Millenials in the Workplace

Right off the bat, I have to admit I am not entirely sure if the title of this post is correct. It’s possible I mean people in their mid-to-late twenties and early thirties in the workplace. When I went searching for the exact time frame that defines the millenial generation, I couldn’t find one – in fact, one terribly misinformed website dared to infer that someone born in the late seventies, like myself, might be a millenial, to which I say, no way – I know I was born at the tail end of Generation X (Winona Ryder! The Real World! Pearl Jam!). From my vigorous internet research, it seems to be generally assumed that millenials were born between 1982 and 2005, so that’s what I am going with.

I’m in my mid-thirties, and with the exception of three years in graduate school for creative writing and 6 months of unemployment, I’ve been in the workforce since I graduated college – earlier, if you want to count working to put myself through college. Consecutively, since college, I’ve worked as an administrative assistant, a science writer, and a public relations manager. I entered the workforce just as the internet was becoming a big thing and thus did a lot of writing copy for rudimentary websites that IT people had to convert to HTML. Because I leaned toward artistic endeavors – acting with theater companies for several years in the evenings and then moving to writing in my mid-twenties – for a long time I considered my day job a means to an end – this thing I did between 8:30 and 5 that allowed me to pursue my other, non-paying interests. It wasn’t until the last few years that I really embraced the idea of having a career trajectory,and, in the spirit of Sheryl Sandburg, began leaning in. I still maintain my interests in theater and writing but I no longer feel like such a failure for not being able to feed my family as a writer/actor. And all of this is to say that it is probably only in the last five years or so that I really began paying attention to things like corporate culture and responsibility, but one of the aspects I have been paying attention to is the integration of millenials into the work force.

I’m sure this is partly because I am considered part of the “bridge” generation -the generation between Baby Boomers, many of whom have had to make a series of adjustments in order to adapt to the rise in technology, and the millenial generation, which has grown up with reality tv, computers and cell phones. At my last job I was actually on a committee to address generational isues between the boomers and the millenials in order to create a more harmonious work environment, the idea being, I guess, Gen Xers could help achieve some sort of meeting of the minds since we’ve both adapted to technology easily while still remembering a time when it wasn’t an every day part of our lives (I still remember laboriously typing out papers for my lit classes in high school – painful).

I recently had an encounter with one particular millenial in my office that left me (firstly) stunned and (secondly)frustrated. I’ll call her Karen. Karen and I handle different areas of responsibility in the office, and I’m a level above her. Every so often, our areas of responsbility overlap and we usually are pretty good about sorting out who should handle what and going about our day without any conflict. However, one project cropped up, and it was a plum project. We both wanted it. I argued (and still maintain) that the project was more in my area than hers and more appropriate to my abilities but she steadfastly refused to give in (Lesson One – millenials are scrappy, determined young people). I took the issue to my director, stating the only way I would cave on this was if I was given the chance to supervise Karen and her work and the completion of the project. Both my director and Karen’s thought this a great compromise, and it seemed win-win for everyone involved – I would get supervisory experience which I don’t have a ton of and Karen would get work experience she lacked.

A day before her deadline, when I hadn’t seen a draft of her project yet, I asked Karen to share with me what she had.

“Well, I don’t have a draft yet. I have a shell of the project…I am going to fill it in today,” Karen said.

I was dumbfounded. “But you still need your client’s approval, and the project needs our department’s stamp of approval, and I need to review it, and your deadline is tomorrow. YOu should really have a draft ready by now.”

“Well, I don’t right now, but everything will be fine, Courtney,” she said, in this annoying way like she had to calm me down when really, I needed to light some sort of fire under her ass.

“I need to see a draft by this afternoon,” I said. “Whatever you’ve got, I need to see it.” Karen agreed, I guess, basically by not saying anything at all. I returned to my desk and seethed for a few minutes because, really? You fight for a project and then don’t move quickly enough to complete it in timely manner? And yet, while I was overseeing this particular project I wasn’t Karen’s boss, so it was a somewhat awkward situation.

Afternoon arrived and I checked in with Karen again. She still didn’t have the project ready for my review. I took a different approach this time.

“Look, why don’t you give me what you have, and I’ll fill in where you need help. This is a tricky subject matter but I’ve written about it a lot and this way we can meet our deadline,” I offered.

“No, that’s okay,” she responded. Again, I didn’t know what to say. This is so far out of the realm of any way I had ever responded to someone older and higher up than I was in the work force that I was actually baffled. I pressed her a bit on it but she remained resistant to any help I could offer. Eventually, due to a freak miscommunication on the part of our client, the project concluded as successfully as it possibly could have, which is to say another hospital ended up taking most of the credit anyway and we were lucky to end up with the attention we received. So.

I described this situation to Ian, who manages a whole cohort of millenials in his office, and he laughed. “That sounds just about right,” he said. We talked a little bit more about why, when we could (by some horrible people) be considered millenials ourselves, we feel so different from them, and occasionally have trouble working with them. Here are some of the ideas we came up with, aided by Ian’s co-worker – we’ll call him John, who manages his own cohort of young professionals.

