Even though I worked for three years after college before returning to graduate school, I consider my career really beginning when I was 26 or so, after graduate school when I took a position as a science writer with a cancer hospital in Michigan. For the last seven and a half years I’ve worked in public relations for a different hospital, and truthfully I really couldn’t pinpoint when I first began hearing the term “Millenial” with any regularity. All I know is that for a while I was early in my career and now I’m smack-dab in the middle of my life, career included, and at some point the tale end of the Gen X generation to which I was born stopped being troublesome and irksome and instead became rattled by the Millenials joining the work force. To be fair, not that many joined – thanks to a rotten economy and people who hung onto their jobs much, much longer than they intended (my senior year in college I decided to postpone applying to graduate school to become a professor but all the profs i worked with encouraged me to, eventually, pursue my Ph.D. – loads of us will be retiring, they said. Lots of jobs opening up, they said. I am forever grateful I ignored them in this one instance!) but the ones that did join us in the working world? Whoa, Nelly.
I am trying to avoid saying something trite like there is a fundamental difference between people who grew up with smart technology and those of us who did not but, truly, there is a fundamental difference between people who grew up with smart technology and those of us who did not! I realize, of course, that every generation feels this way – my dad often marvels at how much change his parents witnessed – everything from the early days of the automobile to television to landing a man on the moon – imagine! There is nothing spectacular happening here, nothing that generations of workers haven’t discussed to the nth degree – I spend a goodly portion of my days convincing people with archaic views of PR that a press release isn’t really their best strategy in getting their message across, for instance. But the way Millenials think and approach the world is very different than how I grew up and how I started working and it’s taken some adjustment on my part to realize just how creative, engaged and valuable these younger workers can be.
I mean, it was a little disconcerting at first. For so long my colleagues and I were considered the younger employees – the workers who needed guidance and mentoring. I was incredibly fortunate that my first supervisor was a woman in her early thirties with impeccable professionalism combined with a very realistic approach to working in the 21st century – her father was quite ill while we worked together but she managed to attend every single one of his radiation treatments while still striving and achieving at work. She taught me two fundamental principles that I still think about every day: when working with the doctors and researchers who require our skills, our answer to their requests in always yes. Even if it’s really no, once we return as a team, we will evaluate and work so that they feel they are getting yes from us, even when they aren’t necessarily. Secondly, she always encouraged me to check with myself and make sure I felt I was doing the right thing, all of the time. This hasn’t always had the best consequences…in some ways it’s meant that I’ve worked during my vacation time because news doesn’t really conform to weekends or time off, because it was the right thing to do, or so I felt. When I worked with her I was encouraged to lead projects, take chances and rely on my creativity, and because of her I realized I could balance my own creative work while thriving in the workplace. When I moved jobs, I found myself working with people with more old-fashioned approaches to how a young woman operates in a corporate environment, and it was really tough. For the first time, I found myself not trusting my own judgment, and my value was based less on my creativity and much more on what kind of output I could achieve for the hospital.
And do you know what? This wasn’t a bad thing. I learned how to cooperate with more than one generation, and to adapt my working style to those I was working with. As it turns out, I’m not always right and my instincts aren’t always perfect. My current job is at the kind of place where you earn your seat at the table, and the experience has been invaluable.
That’s sort of how I work – I go along with the work culture I find myself in, generally agreeable and assuming the company knows best, basically. This is mostly because my life goals don’t necessarily align with climbing a corporate ladder but also because it’s my nature – I’m not tremendously assertive but I’m also not passive aggressive.
The biggest shock for me working with Millenials, then – these new shiny younger workers without the original good fortune to graduate into a Clinton economy – was their assertiveness. I don’t know if it’s because they’ve had to fight so hard to get jobs or if it’s a result of the helicopter parenting that came into vogue in the late nineties, but most of the younger women and men I work with don’t give up on their ideas easily, and don’t often defer if they feel passionate about something. I think originally this came across as brash, and, for someone like me, difficult to adjust to after years of listening, learning, respecting my elders and etcetera. For a while my colleagues and I even jokingly referred to the new, younger employees as millenemies, mainly because of the frequency with which they disagreed with us.
The other thing I really had to adjust to is how incorporated work and life are for them. I *thought* my life and my work were pretty interchangeable, what with working in the evenings but never having to worry about taking time off for a dentist appointment, but the younger men and women who work in my office now approach all of this with a mind-boggling flexibility, thinking nothing of taking the morning for a long bike ride but staying up incredibly late to finish a report. I tend to do my best with at least some routine in place that provides something resembling my own time, but Millenials don’t think this way. At all. And it is sort of amazing and visionary and shockingly effective, at least when it comes to work.
In the field of public relations, they are also devastatingly creative. We’ve recently hired a couple of women who are thirty years old, and even though there are only seven years of age between us, their ideas about how to promote medical news and research are completely different than mine. They make sure the work the rest of us do is easily accessible on mobile devices, for one instance. For another, they often dismiss pitching the New York Times in lieu of Reddit or the Huffington Post. They understand how people consume news today – which is less and less with CNN and more often on mobile devices.
Millenials, and the issues they face, remain frequently in the news. Burdened with student loan debt for educations that haven’t fulfilled their promises, often living with their parents and delaying marriage and kids – it hasn’t been an easy beginning for them. It’s a little strange, after being one of the youngest people in the office for so long, to adjust to younger colleagues and admit they have a handle on some of the more innovative and creative approaches to do our job, but hopefully I will continue to learn from them and vice-versa.