Noticeably Different

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The Paradox of the New Generation

Entitled or eager? Coddled or collaborative? Overly ambitious or multitaskers in search of meaning? The 76 million-strong Millennial generation can either be an employer’s best weapon for innovation and growth, or they could be a disruptive force in the workplace filled with Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, and Generation X-ers.

As this new force filters into the workplace, organizations are discovering their youngest hires are a breed unto themselves. Their attitudes, approaches to work, and expectations differ from the others in the workforce, giving employers fresh challenges to successfully integrate this group into their teams.

Born roughly between 1980 and 2000, this group was raised in a time of economic prosperity by Baby Boomer and Gen X parents who strived to give their children the best. That often meant a home filled with technology and enduring support for all of their endeavors. Boomers typically raised their children in a less authoritarian style than their own parents, empowering their children to influence decisions about the family’s next vacation or car purchase.

Every generation comes with a personality, and employers have had several years to observe common traits among Millennials. They have a reputation for ambition, efficiency, fondness for working in teams, and mix of audacity and casualness in interpersonal relationships, explains David Stillman, co-founder of the Minneapolis and San Francisco-based consulting firm and co-author of The M-Factor: How the Millennial Generation Is Rocking the Workplace.

“This is a generation in search of meaning, and by that we mean from day one they want to walk into the workplace and know they are making a difference in the world,” says Stillman. However, their expectations of the work world are not all idealistic. More than 85 percent of hiring managers and human resource executives believe this group has a stronger sense of entitlement than older workers, reports a survey. According to the survey, their other great expectations include:

  • High pay (74 percent of respondents)
  • Flexible work schedules (61 percent)
  • A promotion within a year (56 percent)
  • More vacation or personal time (50 percent)

Meaningful work

It’s critical to understand this group’s craving for meaning on the job because it drives their choices about where to work and how to long to stay. They don’t have much concept of what it means to pay their dues. While members of other generations might have done what they needed to do to get ahead, Millennials are more likely to leave a position quickly when they are dissatisfied.

“Millennials grew up during a time where you could quit a job at the mall on Friday and get another job at the mall on Monday. They also grew up hearing from their burnt-out Baby Boomer parents that they should do work that they are really passionate about,” says Stillman. He notes they lived through the Oklahoma City bombing, September 11, several wars, and Hurricane Katrina. “They think the world is a scary place, and they want to make it better.”

But the desire to make the world a better place may be more a characteristic of young adults in general, rather than unique to Millennials. Boomers wanted to make the world better too, though their methods took the form of protesting and calling for change politically.

Where They Can Go Next QuoteRick King, chief technology officer for the professional division of Thomson Reuters, observes a pointed difference between the new arrivals and the company’s more seasoned employees. Veteran workers typically join an organization and adapt to the existing structure and culture of advancement. “Millennials are more likely to walk in and already have a timeframe for when they ought to be promoted,” he says. “If I’m a Millennial, I want my own timeframe. In fact, I think I was hired in too low.”

And if they are not satisfied with their jobs, they’ll move on, confounding supervisors, co-workers, and human resources (HR) departments unaccustomed to such mobility.

Job-hopping might have been appropriate for years when the job market was strong, but it’s not working well in today’s economic climate. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that 37 percent of all Millennials are either unemployed or out of the work force, which must be uncomfortable for a generation that has been labeled ambitious. Additionally, 36 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds depend on their parents for financial assistance, and when the age range narrows to 18- to 24-year-olds, the number climbs to 50 percent, reports the Pew Research Center.

Shelley Sullivan, director of human resources at the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) in Bethesda, Maryland, regularly sees Millennials’ impatience to move up and eagerness to take on new challenges. “The young people we hire don’t just want that job. They aren’t going to be happy in one position for long,” she says. “They come in looking at where they can go next.”

Sullivan recalls one young AABB employee who met with her boss, then her boss’ boss, and finally Sullivan, detailing the job she wanted to do at the organization. When she was told separately by all three that the AABB didn’t have the position available and wasn’t going to create it for her, she grew dissatisfied and left for another job.

Trophy kids need coaching

This generation also has been dubbed trophy kids because of the tendency of parents and coaches to make sure that anyone who participated in a sport or event received an award. They heard often that they can do anything they want in life. So when it comes time for a performance review, many supervisors have been surprised to find their young staff completely shocked by the feedback.

Trophy kids need coachingElizabeth Bryant, senior director of talent development at Southwest Airlines in Dallas, observes that this group doesn’t take criticism lightly. “They say, ‘Don’t tell me to do something different and walk away. I want to understand the why. Tell me how, give me some ideas, coach and mentor me. Guide me, don’t direct me.’”

As people who grew up being mentored by their parents, teachers, coaches, and others, these employees will thrive when treated this way at work. That has led Southwest to institute a pilot mentoring program for its young professionals. “They look to their parents for emotional support and guidance, and in the workplace it transfers to having a coach or mentor beyond their team leader,” Bryant says. “We have found a lot of success in mentoring.”