(1.) Their phones. Everyone older than a millenial remembers a time when cell phones weren’t a necessary part of everyday existence. Perhaps more importantly, we remember a time when a phone was just that – a phone. We didn’t watch movies or play computer games or take pictures with our phones. Oh, sure – we do now – but we are still able to separate from them for important meetings and during lunch dates with friends. Millenials DO NOT let go of their phones for a red hot second, and after fighting for years, pointing out how rude it is to play with your phone in a meeting or constantly check it during a group presentation, the rest of us have given up. To hire a millenial is to hire their iphone and we might as well just start playing candy crush saga along with them because this is one war Gen X + baby boomers + still working war babies simply cannot win.

(2.) To elaborate on the phone theme just a bit, let’s dicuss a necessary separation of pleasurable activities. In our house, we still watch television on the t.v., read real books, and play real board games. We didn’t live tweet television as it was happening so having a phone nearby during a season finale wasn’t important. For millenials, these activities have all been combined into their phone, which they often view/play/chat with while exercising. This might be a bit of a sweeping statement, but I would argue millenials don’t perhaps have the best attention span when it comes to projects that require it.

(3.) Returning to lesson one, they are a scrappy lot. Look, a lot of their friends didn’t get jobs after college thanks to the ongoing war economy. Unlike those of us who graduated into a robust late Clinton/early Bush economy, when dot.com startups were throwing jobs at us and offering things like signing bonuses, casual dress and free lunches, millenials have had to fight tooth and nail for every bit of job experience they’ve received. Fewer opportunities have led to less job experience (and the proverbial egg vs. chicken conundrum…how to get a job when you don’t have experience…). This has led to a fantastic determination in the work place, I think.

(4.) Higher heels (for the women). Better clothes, in general. A LOT of the millenials I work with still live with their parents, a necessary by-product of a shitty economy and a difficult job search. This option was never on the table for Ian and me – I don’t think it ever crossed our minds to return to our parents’ homes. But again – dot.com bubble! Vegan cafeterias and cars as signing bonuses!

(5.) One thing I’ve particularly noticed is a certain fearlessness millenials have that I never cultivated. I was mentored in the work force by some truly fabulous women, and they impressed upon me ideas like following the chain of command, and “earning” the right to speak at the table. Since I’m rather impressionable, I took these lessons to heart and really didn’t offer a lot of my ideas or opinions for a long time. The millenials we’ve hired in recent years are absolutely fearless about sharing their thoughts and opinions in meetings large and small. Occasionally I find myself annoyed by this overconfidence but mostly I envy it – I think it’s generally a better approach to foster creativity and openness than it is to follow the “old” way of working. Also, a lot of people my age are overseeing this generation and I think we are still smarting from the lectures about “earning our place at the table.”

(6.) Two words: Harry Potter. I think this generation used up all of its patience waiting for this series of books to conclude and once it wrapped up they had nothing left to give, say, the IT department when the internet is running too slow for them.

So. Yes. Working with millenials. Often a joy, sometimes confounding, but absolutely no different than the war babies and baby boomers thought about us when we came along, with our not-so-elegant emergence from grunge fashion, fasciantion with graphic design and our already adopted caffeine habit. Like all generations before mine, I happen to think mine is the best, and I miss the simpler time before smart phones, when reality television was The Real World on MTV, and not the Real World as it is now but as it was when it was GOOD – when Julie had a crush on Eric (or he had a crush on her, I can’t remember!) and everyone was experiencing New York for what seemed like the very first time.

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4 thoughts on “Millenials in the Workplace

  1. Fearless? Confident? or narcissistic and filled with a sense of absolute entitlement?

    Well, I don’t know. That sounds pretty snarky. But I know one thing with absolute confidence, and I’m willing to make a fearless prediction: the day is coming when this whole generation is going to get a wakeup call, one that all the stilettos and cell phones in the world won’t help them cope with.

    That’s what the old geezer in her rocking chair on the front porch sees, anyhow. Sometimes I hope I die first, and sometimes I’m afraid I won’t. But remember the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”. We do, but it’s going to get a whole lot more interesting.

    Beyond all that – gosh, I’m glad I own my own business and that I’m a sole proprietor!

  2. But you know what? There’s another side of the coin, and I just got reminded of it. At 0:58 in this video, you can see my town’s fire department doing their thing, but the video as a whole is a good reminder that whatever else is going on in the world, no matter what we think about those in charge or those trying to find a place just to be, the “next generation” still has some lessons to teach. We need this enthusiasm and hope, too.

    Matt and My Fire Department

  3. Oh my, I do relate to every single word you wrote about millenials (and as a born-in-the-late-70s, no way I’m a millenial). I simply don’t get them and how to work with them. Perhaps as an official supervisor you should give Karen a little more structure and schedule, something that I often find missing with millenials? (well, easier said than done I know) Is it in your corporate culture to request that cell-phones must be turned off during meetings etc.? I work in a old dinosaur of a company, so millenials sure get a hard time here before they even can get a hiring contract. (btw, love love love your post!)

  4. Shoreacres, well, with regard to your first reply, I think every older generation feels that way about the ones that come after it – to me the baby boomer generation was really demanding on our resources and possessed a LOT more entitlement than my generation did or has, but then again…your second reply makes a lot of sense – the world is full of good people doing heroic, wonderful stuff no matter what generation you were born into!
    Smithereens – unfortunately our company is extremely media-oriented so asking for people’s phones, etc before a meeting would not fly – it’s not unusual for us to have ipads, blackberries and iphones all at once! Since I was only Karen’s temporary supervisor I don’t have a ton of opportunity to influence her working style but I am trying to lead by example – I took her out for frozen yogurt and we discussed work culture somewhat. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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