but that ended with WWll and the economic boom following. Those in 1940 were more likely to be married couples.

  4. Peter, I just looked at that article. The very interesting item is that in 1940, more young men and women were living at home than now. Greatest Generation?

  5. “they learned to live with what they had instead of relying upon others.”

    The GI Bill, Medicare, SS, AG subsidies, post WWll economic boom. Yes a good time to be self reliant.

  6. We had less years ago yet the individual generations were more independent. They didn’t ask as much from others as they do today and they learned to live with what they had instead of relying upon others.

  7. It is fascinating what they can and cannot do. Some of that, I guess, is our fault as parents. Although my kids are GenX’ers, I suspect we hovered a tad too much. We’ll see.