Employers have noticed another difference: Millennials still turn to their parents for coaching and guidance, and these parents aren’t shy about sticking up for their children at work. Shocking as it might be, it’s something Philomena Morrissey Satre, vice president for diversity and inclusion for Wells Fargo’s Great Lakes region, has experienced more than once. Parents have called her to discuss their child’s poor performance review, to ask why their child didn’t get an internship, or to put in a vacation request for the adult employee.

“We’re really respectful. I’m a parent of three teenagers, so I listen and say, ‘Thanks for bringing it up, but we have to talk to the team member because of confidentiality,’” says Satre.

“This generation has had so many positive messages about their life and what they can do,” she adds. “When they come into the workplace, it might be the first time they have had the opportunity to hear that they need to improve. … With some Millennials it can be a challenge to hear direct and honest feedback.”

Technology transfer

From their earliest years, these young employees have had computers, the Internet, video games, and cell phones at their fingertips. Bryant says, for them, technology is like air. If they want information, they know how to get it—and fast. They take advantage of a diverse array of technology and social media tools. And while that networking can be a perk for employers, the constant texting can also be disruptive.

Millennials’ prowess with technology, zest for innovation, and an eagerness to work collaboratively has been an advantage to Thomson Reuters, especially as it developed its new Westlaw Next product for online legal research. “These are extremely talented people, who have technology as a second circulatory system in their brains,” says King. “That’s a huge, innate perk for a business like ours, where technology enables what we do.”

Wells Fargo also views this technology talent as a strength. But hiring the highly connected can have a downside, too. Many young hires start out as tellers or personal bankers, and it sometimes takes extra coaching to stop them from talking on their cell phones while serving customers.

Cher Desautel, president and CEO of Desautel Hege Communications, a public relations and marketing firm in Spokane, Washington, enjoys having this younger generation’s knowledge of social media and technology on her 15-member team. “They understand how it works on a deeper level, and they are generous about teaching it, too,” says Desautel. “They take the time and have the patience to show me.”

Southwest utilizes technology and social media to engage its young employees. The airline has created opportunities to contribute to an internal blog, connect with each other on LinkedIn or Facebook, or engage in corporate philanthropy. It helps the company’s 65,000-member workforce build community as well as loyalty to Southwest. Bryant observes, “They want to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves.”

Workplace attitude

Managers see it time and again: young workers who embrace an egalitarian viewpoint and see all of their co-workers and customers as peers—when they are most definitely not. Conflicts arise when younger hires circumvent the chain of command, eagerly sharing their opinions with the highest levels of leadership, even when that might not be appropriate. While some view that approach as uncomfortably bold, other organizations kindly think of Millennials as engaged and eager to make a difference.

This casual approach can play out in a wide variety of ways. Sullivan recalls a recent young employee writing very informal emails to physicians and other prominent researchers who were voluntarily teaching a class for other AABB members. Despite coaching her repeatedly that these were AABB board members and highly regarded professionals, the young employee couldn’t bring herself to communicate more formally.

Millennials also differ from older generations who are known for their “live to work” attitude and willingness to put in long hours to get the job done. While Generation X spurred some change by requesting more flexible work hours and work/life balance, the new arrivals to the workforce have carried it one step further. Though they enjoy their work, they want to get it done during work hours, because they have so much going on in their personal lives. “They work to live,” says Bryant of Southwest Airlines. “You can’t ask them to make work a number-one priority. They want balance in their life, and they have a lot of things going on socially and personally.”

Contributing to the group

Millennials typically enjoy collaborating and working in groups, a trait developed in their more team-oriented schooling. That’s a sharp contrast from typically independent-minded Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, many of whom were latchkey kids who took care of themselves after school. These employees generally want to tackle an assignment individually and then reconvene with the team.

Contributing to the groupThomson Reuters has tried to accommodate its younger workers’ favored way of working. When the company was developing WestlawNext, it created an environment that fostered collaboration and teamwork to cater to the very youthful team. Thomson Reuters developed a contemporary workspace on its campus, featuring a place for the group to gather informally.

Supervisors have noticed when given assignments, group or individual, Millennials want regular feedback and approval from their leaders and team members. Where their older bosses and co-workers might view this constant craving for communication as needy, young employees see the approach as efficient, Stillman says. If they can check in frequently with their supervisor about their direction and progress, then they won’t waste time heading down the wrong path.

Overall, the work world has embraced the traits this new generation brings to the workplace as positive—just another form of diversity, really. When differences arise, King thinks it’s helpful to try to understand the historical context in which the employees grew up and why they might be coming from completely different angles. “It’s a power, if you can harness it,” King says. “You have to figure out how to tap into it. If you have people from all points of the compass look at a problem, together they will often reach a better solution.”


Suzy FrischSuzy Frisch is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications across the country.
Contact Suzy at



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